When the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) requested to join the East African Community (EAC) in June 2019, one of the biggest concerns was whether EAC was ready to admit another member state with a chequered past.
A few years earlier EAC had admitted South Sudan as a member, shortly after it had gained independence. Immediately afterwards, South Sudan was plunged into a civil war and has never been stable since. EAC’s decision was considered hasty and unwise.
But DRC is not South Sudan. While South Sudan’s case posed too high a risk with very small rewards, DRC is worth all the risk that EAC can take.
Located at the very centre of sub-Saharan Africa, bordering nine nations, DRC connects West Africa, South Africa, and East Africa. DRC’s size, resources, and position make it so strategic to the African continent that it is imperative for Africa to do everything it can to make sure that DRC prospers.
A launching pad for rebel groups
Politically, DRC’s stability implies regional stability. Over the years, DRC’s thick equatorial forests have been used as launching pads for rebel groups such as UNITA, LRA, CNDD-FDD, and Interahamwe, leading to wars in Angola, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, respectively. An unstable DRC is a bad news to its neighbours.
From 1998 to 2002, there was a war that revealed how DRC brings together the greater regional interests. In what is sometimes called ‘The First African World War,’ the conflict sucked in nine African nations to battle it out in the Zairean jungles.
The war started when the Rwandese army went to DRC to depose their former ally, President Laurent Kabila. Rwanda’s decision brought Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, DRC’s fellow SADC members, to DRC’s aid. Uganda didn’t want its former protégé – Rwanda – to fail, so it joined the war on Rwanda’s side. DRC exploded as more and more nations joined – including Libya and Chad.
Few nations have the potential to connect so many interests in one state and influence the whole continent as the DRC can. This is the point that the West is too aware of. ‘If Zaire goes (to Russia),’ said Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon in the 1970s, ‘every African state will draw the conclusion that the Soviet Union (which they don’t like all that much) is the future.’
Economically, DRC’s vast natural resources – valued at trillions of dollars –can easily attract FDIs and sustain rapid economic growth for long enough to uplift its people out of poverty.
Nations tend to rise or stagnate together. A high-income neighbour means greater demand for goods and services, thus increased trade. DRC’s rise will be as transformative to the sub-Saharan region as the rise of China was to Asian nations.
Africa contributes only four per cent of global agricultural output despite having 60 percent of arable land. As a result, the continent is a net food importer, importing a total of $35 billion worth of food in 2020, according to the Oxford Business Group. That could easily have been produced or sourced internally leading to the creation of jobs and improved livelihoods.
Speaking of arable land, DRC alone has 70 million hectares of uncultivated land – the most in SSA. Being in the equatorial climate, rain falls throughout the year, and the Congo River provides huge potential for irrigation. DRC has the potential to feed all of Africa and more, thus rescuing billions of dollars that would have been transferred out of the continent.
Unfortunately, this nation which was the second most industrialised nation in Africa at independence is nowhere as competitive today. 22 million people face starvation there. Even compared to its not so competitive EAC nations, DRC hardly exports 20 per cent of what it imports. This should make no EAC nation happy – since, as one researcher observes, “growth of countries is interdependent” and that countries should “try and build a conducive environment for their neighbours to thrive too.”
Increased economic integration is key to unlocking DRC’s potential, thus the need for its admission into the EAC.
There is, however, an even stronger reason for African nations to ensure that DRC stands on its feet: to expel mercenary foreign activities in the region.
In 1874, Henry Morton Stanley met Tip Tippu at Manyema and persuaded him to accompany him inland, through Luabala River, to find out whether the river is connected to the Nile or it empties in the Atlantic. The journey was perilous due to the fear of cannibals in Congo forests, thus the name Manyema, that is, man-eaters. A year later, Stanley reached the Atlantic through the Congo River.
What Stanley documented opened up Congo to European colonisation and brought with it unspeakable misery. Within a few years, King Leopold had taken over Congo as personal property. Leopold plundered Congo with astonishing brutality such that missionaries – especially protestants from the US – asked their governments to intervene. When Belgium state took over Congo, the pillage continued, but the human situation improved little.
America’s interest in Congo was heightened when one Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt informing him that it was possible to create a chain reaction from radioactivity – meaning that the atomic age had dawned on humanity. DRC was already known for its Uranium reserves and it became the source of the material whose payload was dropped by Enola Gay at Hiroshima.
With the Cold War, America’s interest was to stop Russians from getting a foothold in DRC – the small matter which led to the elimination of Patrice Lumumba. Step by step, year after year, nation after nation, they all had to put their hands into the Congolese pot. They came from Belgium, US, France, Canada, Russia, Israel and China.
Their relationships with DRC have mainly been exploitative in nature. Sometimes their intentions have been so blatant that some even resorted to using mercenaries or starting proxy wars. This started as early as 1960 – with Belgium and the US in Moise Tshombe’s Katanga.
Changing how the West or the East engage with DRC will go a long way in changing how they engage with Africa in general. In many ways, DRC has mirrored the history of African nations and when the terms are changed in DRC they will most probably be reflected elsewhere. In other words, what happens to DRC, happens to Africa. Hence, DRC matters, and it is imperative for Africans to do everything they can to get this sleeping giant back on its feet because when it does, it will pull so many nations forward with it.
Further to the EAC, China appears to be crucial to unlocking DRC’s potential.
I pointed out in my earlier article that DRC’s biggest need is security. While there is some evidence to support America’s interest in the stabilisation of DRC, the West’s engagement with Africa is still wrought with ideological double standards. China doesn’t care about that. This doesn’t mean that the Chinese are fairer, nay. However, their focus on economic rather than military engagement is a good place to start. This will lead to stability. No need for sanctimonious messages – Africa needs stability so that it can take charge of its future.
China is likely to support that since this is the area that it excels. In other words, China can balance the West’s excesses in DRC so that competition can be more market-based and not through primitive methods of plunder and pillage.
That is in the interest of all African nations.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through email@example.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.