The future shape of East Africa: What happens when the sleeping giant of Congo awakes

Saturday June 22 2013

Inset: DR Congo's President Joseph Kabila. Irrespective of how much the EAC will have evolved, when DR Congo comes into play, the regional economic map will still be shaped by what’s happening on the banks of River Congo and in the DR Congo’s mines.

Inset: DR Congo's President Joseph Kabila. Irrespective of how much the EAC will have evolved, when DR Congo comes into play, the regional economic map will still be shaped by what’s happening on the banks of River Congo and in the DR Congo’s mines.  


At first it might not look like it, but the exchanges between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s Renaissance Dam that the region witnessed these past two weeks, tell us a lot about the tensions defining what the East African Community will look like in the years to come.

The dam on the River Nile, which Addis Ababa projects will cost $4.7 billion, will produce 6,000 Megawatts of power when fully developed, making it the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and the 14th largest in the world.

Egypt, which has in the past threatened to go to war over its “rights” to the Nile’s waters, issued a stern warning.

Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Bahaa-Eddin, arguing that the intended dam would divert 74 billion cubic metres of Nile water stored behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, said, “We are living in an era of water shortage and we will not allow any reduction of Egypt’s share of the Nile water (which is 55.5 billion cubic metres),” he said.

“Life in Egypt depends on the Nile, water is a national security matter for us and we will never relent on this issue.”

Last week, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy said he did not want war but would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered. He said that he was keeping “all options open.”

“As president of the republic, I confirm to you that all options are open,” he said on Monday. “If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt… If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”

Ethiopia, as stubborn a country as there can ever be, responded in kind to Morsi three days later. Its parliament unanimously endorsed the new Nile River Co-operative Framework Agreement, an accord already signed by five other Nile-Basin countries — Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi.

With that, it effectively replaced the 1929 treaty between Britain and Egypt that gave Cairo veto power over any project involving the Nile by upstream countries and gave it and Sudan the lion’s share of the river’s waters.

On the same day, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni backed Ethiopia, and said Egypt should stop trying to block sub-Saharan countries from exploiting the Nile waters.

This week, Egypt stopped the sabre-rattling and took the diplomatic road, sending Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr to Addis Ababa for talks that, both sides said, were “productive.”

These tensions over the River Nile, however, are just a small part of bigger forces pushing and pulling to determine the economic and political shape of not just East Africa and the Horn, but also Central and Southern Africa.

This was not temporary insanity on Egypt’s part. The Nile is critical for Egypt because it actually lives and dies by it. It is the country’s sole source of fresh water, and it would be imperilled, given its population of 83 million (which continues to grow), if the amount of Nile water it receives dropped off considerably.

However, Ethiopia has an even larger population than Egypt, at 90 million, and it too is growing quickly. Ethiopia in the past 15 years had remade itself from a country where millions starved to death, largely by exploiting the Nile waters for irrigation, and is building itself into a rising energy power in Africa by ramping up the building of dams.

Important as the River Nile is, it would not be a matter of life and death were one of Africa’s richest rivers, the River Congo in the Democratic of Congo (DR Congo) producing electricity.

The planned Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River will not only be nearly seven times bigger than the Renaissance Dam, it will be almost double the size of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in China, which is currently the world’s biggest hydroelectricity plant.

DR Congo’s Inga dam has the potential to supply Egypt, Ethiopia, and half of Africa, with their electricity needs, making the brinkmanship over the Nile unnecessary. The problem is that DR Congo has been notoriously unstable and in haemorrhage.

And its instability has posed serious security problems for East African Community states like Rwanda and Uganda, which in turn have got into international trouble by getting themselves sucked into the rebellions in eastern DR Congo over the years.

Regional dynamics

Any understanding of the future of the region, therefore, needs to also explore how the various economic, political and social forces active in its western, northern, and coastal magnetic points are playing out.

Indeed, there is a lot happening in these magnetic points. In the past few months, East Africa has seen a flurry of furious deal-signing of mega-infrastructure projects, the scale of which was unimaginable just a decade ago.

