There are many angry voices in Uganda today, because President Yoweri Museveni’s government is building roads next door in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, while some back home have become unusable lunar surfaces.
With campaigns for next elections in top gear, for the opposition the Congo roads have become one of the symbols of the Museveni government’s delinquency.
The president, for his part, argues that the roads will boost the country’s trade with its western neighbour. It is also part of an interconnection that is eyeing South Sudan.
The Uganda’s Congo roads saga blew up in September when in October the Cabinet announced a decision to fund 20 percent of the upgrading and paving of up to 223 kilometres of roads in the DRC.
One of the surprises is that the issue became publicly contested in Uganda this year, because Museveni and DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi signed the agreements to work on the roads a year earlier in November 2019.
It would seem many didn’t take it seriously, and others no longer believe it when East African leaders talk of working on joint infrastructure — it rarely happens.
However, Uganda helping building roads in DRC, if unusual, is interesting exactly for the same reason. As the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote; "Whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, then know that something is after its life."
If one goes back, the border closure face-off between Uganda and Rwanda of 2019, was partly about DRC, and Kampala’s road-building there is part of the same race.
DRC is an important market for Uganda, with formal exports in 2019 nearing $540 million. Informal exports are estimated by some to be close to that figure too.
DRC is an even more critical market for Rwanda relative to the size of its economy, with formal exports to it nearing $380 million in 2019, and informal exports rivalling that too.
Significantly, Rwanda’s exports to DRC have quadrupled over a five-year period. Not seen in these numbers, is that Kigali has also become eastern DRC’s banking capital. And, nearly 80 percent of Rwanda’s exports are re-exports.
To some of the analysts who read regional tea politics, the 2019 border spat between Rwanda and Uganda, was basically over how fast and far Kigali could expand the infrastructure that allows it to re-export more to DRC, and steal market share there from Uganda.
With the Congo roads, Kampala is trying to keep its share of the pie. Additionally, with the construction of the oil pipeline to Tanga, Tanzania, from Uganda’s Albertine region that it shares with DRC, and the likelihood that the planned refinery will follow, Kampala wants to further lock in eastern Congo with the roads as a closely-linked economic zone. And, at a wider strategic level, it is also part of a scheme that is eyeing a separate rail link with South Sudan.
From a narrow nationalist spectrum, it might look boneheaded, but it is still fascinating to see an African government take what really is an extreme measure, to secure what it says are its economic interests.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’. [email protected]