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A Man With a Vision
President Joseph Kabila Kabange
By Paul Trustfull
President Joseph Kabila Kabange
“The Democratic Republic of the Congo is like a moving train that cannot be stopped,” says President Joseph Kabila Kabange in reference to the positive economic wind that is sweeping through his country.
These are optimistic words, but they reflect how far the country has come in a relatively short period of time.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a vast country with high agricultural potential. It is rich in natural resources, with an estimated $24 trillion worth of untapped deposits of raw mineral ores, including the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s diamonds, gold and copper. For many years, the DRC has suffered from extreme poverty pitted against extreme wealth.
Overcoming a Turbulent History
For most people, mention of the DRC conjures up images of a huge jungle that is home to devastation, war, hunger, disease, corruption and political instability. This image is further reinforced by the country’s unsettled history.
Troubles first began in 1885 when King Leopold II of Belgium took possession of the territory as his personal property at the Berlin Conference. By the time the Belgian government took over the territory’s administration in 1908, the king had accumulated a large personal fortune from ivory and rubber obtained through slave labor that left about 10 million people dead.
In 1960, after fighting for its independence, the Republic of the Congo was granted freedom from the Belgian government. Nevertheless, its early years were marred by political and social instability, which gave Colonel Joseph Mobutu a chance to seize power and declare himself president in a November 1965 coup.
At the time, the DRC was the second-most industrialized country in Africa after South Africa, boasting thriving mining and agricultural sectors. But Mobutu’s was to be one of the world’s most corrupt and megalomaniacal regimes. His disastrous policies drove the DRC into economic collapse, while he stashed away millions of dollars for himself.
In 1997, Mobutu was ousted from power by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, whose ascendancy raised the hopes of the people. These hopes, however, were quickly dashed when the country became embroiled in what has come to be referred to as Africa’s World War. Spanning five violent years, the war ultimately resulted in the deaths of about 5 million Congolese and left the country suffering from destabilization, hunger, disease and hopelessness.
It is this state of affairs that the 29-year-old Joseph Kabila, now the country’s president, inherited after his father was shot dead by a bodyguard in 2001.
Despite its history of violence and turmoil, the president’s words ring true: the DRC truly is unstoppable. Landlocked in the heart of Africa and the fourth-largest country on the continent, the DRC of today shows a lot of promise. People from all over the world, including Russia, China, Turkey, India, Europe, Africa and the U.S., are looking toward it for investment purposes.
With the growth of the world’s appetite for minerals such as copper, coltan, cobalt, gold and diamonds, the country has come to be a key source for many of the crucial raw materials that define today’s global economies and culture.
Take, for instance, the computers or mobile phones many people cannot do without these days—gadgets that define life’s everyday functions and fuel economies. These essential tools contain tantalium, a highly heat-resistant metal refined from coltan (columbite-tantalite).
The DRC is home to substantial deposits of this substance, which for the high-tech industry has become like “magic dust.” It is used in manufacturing electronic devices including smartphones, MP3 players, DVDs, game consoles and camcorders. Global demand has created a huge market for it.
President Joseph Kabila Kabange and Editor Paul Trustfull
The country’s other minerals, estimated to be worth an equivalent of the combined GDP of Europe and the U.S., remain largely untapped.
The DRC is also home to the Inga Dams, a series of hydroelectric dams located on the Congo River in Inga. These dams have such huge potential, their concentration of hydroelectric power could light up all of Africa with enough left over to power Europe. This dream could soon become a reality once the Grand Inga Dam is completed. The dam is expected to have an output of about 44,000 MW, making it the world’s largest electricity-supplying dam, generating over twice the power of Three Gorges Dam in China.
The DRC is also one of six countries that are home to the second-largest rain forest in the world, spanning much of Central Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Guinea to the mountains of the Albertine Rift in the east. The forest covers 700,000 square miles and represents about one-fifth of the world’s remaining closed-canopy tropical forest. This vast area hosts a wealth of biodiversity, including over 10,000 species of plants, 1,000 species of birds, 400 species of mammals, and three of the world’s four species of great apes.
The country’s positive attributes do not end there. The DRC is also famed for its music, which is said to have inspired the great South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba. Many Africans across the continent have additionally come to love the DRC’s Lingala music.
In an exclusive interview with President Joseph Kabila, it became clear that this youthful, charismatic leader is passionate about bringing change and hope to his people and his largely misunderstood nation.
