Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi is increasingly being viewed as his own man. He has succeeded in shaking off his predecessor and perceived puppeteer Joseph Kabila and even gone ahead to be elected chair of the African Union.
The world in general, and Africa in particular, has garnered confidence in the “new” DRC under President Tshisekedi, after decades of being seen as a failed state. The president looks committed to reforms, cracking down on corruption and bringing relative peace to the troubled east, where dozens of militia groups operate.
After he was elected in the controversial polls of 2019, President Tshisekedi had to fight off allegations of vote theft and claims that it was indeed Joseph Kabila who had the levers of power. But the Congolese leader seems to have rejigged the country’s politics, taking control of the two chambers of Parliament, which recently voted to oust Kabila’s prime minister Sylvestre Ilunga. His choice of Prime Minister, Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, is viewed as a reformer.
This new “status” for the Congolese leader has seen many of his African peers falling over each other for his attention, with Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, the chair of the East African Community – which has been working to have DRC join the bloc as soon as possible – making a three-day tour of the country and returning home with a bag of goodies. It was also the week that Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, Somalia’s besieged leader, visited Kinshasa for a day.
In January, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame sent a delegation to Kinshasa with a “special message” and to hold bilateral talks on several areas, “including political, economic and security.”
While both leaders – separately – spoke of collaborating on regional issues, it was Nairobi that seemed to push through its dual envelope of security and trade.
They witnessed the renewal of an agreement on maritime freight management, a general agreement on co-operation, a bilateral security agreement and another one on defence. With the renewal of the freight management agreement, Nairobi dangled offers to Kinshasa that elevated it to enjoy privileges usually reserved for EAC member states.
This signal, by the EAC chair no less, means that it is only a matter of time before Kinshasa officially joins the regional bloc. Indeed, on Friday, new EAC secretary-General Peter Mathuki said the process was being fast-tracked.
“As the 21st Summit directed, the admission of Democratic Republic of Congo is urgent and strategic to the region and therefore I will prioritise the admission process,” Dr Mathuki said.
The seeming political goodwill is understandable, as the DRC, referred to as the “Giant of Africa,” comes with a consumer population of about 87 million people.
China in the lead
Trade with Kinshasa is currently a preserve of China, South Africa, Zambia, Belgium and India, with China taking 31 per cent ($2.07 billion) of the Congo’s total imports ($6.66 billion) in 2019.
A new study by the East African Business Council in collaboration with the German International Co-operation Agency shows that the country presents a huge trade opportunity given that its huge population accounts for almost half of the population of the EAC member states combined.
The study titled “Opportunities for Trade in DRC: A perspective from East Africa” carried out in 2020 shows that the potential for trade in DRC has not been fully exploited by the EAC member states largely due to the prevalence of non-tariff barriers and the informal nature of the trade amongst them.
According to the report DRC’s imports from the EAC are dominated by petroleum oils and oils obtained from bituminous minerals (excluding crude), wheat or mesin flour, rice, cement and palm oil, with EAC’s exports of petroleum oils growing faster than that of other products.
“The DRC’s application to join the EAC is a signal to businesses in the EAC to strategically and operationally prepare to tap into the lucrative DRC market. In order to achieve this, a reasonable starting point would be to establish the opportunities for trade in the DRC that are aligned to the strength of business in the EAC,” says the report.
Joseph Hartung, a researcher at the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi, said there are substantial challenges to the DRC’s integration. These include domestic problems with infrastructure development and chronic insecurity as well as economic and political squabbles within the EAC itself.
“These should certainly not be taken lightly. However, the massive potential of the DRC’s population of nearly 87 million people as a market for the EAC’s goods cannot be passed up. The DRC’s inclusion in the EAC has the potential to reverse current negative trends in trade volume with the EAC member states.”
Kenya has shuffled to the head of the queue, giving Kinshasa a deal that will see it deploy officials at the Port of Mombasa to help fast-track clearance of goods destined for the Great Lakes. DRC may be granted dedicated clearing deports, complete with harmonised Customs.
All eyes will be on the Kisumu port and what role it will play in this scheme.
“We intend to link, thanks to Kenya, the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. This work should start in the next few days,” said an excited President Tshisekedi at a joint press conference. “It will take Mombasa-Beni through Uganda- Ituri-Kisangani to the River Congo. This will pave the way for energy projects.”
President Kenyatta said: “One thing I would like our two [technical] teams to work on is to ensure that we ease the problem of our people being able to travel between our two countries.”
With potential guarantee for a smooth flow of goods to the Great Lakes, Kenyan companies are bracing for the scramble for DRC’s low-hanging fruit, against expected competition from the EAC and farther afield. Kenya has, therefore, offered to open diplomatic outposts in Goma and Lubumbashi in the troubled but resource-rich eastern DRC, in what President Kenyatta said would ease consular services for traders. The two sides also agreed to harmonise their visa rules.
For Kenya, the current Ksh1.8 billion ($16.4 million) annual trade with DRC is expected to go higher and the percentage share of the Port of Mombasa in delivering goods to the DRC will increase, according to Kenya’s ambassador to the DRC George Masafu.
“We would do much better, if we just made it easier to fly in and out of our two countries. There are a lot of people who are seeking opportunities and infrastructure and security are crucial.”
And so Kenya Airways has signed a code-share agreement with Congo Airways to pursue ways of more frequent flights to Nairobi, Kinshasa and other destinations. The deal also involves aircraft maintenance and shouldering each other’s “excess” passengers.
The code sharing will initially be working for two years and officials said it could help both ailing airlines to sustain their routes across Africa. Kenya airways had been flying to Kinshasa and Lubumbashi and the new arrangement means passengers from Nairobi could travel to other regions of the DRC on a KQ ticket, even where Kenya Airways doesn’t fly.
The partnership agreement was signed by Kenya Airways group chief executive Allan Kilavuka and his Congo Airways counterpart Desire Balazire Bantu and witnessed by the two presidents and their ministers.
Kenya’s Equity Bank officially opened their offices in Kinshasa, a year after buying stakes in the BCD Bank.
These deals must flourish in a secure environment. The DRC’s myriad rebel groups are based where most of the imported goods imported go. Neighbours have been accused of funding rebels to access the minerals. For example, Uganda is currently facing a legal suit at the International Court of Justice, with Kinshasa seeking Ksh4.3 billion ($39.1 million) in reparations for Kampala’s military intervention back in 1997. DRC accuses Kampala of sending troops, ostensibly to help, but ended up looting.
Congo has faced epidemics such as Ebola and measles and is also fighting Covid-19. Its human development index is poor, ranked 175 out of 189 on the UN index. And it has poor roads, yet it is rich with timber, gold, and other rare earth minerals.
Perennially plagued by civil war, the country has only recently started to stabilise. Kenya says it will be deploying troops to the Rapid Intervention Force, an arm of the UN Mission to the DRC [Monusco], composed of African troops.