There’s the $25 billion LAPSSET (Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor), poised to open up Kenya’s arid and largely forgotten north, tap into oil reserves in northern Kenya and South Sudan, and provide Ethiopia with a second link to the sea (apart from the port of Djibouti).

Even before the ink had dried on the LAPSSET deal, Tanzania announced an even bigger project — the $32 billion Mwambani Port and Railway Corridor (Mwaporc) in the Tanga region, which will consist of a deep sea port as well as a new standard gauge railway that will link the Uganda and the DR Congo to the Indian Ocean through Tanzania.

Though that seemed a huge undertaking, there was more to come: In May this year, Tanzania signed a $11 billion deal with China to set up another port at Bagamoyo, just north of Dar es Salaam. The port at Bagamoyo will have the biggest capacity in the region, able to handle 20 million containers a year, compared with Mombasa’s current 800,000 and Dar es Salaam’s 550,000 containers a year.

On a single day in March last year, three countries in the wider East African region announced discoveries of oil and gas — Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique — joining Uganda on the list of potential oil and gas exporters.

With this frenzy, clearly the shape of the regional economic bloc will be remade, depending partly on which of these initiatives come on line first, and succeed.

Three-part series

In this three-part special report, The EastAfrican explores three possible ways in which these “economic magnetic pulls” could determine the region’s economic and political architecture.

Will the driving engine be westward, where the fabulous riches of the DR Congo remain largely untapped? Or will it be eastward, over the ocean, where India and China are roaring ahead, and looking to use the East African coast as a beachhead on the continent? Or will the pull be northward, with Ethiopia, rather than Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, or DR Congo becoming the heart of the region’s economy?

By 2050, it is estimated that the wider East Africa could have a combined population of over 600 million, meaning it will have by far overtaken Nigeria as a trading bloc.

Nigeria’s population is expected to hit the 280 million mark in the next 40 years. South Africa, currently Africa’s largest economy, is a power in decline, expected to slip from the world’s top 20 economies owing to its relatively slow growth rate both in real GDP and population.

Our westward destiny

Some 20 years ago, Kenya was ruled by a corrupt and incompetent government of the party of Independence, the Kenya African National Union, better known as Kanu, and it had an anaemic economy that was recording negative growth.

The war in Rwanda was still raging. Tanzania was only just beginning to work through its economic and multiparty political reforms.

Ethiopia’s military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam had just been deposed, and the country was enfeebled by war and years of endless hunger.

Uganda, hard as it may be to believe today, was the star of the region then, having set out on the path of economic liberalisation early, and was notching up double digit growth. President Yoweri Museveni was then referred to a “darling of the West,” the new kid on the block.

The DR Congo, then still called Zaire, was the country that seemed to have vast amounts of all the precious minerals in the world.

The revival of the East African Community (EAC) was at that time still a matter East African leaders mostly spoke about wishfully over dinner when they visited each other. President Museveni, an early champion of the EAC revival, still felt it necessary to hedge, and spoke broadly of an economic and political community of the future that would be a “Confederation of East and Central Africa,” as he called it then.

The corrupt and vile Mobutu Sese Seko was the Big Man in Zaire. Though progressive Africa despised him, people like Museveni seemed to think that though he was greedy, he could be wooed into enabling his country’s massive natural resources to be used to drive a regional economic resurrection, so that he could have more money to line his pockets.

Mobutu, though, had other ideas. After the Rwanda Patriotic Front took power following the 1994 genocide in which one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed, Mobutu upped his hostility to both Rwanda and Uganda, giving sanctuary to their rebel groups, mainly the Interahamwe genocidaires.

In late 1996 after a Zaire army unit crossed into northern Rwanda and ransacked it, Rwanda hit back. Uganda, and several other countries like Angola, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, joined the campaign to oust Mobutu. Mobutu was kicked out in September 1997 and the allies installed veteran guerrilla leader, the carousing Laurent Kabila (father of the country’s current leader Joseph Kabila), as president.