Sitting outside his house, located high on a hill overlooking the port town of Boma in Kongo Central Province, President Kabila avidly related his hopes and dreams for his country.
He began by explaining how, upon assuming power, he had to start from scratch by putting the right economic and political institutions and structures in place to move the country forward.
President Kabila spoke of his five-year strategic plan, which involves building on infrastructure, the health sector (he is building the biggest hospital in southern Africa, called DA Cinquantenaire), and the social, communication and education sectors.
Billboard on the streets of Kinshasa
Working toward this goal, President Kabila has had to get the right people with the best experience and know-how in place. But he has had some misgivings, as things don’t seem to be going as fast as he wishes they would, he says.
Speaking of the global financial crisis, he admits that it did affect the country’s economy, especially through reduced spending power. The DRC currently relies heavily on mineral exports for its revenues, and these were affected when demand dropped with the economic meltdown. It also reduced the operations of big companies, consequently impacting their employees.
“However, things are picking up. Slowly, slowly we are getting better; but we are not there yet,” he says.
Investing in the DRC
President Kabila says his country is open to investors and seeks to allay fears that it is insecure, pointing out that it is safer than some of the capitals on the continent.
“My country is a great place for investors today, especially with its highly untapped human resource of about 65 million people,” he says.
However, he has some necessary terms for investors: They must be prepared to work under mutually beneficial conditions and be respectful to the people. They should not only come to export raw materials but to build factories and make their products in the country, he says.
“China is a great example of a win-win situation,” he adds of a country he extols for treating him and his country with respect, understanding and acceptance.
As far as the IMF and World Bank are concerned, he says, his country has met all the conditions given by the two institutions, yet he feels they have let him down.
“These institutions should look at the practical lives of the people on the ground before they formulate their conditions if they are to help the DRC or Africa,” he says.
The president wants a stronger relationship with the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which he chairs, and the African Union. He says the two entities should open up trade among the members even further to unlock the potential of their countries and improve diplomatic relations.
An Important Milestone
In one month’s time, the DRC is going to hold its 50th anniversary since gaining independence from Belgium. President Kabila’s greatest wish for his country’s birthday present from the international community is debt relief. “Besides the relief arising from writing off the debt, the country, which currently has a debt of $11 billion, will get a signal that it has been considered as part of the world,” he says.
President Kabila praises the Bush administration, which he says helped him put systems in place in his country. “Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice played a key role in helping this country move out of its malaise.”
But he is equally happy with the warm relationship between his country and the current Obama administration: “The U.S. gives us military training and aid to fight malaria, HIV and AIDS,” he says.
President Kabila is confident that with the support of his people, his country is poised for great things. He hopes the international community will support him as he strives toward his goals.
Marie Lichtenberg, Humana’s Director of International Partnerships, with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Besides the political and economic aspects of his country’s development, the president also has the social welfare of his people at heart. Toward this end, he is working closely with Humana People to People Congo, Planet8.org and the Clinton Global Initiative, which are all engaged in various activities within the country.
Marie Lichtenberg, Humana’s director of international partnerships, has been working with the organization for 25 years. So far, the organization, which has been in the DRC for three years now, has spent $3 million on education, HIV and AIDS prevention and care, agriculture and fighting poverty.
Lichtenberg believes President Kabila is the right person to steer the nation forward and is calling on the West to help the DRC establish a more stable footing.
Humana, a Swiss organization, is working in 42 countries and has benefited about 12 million people with its activities. Its donors include the U.S., Spain, UNICEF and the World Bank.
Matata Ponyo Mapon, Minister of Finance and Former Director General of Bureau Central de Coordination (BCECO)
The DR Congo
Open to Foreign Investment
The sleeping giant at the heart of Africa is beginning to wake up. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is on the rise after a long and difficult period of upheaval, war, poverty and corruption. This huge country is rich in natural resources, but also has endured much strife. For years, the DRC was plundered by varied interests that used war and corruption to take possession of its wealth. It has suffered from poor governance and a lack of infrastructure and all that pertains to a well-functioning nation. Until now, the DRC has not known the real meaning of peace.
A Period of Healing and Recovery
The few improvements the DRC achieved after it gained independence from the Belgian government in 1960 quickly eroded as the country’s national output and government revenue dropped, while external debt increased. Foreign businesses also cut their operations because the country’s business environment became disfunctional. Africa’s World War, which began in 1998 and lasted five years, resulted in the death of more than 5 million people and further devastation.
