DR Congo roads project is  something to smile about

Every so often even a jaded government springs a beautifully ambitious surprise. 

Until I see earth-moving equipment on the ground, though, I am not betting any money. What I can do now is express delight at the foresighted idea of Uganda paying up a chunk of money (possibly 20 per cent of total cost, which is yet to be established) to build roads to connect the country to some key Congolese towns not too far from our border.

President Museveni has always dreamed of building a railway or road or some such to connect landlocked Uganda to the Atlantic via the massive landmass that is DR Congo. That won’t happen just yet on such a grand scale.

And so the idea bubbled into public view in November 2019 when Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi visited Uganda: to build a limited number of roads connecting to towns on the other side such as Rutshuru, Goma, Butembo, Beni, and Bunia. These are the key towns on the upper eastern end of DR Congo, bordering Uganda.

Apparently, the 2019 announcement is growing feet, with Ugandan Cabinet this past week approving the joint venture project with the Congolese government.

When one talks African development, this is the kind of practical, sensible stuff that should dominate the discourse. Not some fancy talk about how great Africa was a gazillion years ago and how bad people are still waiting at the gates to come in and do more harm.

 Yes, this history is all fine. Then what? That we should continue not facilitating trade among ourselves even across common borders on this continent?

President Museveni framed the issue this way after the 2019 meeting with Mr Tshisekedi: “This is about trade, social welfare and security. To guarantee security, you need roads for easy movement of soldiers. But this can also help people to move to hospitals.”

I do not know about DR Congo, but for Uganda, Mr Museveni’s calculations are on the money. And he was transparent about this. The reference to soldiers is obvious. The UPDF can easily run after the ADF rebels and their sponsors or anyone else trying to cause mischief against his government. 

 On trade, well, Uganda’s exports, as of 2018 figures, of $532 million would evidently jump quite dramatically. With trade comes also smuggling, which is a form of trade in itself. But that is a detail.

On social services, Mr Museveni spoke of hospitals. Possibly he had Ebola on his mind. But, why not, Uganda could improve its hospitals in Kisoro/Kabale, Kasese, Hoima and attract even more high-paying patients from across. Ditto education.

To see how integrated already this area is, one has to return to Ebola. The experts fighting the outbreak in DR Congo the last few years mapped the movement of people along the common border, covering the mentioned Congolese towns. The movement between these towns and Ugandan towns is well established. 

And it is mostly Congolese crossing into Uganda. What the modern roads will do is make this seamless. All we need to do is milk it.
This is the kind of project that I would establish a task force for to deliver on time and within budget.

In a perverse way, this Uganda-Congo roads development would possibly not have been actively discussed if Rwanda had not, arguably in a most bizarre act short of declaring war, closed its border with Uganda early in 2019. Talk of one step forward and two back in regional integration. Uganda is not wasting the crisis. As well it should not.

Then there is that talk of the road from Moroto connecting to Ethiopia. That should be next up on the agenda.

Mr Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala. [email protected]