Friday, June 14, 2024

Counting The Cost of DRC’s Membership in the EAC 

The Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday, March 29, became the seventh member of the East African Community, a sub-regional economic grouping created to facilitate trade and integrate the economies of its members in East Africa. In his speech during an extraordinary summit of heads of states, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi outlined his country’s main goals for joining the bloc:


“It will allow the reduction of telecommunication costs with neighboring countries… the increase of commercial activities; the facilitation of the mobility of citizens; the reduction of customs tariffs for goods received at the port of Mombasa, in Kenya and the port of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. This membership will also allow the application of the community’s collective security pact and the enhanced pooling of forces against the activism of local and foreign armed groups as well as terrorism”


DRC has two major interests in its accession to the EAC which has been in the works for about a few years. From its president’s speech, the major imperatives for joining the bloc are rooted in security and economics. 


The country has the fourth-largest population in Africa which ordinarily, should count for something given the potentially huge market it portends but how that would translate into substantial gains remains to be seen. The country’s purchasing power increased from 105.9 LCU per international dollar in 2001 to 881.9 LCU per international dollar in 2020 growing at an average annual rate of 12.46%. This is a remarkable feat given how much instability has marked much of the country’s post-independent existence. President Tshisekedi’s trade ambitions come from existing strategic concerns. Given that resource-rich Katanga province in the Eastern part of the country is landlocked, the country has had to rely heavily on the ports of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania for their exports and imports. Getting into the EAC does not necessarily eliminate this concern, it rather opens up more direct markets through established legal frameworks that an intergovernmental organization like the EAC provides. 


All economic grouping hinged on geographic contiguity has free movement of goods and persons in its charter. The EAC is not any different as it has a common customs union among others. However, beyond theory, the practical implementation of both has not been without a hiccup even with the EAC protocol on the free movement of persons. In contrast, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)’ free movement is a well-grounded feature of its existence, granting community members up to 90 days to stay in another country without a visa. The EAC has a little stride in this, but DRC’s accession may not bear the immediate fruits to make this a reality for millions of its citizens. 


For much of its security concerns, forging a multinational approach to dealing with regional terrorism would colour much of its relations with community members perhaps as equally as its border disputes. Under Tshisekedi’s leadership, the tension between the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda has thawed significantly to the point that he managed to organize successful peace talks over the border dispute that culminated in the signing of an MOU on August 21, 2019, in Luanda, Angola. The EAC Treaty gives a criterion under which a new member state can be admitted to the community, which includes but is not limited to observance and practice of principles of good governance, democracy, and the rule of law.


The border dispute is further complicated by the presence of foreign forces on DRC’s soil under the guise of fighting terror. The Allied Democratic Forces, which has unclear links with the Islamic State, launched multiple attacks on Kampala from DRC in late 2021. Uganda has also pursued counterterrorism initiatives against the M-23 rebels in the DRC who are backed by Rwanda. The potency of the threat the M-23 group poses was once again brought to the fore when the group launched multiple attacks in the country on the day the DRC was accepted into the EAC–after several years of inactivity. 


Behold these, several other issues would have to be addressed for this union to be successful. Judges at the International Court of Justice in mid-February ruled that Uganda must pay $325 million in reparations to the DRC for its role in conflicts in Congo’s resource-rich Ituri province. Uganda must pay the sum in five yearly installments of $65 million to start in September of this year. The total award is far short of the over $11 billion Congo had asked for. The court dismissed several claims including broad compensation for macroeconomic damage, saying a clear link between Uganda’s actions and alleged economic damage was not shown. In hearings in April, Uganda said its economy would be ruined by the billions of dollars Congo sought in reparations.


The long-running dispute was first brought before the ICJ in 1999. After lengthy proceedings, the court ruled in 2005 that Uganda had violated international law by occupying parts of the eastern Congolese province with its troops and supporting other armed groups during a war that raged from 1998 to 2003. Uganda had argued that its troops went into Ituri at Congo’s invitation. The court dismissed that argument in 2005 and ruled Uganda was an occupying power in the province. The court ordered the African neighbors to negotiate reparations, but in 2015 Congo returned to the tribunal, saying the talks had stalled.


On Wednesday the court ruled on the final compensation amount. DRC’s continued membership in the EAC must deal with this dispute. It portends questions for the Tshisekedi government such as: is it willing to let Uganda off the hook in exchange for greater collaboration? What would be the fate of Ituri and Katanga provinces under a multinational joint task force against terrorism, especially in the latter? Would it continue to play host to foreign forces in the face of the inability of Congo’s security forces to subdue these threats which also spills over into neighboring territories? 


Getting admitted into the EAC is just the beginning of a balancing act that may divide DRC’s attention to its international commitments. It is also a member of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) as well as the Southern Africa Development Commission (SADC), the latter of which has South Africa as its biggest power bloc. The South African angle to it hinges heavily on ex DRC president Joseph Kabila’s very close relations with that country. Hence, more questions arise given Tshisekedi’s tilt eastward. Tshisekedi’s attempts to consolidate power and claim more independence from his benefactor Kabila has somewhat strained relations between both men. In the likelihood of a Kabila return to power in the next elections, what would be the fate of the DRC’s international commitments especially given the somewhat markedly different foreign policy imperatives of both governments? 

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