Congo strife threatens Uganda’s trade inroads

Congolese refugees at Bunagana border post after they fled fresh fighting between rebels and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) army in the North Kivu  province in March. Photo / File

What you need to know:

  • Security has recently deteriorated in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the eastern DR Congo after M23 rebels seized the key town of Bunagana on the Uganda-DR Congo border.

Bilateral trade relations between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) will not be jeopardised by simmering tensions in the Great Lakes region, the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) has confirmed.

Security has recently deteriorated in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the eastern DR Congo after M23 rebels seized the key town of Bunagana on the Uganda-DR Congo border. The seizure came days after the Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU) led a group of Ugandan businessmen and organisations to the Congolese capital of Kinshasa and eastern town of Goma.

The PSFU had labelled the undertaking intended to explore business opportunities and improve relations between the neighbouring countries a resounding success. Skirmishes in Bunagana have, however, changed the tune.

“The plans are still on, but we have not heard from our Congolese partners ever since the fighting broke out,” Mr Stephen Asiimwe, the executive director of PSFU, said, adding, “Money fears noise. It will run away. That’s why we want peace immediately.”


Going up in smoke?

Mr Elly Karuhanga, the PSFU chairman, said thus: “We were received well both in Kinshasa and Goma. We were making more plans and then this fighting broke out, so we have to wait and see how political leaders solve this problem.”

The UIA, which promotes and facilitates investment in Uganda, had scheduled a Uganda-Democratic Republic of Congo Investment Promotion Summit and Market Access Expo to run from June  27 to 29 in Kinshasa. It has since been deferred, Mr Morrison Rwakakamba—the body’s chairman of Board of Directors—says, “to November or December.”

He added: “It is being discussed with the Congolese Investment Authority and the Office of the Presidency and Cabinet Affairs in DRC. It was postponed because they had other events during the same time like a papal visit. So, we agreed to postpone because we wanted even the President of the DR Congo to get to participate.”

Mr Rwakakamba says Uganda wants “to remove market access barriers—both tariff and non-tariff” with her western neighbour. It also wants to “attract investments into our industrial parks that are adjacent to the DRC.”

Mr Rwakakamba further revealed: “As UIA, we have a lot of land in Kisoro, which is about 620 acres. We have 630 acres in Rukungiri Industrial Park; we have 500 acres in Nebbi; we have 1,600 acres in Yumbe; and 500 acres in Pader. Imagine we get 20 investments into those parks for purposes of producing for the DR Congo market, now that would be something to talk about.”

After a tiff with Rwanda precipitated a border closure that lasted years, Uganda has in recent times pivoted more toward the DR Congo as trade receipts show. Recent figures released by Uganda’s Finance ministry show that her exports to Rwanda—which has a population of 12.95 million—averaged Shs824.2m ($220,000) per month. This represents a sharp drop from the Shs62.6 billion monthly average in 2019.

Conversely, Uganda’s exports to the DR Congo—which has a population of 89.56 million—have been on an upward spiral. Recent figures from the central bank indicate that January 2022’s receipts totalled Shs278 billion ($74.3m), up from Shs112 billion ($29.9m) in December 2021. 

There is a school of thought that believes the DR Congo—with its vast array of minerals such as cobalt, coltan, gold and copper—has become a key cog in Kampala’s economic calculations. Mr Solomon Asiimwe, a lecturer of International Relations at Nkumba University, however says Uganda should use its burgeoning relations with the DR Congo and historical ties with Rwanda to act as “an arbiter” between the latter and former.


No saints

The DR Congo accuses Rwanda of propping the M23 rebels, something that Kigali vehemently denies. Other observers, however, question Uganda’s neutrality in the standoff.

“When M23 was defeated in 2013 or thereabout they just crossed to Uganda with their weapons and they were welcomed to Uganda as refugees because they were taken to barracks or training camp,” Mr Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University, said, adding, “They were not refugees because refugees can’t be settled in a government barracks. Refugees are normally settled in gazette places. So how did they go back to DRC? What was their arrangement of going back? Uganda insists that it’s neutral, but still can’t be wholly trusted since in 1999 it fought Rwandan forces in Kisangani.” 

The two countries wanted to oust then Congolese President, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, but strategic and tactical differences swiftly developed. The Rwandans went straight for Kinshasa, airlifting hundreds of troops. They were, however, deterred by the intervention of Zimbabwean and Angolan troops, flown in to rescue Kabila.

Rwanda then consolidated in the east, and supported a rebel offensive on the southern provinces of Kasai and Katanga, which included diamond and copper mines that were then seen as critical for Kabila’s survival. Uganda, in the meantime, focused on the northeastern Congo, which was easily subdued. Kisangani was occupied by both Ugandan and Rwandan troops. But tensions quickly mounted. The Rwandans accused Uganda’s Gen James Kazini of running the city as his private fief. They hinted at warlordism and at deals that included the export of diamonds from the Kisangani area. The Ugandans hit back with comparable allegations.

Mr Ndebesa alleges that Uganda and Rwanda still have plans to tear apart the DRC.

“I think those groups in the Kivu area have plans to secede. They might not be successful, but they have those plans. Why haven’t Uganda and Rwanda clearly stated that they are opposed to those groups in Congo?” Ndebesa rhetorically asked.

Mr Rwakakamba told Saturday Monitor that Uganda has “many” bilateral trade agreements with the DRC. He will no doubt have been pleased with news this past week that FARDC, the Congolese army, cleared Uganda of any wrongdoing.

“There is false information circulating through online publications about DRC suspending agreements with Uganda. There are also claims by the same that Uganda is conniving with Rwanda to fund M23 at Bunagana. This is not true and should be disregarded,” FARDC said in a statement. 

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