What a ‘normal’ DR Congo would mean for Uganda

Introductions. President Joseph Kabila of the DR Congo and President Museveni at Mpondwe border post in Kasese District in 2016. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

Country ties: DRC finally held presidential elections late last year, after a-two-year delay. With results now in and the winner announced, Stephen Kafeero explorers what peace in DRC would mean to Uganda.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda’s neighbour to the west, finally held elections late last year, after a delay of about two years from when the election that would see the exit of Mr Joseph Kabila from the presidency, were scheduled to take place. The results released on January 10, although surprising and contested, offer hope for democracy and peace yet also raising more questions, including of fraud, at the same time.

DRC and peace sounds contradictory, given the mayhem that has riddled the country for so long. This means that how the next hours, days and even months play out will be crucial to not only the future of DRC, but also that of its neighbours, including Uganda.
Can a miracle happen in Congo? Already, Felix Tshisekedi, 55, the disputed winner of the December 30 elections, is reported to have cut a number of deals with different groups, including outgoing president Joseph Kabila and authorities in Kampala before he was, surprisingly, handed the crown. Mr Tshisekedi met President Museveni on October 8, 2018 but details of their meeting are scanty and riddled with speculation.

Pre and post December 30, 2018 poll numbers favoured businessman and lawmaker, Martin Fayulu, 62, the joint opposition candidate to win in a landslide. Suspicion, speculation and counter results have elicited questions of whether the results read by the country’s electoral body were cooked from another place other than the polling stations across the vast country and served at the platter of the national tally centre.
“Experience has taught that politics is a game played by conmen and hypocrites,” British journalist and author, Michela Wrong, wrote in In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, a book about surviving Mobutu Sese Seko’s Congo. Do her words appear to bear testimony?

Possible outcomes
For now, two schools of thought have emerged from the election, with one suggesting a departure from the status quo and a possible peaceful transfer of political power from one leader to another for the first time in the country’s 59 years of independence. Others tag the election to yet another deal with the forces that have kept Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness era. Whichever way this sways, the events in DRC have an impact on its neighbours, especially Uganda.
If the situation ends in a disagreement, like it so far has, with more than four people reportedly dead in post-election violence by January 11, then it will simply mean more plunder of the resource-rich country, more poverty and deaths, mass exodus of citizens to become refugees, diseases, exploitation akin to slavery and so much more.

But if this turns out to be the watershed in DRC’s long history of suffering, it would have serious repercussions for many players, including both Kampala and Kigali regimes, which have had much influence in the country since helping to oust former President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
Security, peace, and prosperity of DRC, for example, are unlikely to happen without the unflinching support of its tiny neighbours, Uganda inclusive. DRC is a very vast country, why does Uganda’s neighbour to the west matter so much and what does the situation in the country imply for Uganda?

Uganda is host to more than one million refugees and about 20 per cent of these are from DRC. If the elections result in more conflicts and violence, the number of Congolese seeking refuge in Uganda will definitely increase.
The resources available to these refugees are insufficient and more pressure will only serve to escalate a bad situation. Then there is the indignity of living as a refugee. Peace, unity and justice as a result of the elections, therefore, offer the Congolese in Uganda a chance to return home and participate in the development of their endowed motherland.

Geopolitics. Democratic Republic of Congo President-elect Felix Tshisekedi (centre), President Museveni (third left), and other officials after a meeting at State House Entebbe on October 8, 2018. FILE PHOTO

Political prisoners
Sam Mugumya, a former aide to Opposition leader, Dr Kizza Besigye, is the most famous of Ugandans locked up in DRC’s notorious prisons.
There are, reportedly, many others who like Mr Mugumya are political prisoners or have been held on a host of other alleged crimes. If Mr Mugumya’s example is to go by, then there are issues of lack of due process, political influence from Kampala and other issues that a more assertive and well established government in Kinshasha can help to solve.
The announcement of Mr Tshisekedi as the winner of the polls renewed hope among his friends and comrades who have been campaigning, for more than five years, for his release. Will the “new” regime in Kinshasha act differently?

