DRC’s admission to EAC sees regional bloc brace for potential problems

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Tuesday, 13 July 2021 12:51
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta talks to Felix Tshisekedi (C), President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during the opening of the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 10 February 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is applying to join the East African Community (EAC) and could become the regional economic community's seventh member. It would bring a huge market for the region's exporters and also provide a venue for the DRC's disputes with Rwanda and Uganda that go back decades.

After a preliminary discussion about the DRC’s application at a summit on 27 February, the EAC is now assessing if the country could be a suitable candidate.

A team from the EAC secretariat completed its verification mission to the eastern DRC city of Goma on 3 July. The report will be presented to presidents of the EAC member states in November or December, to help them make their decision.

EAC criteria

An EAC press release explains some of the criteria for joining the regional intergovernmental organisation :

  • Acceptance of the EAC as explained in the treaty that created it;
  • Adherence to the principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice;
  • Potential contribution to the strengthening of integration within East Africa;
  • Geographical closeness to and interdependence between the applying country and EAC member states;
  • Establishment and maintenance of a market economy;
  • Having social and economic policies that are compatible with the EAC’s.

Hopes and dreams

For DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, joining the regional trade bloc has been a key aspiration since he took office in 2019.

When the EAC heads of state resolved to send a verification mission to DRC in March, politicians in Kinshasa began spreading ‘fake news’ that the country had been admitted.

And unlike his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, Tshisekedi has been a regulator visitor to Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, which share borders with eastern DRC.

“The President has received this message [beginning of the verification process] with a lot of happiness, and he is looking forward to [the release of the] report,” EAC secretary general Peter Mathuki said after meeting Tshisekedi to launch the process in Goma. “And hopefully, very soon, DRC will be a full member of the EAC.”

A dash for deals

Ahead of the decision to admit the DRC, EAC member states –Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya –  have been signing agreements with Kinshasa aimed at boosting trade and improving security in the eastern DRC.

  • In June, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and DRC’s Tshisekedi launched cross-border infrastructure projects. Uganda has also deployed troops to eastern DRC.
  • During the same period, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and Tshisekedi visited each other and signed  agreements to promote investment, mining and elimination of double taxation.
  • In April, Kenya signed agreements with DRC to boost trade, security and transport. Kenya also offered to open diplomatic outposts in Goma and Lubumbashi.
  • Last year, Tanzania opened a new port on Lake Tanganyika with a railway link to Lubumbashi, which it hopes will attract more of eastern DRC sea-route imports.

Tap the market

With a population of almost 90 million people, the DRC has a large market. Statistics from the UN Comtrade show that EAC countries exported goods worth $855m to the DRC in 2018, according to the most recent report.

Most EAC countries have reported a substantial positive balance of trade with the DRC in the past decade. For instance, in 2019, Kenya exported goods worth $132m and imported goods worth $19m. Rwanda exported goods valued at $372m and its imports were worth $16m. Uganda exported goods valued at $267m to DRC and its imports were worth $26m. Burundi exported goods worth $19m and imported goods worth $2.7m.

In anticipation of the DRC’s admission, the EAC adopted French as one of its official languages.

But a report published in June 2020 by the East African Business Council revealed that “despite its geographic proximity, the EAC’s trade with the DRC is surprisingly very low. Over the last seven years, the proportion of EAC exports to the DRC has averaged 13.5%” of the country’s total imports bill.

Southern African Development Community countries such as South Africa and Zambia have captured a big share of the DRC’s market, the report said. South Africa exported goods worth $1bn while Zambia exported goods worth $866m in 2019.

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,” the report said.

Insecurity and looting

Rwanda and Uganda became a force to reckon with in DRC politics after they helped Laurent Kabila’s rebel group overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. After assuming power, Kabila asked soldiers from Uganda and Rwanda soldiers to leave and the two countries then resorted to supporting rebel groups vying to overthrow Kabila.

The Kinshasa government has accused both Rwanda and Uganda of looting minerals from eastern DRC and even launched litigation against Uganda at the Hague-based International Court of Justice, demanding billions of dollars in compensation. The case, which has lasted more than two decades, awaits judgement following the latest round of oral arguments in April.

Accusations of pillaging continue to surface. Gold is now Uganda’s top foreign-exchange earner even though the country has no known large gold deposits.

Both Uganda and Rwanda have also hosted millions of Congolese refugees over the years.

DRC’s benefits

Uganda and Kenya have promised to help the DRC with its security challenges. Kenya deployed more of its troops to eastern DRC under the United Nations mission there.

Last month, Uganda also deployed an unspecified number of soldiers to eastern DRC following a pact between Museveni and Tshisekedi.

Dennis Namara, a Ugandan legislator in the East Africa Legislative Assembly, says security is a key pillar of regional integration. “For instance, if there is a rebel group in DRC that is destabilising the country, the East Africa Standby Forces have the capacity to mobilise themselves to dismantle that group.”

For ordinary Congolese citizens, the benefits of EAC membership would be that they can travel across the region without visa, while trade would be cheaper and less complicated.

In anticipation of the DRC’s admission, the EAC adopted French as one of its official languages.

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