/ 28 May 2008

DRC, China unveil ‘Marshall plan’

Two weeks ago the Congolese national assembly cautiously approved a $9-billion deal between the Democratic Republic of Congo and China, but warned that it would be watching closely to see that the country’s best interests are protected.

Parliament’s decision comes after a week of political wrangling, during which the opposition strongly opposed the deal.

According to the terms of the deal, which was concluded between the two governments last month, China will receive more than 10-million tons of copper and 620 000 tons of cobalt in exchange for the construction of roads, railways, schools and clinics.

The DRC, which is the size of eastern Europe, has less than 5 000km of tarred roads. It has 10% of the world’s copper reserves and one-third of global cobalt deposits.

Opposition politicians have criticised the deal, calling it unbalanced and incoherent. Jean-Lucien Mbusa, a member of parliament for the main opposition party, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), said the deal “forces us to sell off our national heritage to the detriment of several generations”.

But, according to Congolese Minister of Public Works Pierre Lumbi, the deal will provide a massive boost for efforts to reconstruct the country, which is slowly emerging from three decades of dictatorship, following years of war.

Calling it a “vast Marshall plan* for the reconstruction of our country’s basic infrastructure”, Lumbi told parliament that $3,25-billion would be used to revitalise the mining sector and the state-owned copper and cobalt mining giant, Gecamines. Under the terms of the deal, a joint venture will be created between Gecamines and a consortium of Chinese companies, including Sinohydro and the China Railway Group. Gecamines will retain a 32% stake, while the Chinese companies will hold 68%.

A further $6-billion will be used to construct roads linking southern DRC, where the copper and cobalt mining industry is concentrated, to northern and north-western DRC, where the country’s main port lies.

At the moment copper and cobalt exports are evacuated through Zambia and on to South Africa or Tanzania.

The country’s poor transport infrastructure has severely hampered economic growth, particularly in the agriculture sector. President Joseph Kabila campaigned on the promise that he would focus on five major “construction sites”, including infrastructure, but one-and-a-half years after his election, little, if any, progress has been made and the slogan has turned into a national joke.

Growing dissatisfaction with his government’s sluggish performance has put him under some pressure to deliver and he has been openly critical of what he calls Western donors’ slow disbursement of funds for national reconstruction.

In April the DRC and Belgium, its former colonial power, got into a public spat after a delegation led by Belgium’s Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht raised concerns about the Chinese deal. Kabila hit back in an interview with Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper, saying that Belgium must decide whether it wants a “master-slave” relationship with the DRC.

“Belgium must decide what sort of ties it wants with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Either good, very good ties, in an adult partnership with a sovereign, independent state — or a master-slave relationship,” he said.

As with elsewhere on the continent, China’s massive investment in the DRC has irked Western countries, which have expressed concern that the DRC is getting itself into a new debt trap while it is also negotiating an $8-billion write-off under the Highly-Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.

But there is also a feeling that some of the West’s criticism of China’s intervention might be because of its growing anxiety that China’s rapidly increasing involvement in Africa will leave it behind in the massive scramble for the continent’s resources.

Back in the DRC though, many in the population are wary about the government’s real commitment to reconstruction. Many fear that the government might not use the Chinese funds for national reconstruction, and that, like previous governments, it will instead line its own pockets.

Vital Kamerhe, the president of the national assembly and a member of the ruling party, who has often asserted his political independence vis-à-vis the presidency, has called for progress on the implementation of the contract to be reviewed after the first year.

“This contract has a duration of 25 years. If, in one year, we realise that we got off on the wrong foot and that we can rectify this, it will not be too late … What will be done and when? … We want to know all that, as elected representatives of the people, so that we can follow.”

* Economic aid from the United States used to rebuild Europe after World War II. Named after United States secretary of state George Marshall