Debt owed to DRC
In December 2005, the International Court of Justice ordered Uganda to pay reparations to DRC after Uganda was found guilty of plundering and human rights abuses. DRC has since claimed US $10b a figure that has increased, if you factor in interest.
At the time of the ruling, Uganda’s debt was at more than $4 billion which has more than doubled to over $11b. What this means is that the money owed to DRC, which attracts interest, is slightly more than Uganda’s current reported debt and overnight our national debt would double if DRC pursued what is owed to them.
Negotiations and arbitration between the two countries have, reportedly, been on since the ruling. A peaceful and stable DRC would most likely push harder for a resolution of the matter. It could go either way.

Illicit trade
Several authors and observers have accused governments in the region and individuals, especially in Kampala and Kigali, of being beneficiaries and participants of the illicit mineral trade that thrives as a result of the conflicts in Congo.
Take, for example, a report by The Sentry, a team of policy analysts, regional experts, and financial forensic investigators that follows the money in order to create consequences for those funding and profiting from genocide or other mass atrocities in Africa, and to build leverage for peace, accuses a Belgian tycoon, Alain Goetz of refining illegally-smuggled conflict gold from eastern Congo at the Entebbe based African Gold Refinery (AGR) and then exporting it through a series of companies to the United States and Europe.

According to documents reviewed by The Sentry, AGR exported approximately $377 million in gold in 2017 to an apparent affiliate of the Belgian gold refinery Tony Goetz NV, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Numerous sources interviewed by The Sentry identified AGR as sourcing conflict gold from Congo. AGR denies this and maintains that it is committed to refraining from any action that contributes to the financing of conflict.
On January 7, this newspaper reported that Uganda has increased its gold exports by a staggering 85,000 per cent, going from exporting a paltry $443,000 (Shs1.6 billion) worth of gold in 2014 to an estimated $377 million(Shs1.4 trillion) in 2017.

Beyond gold, a host of other minerals and resources have, reportedly, been stolen from DRC with the participation and help of individuals and groups from neighbouring countries including Uganda.
Peace and stability can mean improved oversight by DRC on the affairs on its territory. It would, of course, be a loss for the individuals in Uganda cashing in on the illicit trade but in the long run could benefit the development of both countries if the trade was to be conducted through proper channels.

ADF and rebel activities
When Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel leader, Jamil Mukulu, was arrested in Tanzania in 2015, it looked like the ADF chapter in Uganda’s history was closed. The remnants of the rebel group, once very powerful in the 90s, however, still pose a threat to Uganda and DRC citizens or at least the governments of the respective countries say.
Besides ADF, Congo is a host to other “illegal foreign armed groups” as classified by the UN and these remain key in the puzzle to solve DRC’s problems.
The prospect of strong and stable government in Kinshasha implies that it can work with neighbours to flash out the rebel groups and or reach out to these groups for lasting peace in the region.

Ebola etc
When DRC sneezes, Uganda catches a cold. This has been more prevalent when it comes to the Ebola virus epidemic.
The insecurity in DRC strains the response to deadly Ebola outbreaks and this has previously ended in the spread of the virus to Uganda despite very costly interventions to prevent the same. There is always the potential for the virus to spread into Uganda.
The prospect of security as a result of the election means that humanitarian and medical personnel, and their equipment, transport and supplies can access the affected areas with improved ease.

Uganda, officially, exports much more than it imports from DRC but the volume of trade between the two is very low compared to the potential. In the past few years, the governments of both countries have been trying to work around boosting trade including an agreement, last year, to remove non-tariff trade barriers.

A Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line project, part of the Northern Corridor Transit and Transport Coordination Authority (NCTTCA), linking the two countries is also on the cards and this is projected to be a game changer in terms of trade for the two neighbouring countries.
According to Ministry of Works, the SGR to DRC will have a connection through Bumba to Kisangani and that in future, Kisangani will become a regional port with River Congo offering a waterway stretch of 1,724 km from Kisangani to Kinshasa and another waterway of about 500 km from Kinshasa to the Atlantic Ocean.

Another link is planned to connect the central corridor from Kisangani to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika through Kindu and Kalemie.
The potential for business between the two countries that can see their citizens thrive is not in dispute, what stands in the way is the insecurity and the political will to see the same through. Stability in DRC would be a great launching pad.
Many more challenges and opportunities exist between Uganda and DRC and more than before are underscored by reports that Uganda could have had a hand, once again, in fixing and determining the next leader of its larger neighbour.