However, since the end of the war in 2003, the DRC has been recovering gradually, and conditions suddenly began to improve toward the close of 2009.
“Things are beginning to look up,” says Matata Ponyo Mapon, the country’s newest finance minister and the former director general of Bureau Central De Coordination (BCECO).
“With the macroeconomic framework in place, the Congolese franc is stabilizing and inflation is down from 6.3% to 5.4%,” says Mr. Mapon. “The growth of the economy is further evidenced by its recent resilience in the face of the global financial crisis. Yes, the meltdown had an impact on the people, but since our financial system is not so integrated into the global one and concentrates on the local market, the pinch was not so great,” he adds.
“If we continue with the reforms, the DRC will not be the same in five years,” he says confidently. “The signs are good. People are buying and selling, and there is circulation within the economy. People can see this in their daily lives.”
A Man on a Mission
Before going elsewhere to seek help or investment, Mr. Mapon says, he aims first to secure the local economy. This will involve putting institutions like the banking system and infrastructure in order. “The Congolese have a responsibility to clean their house first to be able to get support from institutions or bodies like the IMF. It is not a one-sided story; the people must also take responsibility,” he says.
So, why would anyone want to invest in the DRC?
“Because it is the heart of Africa. It is a country with vast opportunities and potential, with a diverse market and human capital of about 68 million people,” he says. “But it has to be only for honest investors,” he adds, explaining that the DRC needs long-term investors who are truly interested in contributing to the economy.
He is also bent on wiping out the image of hunger, war and instability that has long shrouded his country.
He envisions a DRC that will stand as a model country like Botswana and Mauritius, which he says are good examples of how things can work for the people when systems are in place.
Mr. Mapon is very optimistic about the country’s future, saying that the Congolese people now understand that the only way to go is forward, under the leadership of President Joseph Kabila.
Minister for Mining Martin Kabwelulu
The DRC’s Rich Resources Offer
Opportunity for Growth
Invest in the DR Congo, Minister for Mining Martin Kabwelulu urges investors.
He is seeking to reassure the international business community that his country, which has been unstable for more than two decades, has changed and is slowly rising from the ashes.
The DRC is ready for business, he says. “The last 10 years have been bad even for the mining industry, but there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.”
Life in this resource-rich country has gone through many struggles since its possession by King Leopold II of Belgium in 1885, which undermined its growth. During the following 100-plus years, the DRC was further ravaged by megalomaniacal leaders, violence and plundering, resulting in severely devastated economic, social and political systems.
Even in the wake of such grave turmoil, the DRC has managed to retain one vital source of pride: its natural resources. And under new leadership, it is ready to move forward into a better future.
If one were to evaluate the DRC’s wealth in terms of its resources, this country could be a global powerhouse rivaling the likes of the U.S., Europe and China. The fourth-largest country in Africa, the DRC has vast rain forest cover; large supplies of water, including the Congo River, whose hydro capacity could power the whole of Africa and even parts of Europe; amazing flora and fauna; and a strong agricultural industry. The DRC’s mining capacity is also particularly promising—its worth, it is said, could equal the combined GDPs of the U.S. and Europe. The country possesses substantial deposits of gold, diamonds, tin, cobalt, copper and coltan—a favorite of the electronics industry—among others.
Today, empowered by its natural assets and driven by President Joseph Kabila’s leadership, the country is experiencing great change as its economy begins to take shape.
“The business climate is getting better, companies are coming back, and there’s lots of optimism in the air,” the minister says. And this time, he adds, things are going to be done differently: “We have learned our lessons the hard way. We now want the country to move forward, and we need investors.
“With its vast minerals, there are plenty of opportunities for manufacturers to set up base and produce aircraft, cars, computers, domestics, cosmetics and many other products,” Minister Kabwelulu says. However, he and many others in leadership positions emphasize that these investors must be long-term. They must be ready not only to exploit the DRC’s wealth but to source some of their production in the country. “This will create employment for the people and help them in their social welfare,” he says.
They must be ready to stick with the people during the bad and the good times. “I noticed that when things were good, our investors sat easy and pretty; but when things got tough, most took flight, leaving our country naked.”
Minister Kabwelulu says the government has finished not long ago re-evaluating existing contracts. “And those who met the bill were given the blessing to continue and in fact more than 60 contracts were re-evaluated and only one the Kingamyambo Musonoi Tailings (KMT) of First Quantum was cancelled because of so many breaches of the law and did not meet international standards,” he adds.
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