Now renamed Democratic Republic of Congo, that endlessly big country, still never became the regional economic giant optimists had hoped it would be. Instead it jumped from the frying pan of Mobutu, into the fire that continues to consume it today.

East African Community

With the DR Congo stuck in a rut, the region’s economic pendulum swung back toward the traditional EAC grouping of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, which was relaunched in 1997 with the Treaty for East African Co-operation, and in 1999 the East African Community as we know it today.

So while Central Africa joined the EAC, it was Burundi and Rwanda that became members in 2009, not DR Congo. DR Congo’s day could still come though, but there is now a growing understanding that some of the actions that will unlock its huge potential lie outside its borders.

And none more so than infrastructure. From Mombasa, the Kenya-Uganda Railway’s furthest point westward is Kasese in western Uganda, near the Rwenzori Mountains. After that, there isn’t another inch of railway until deep in the Congo basin, where there is a line from Kisangani to Matadi and from Lubumbashi to Ilebo in central DR Congo, but even these do not go up to the capital Kinshasa.

Rwanda and Burundi do not have any railways at all. Therefore, DR Congo is relatively isolated, in infrastructural terms, from the rest of East Africa.

East Africa would therefore be handsomely rewarded with investment in the DR Congo’s infrastructure. Whichever way you slice the numbers, they come out glowing.

The DR Congo’s total mineral wealth is estimated to be worth a mind-boggling $24 trillion, more than the GDP of Europe and the US combined. It holds more than 70 per cent of the world’s coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30 per cent of the world’s diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite. Additionally, the DR Congo contains huge quantities of gold, platinum, oil, tin and uranium — indeed, of nearly every other precious mineral on the planet.

About 3,000 kilometres of rail would have to be laid to link Kasese with Kinshasa. The only complication would be standardising the rail gauges, as the Uganda Railway uses a 1,000mm gauge whereas railways in the DR Congo use 1,067mm gauge.

Already, China has seized the opportunity and snagged a lucrative minerals-for-infrastructure deal. In 2008, China announced a $9 billion investment in DR Congo, where $3 billion would be for developing mining projects and $6 billion for infrastructure to build 3,800km of road, 3,200km of railway, 32 hospitals, 145 health centres and two universities. In return, China would receive some 10 million tonnes of copper and 600,000 tonnes of cobalt.

The Kinshasa government embraced the deal, saying that it came with far fewer strings attached than previous aid deals, but critics argued that the mineral deposits were actually being undervalued, and China would reap the lion’s share of the mining profits.

China’s total trade with the DR Congo increased 33-fold between 1996 and 2009, from $44 million to $1.4 billion. The main increases came from 2004 onwards, with a particularly significant leap in 2008, when a surge in cobalt exports made trade almost quadruple in one year.

But it’s not only the minerals that should draw East Africa’s, and the world’s attention to Kinshasa. Last month, the DR Congo announced that work would begin in 2015 of building the world’s largest hydropower dam, the Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River.

The Congo River is unique in that it has large rapids and waterfalls very close to the mouth, while most rivers have these features upstream.

At Inga, 50km from its entry into the Atlantic Ocean, the river drops a dramatic 96 metres, and for nearly a century, engineers have been grappling with the question of how best to harness this immense power.

The planned $80 billion Grand Inga will be massive: Producing 40,000 megawatts when complete, it will be capable of literally lighting up the continent, providing electricity to half of African.

Currently, the world’s largest hydropower plant is the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in China, delivering 22,500 Megawatts — Grand Inga will be nearly double the size.

And, as pointed out earlier, it could also serve the crucial political function of easing water and energy related, tensions between countries like Ethiopia and Egypt.

Irrespective of how much the EAC will have evolved, when DR Congo comes into play, the regional economic map will still be shaped by what’s happening on the banks of River Congo and in the DR Congo’s mines.

Our Verdict/Likelihood Of This Happening In Next 15 Years: 4/10

• Next in the series, we look at THE NORTHWARD MAGNETIC PULL.

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