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Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?
Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Hungry for Change: The Economics Underlying DR Congo’s Political Crisis
Hungry for Change: The Economics Underlying DR Congo’s Political Crisis
Report 188 / Africa

Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?

Renewed oil interest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could nurture communal resentments, exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics and weaken national cohesion.

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Executive Summary

Although it should provide development opportunities, renewed oil interest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) represents a real threat to stability in a still vulnerable post-conflict country. Exploration has begun, but oil prospecting is nurturing old resentments among local communities and contributing to border tensions with neighbouring countries. If oil reserves are confirmed in the east, this would exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics in the Kivus. An upsurge in fighting since the start of 2012, including the emergence of a new rebellion in North Kivu and the resumption of armed groups’ territorial expansion, has further complicated stability in the east, which is the new focus for oil exploration. New oil reserves could also create new centres of power and question Katanga’s (DRC’s traditional economic hub) political influence. Preventive action is needed to turn a real threat to stability into a genuine development opportunity.

Potential oil reserves straddle the country’s borders with Uganda, Angola and possibly other countries and could rekindle old sensitivities once exploration commences. In the context of a general oil rush in Central and East Africa, the lack of clearly defined borders, especially in the Great Lakes region, poses significant risk for maintaining regional stability.

Clashes between the Congolese and Ugandan armies in 2007 led to the Ngurdoto Accords establishing a system for regulating border oil problems, but Kinshasa’s reluctance to implement this agreement and the collapse of the Ugandan-Congolese dialogue threaten future relations between the two countries. In the west, failure to find an amicable solution to an Angolan-Congolese dispute about offshore concessions has worsened relations between the two countries and led to the violent expulsion from Angola of Congolese nationals. Instead of investing in the resolution of border conflicts with its neighbours before beginning oil exploration, the Congolese government is ignoring the problem, failing to dialogue with Uganda and officially claiming an extension of its maritime borders with Angola.

The abduction in 2011 of an oil employee in the Virunga Park, in the Kivus, is a reminder that exploration is taking place in disputed areas where ethnic groups are competing for territorial control and the army and militias are engaged in years of illegally exploiting natural resources. Given that the Kivus are high-risk areas, oil discovery could aggravate the conflict. Moreover, confirmation of oil reserves in the Central Basin and the east could feed secessionist tendencies in a context of failed decentralisation and financial discontent between the central government and the provinces.

Poor governance has been the hallmark of the oil sector since exploration resumed in the east and west of the country. Even with only one producing oil company, the black gold is the main source of government revenue and yet, with exploration in full swing, oil sector reform is very slow. Instead of creating clear procedures, a transparent legal framework and robust institutions, previous governments have behaved like speculators, in a way that is reminiscent of practices in the mining sector. Reflecting the very degraded business climate, they have allocated and reallocated concessions and often acted without considering the needs of the local people and international commitments, especially regarding environmental protection.

The official division of exploration blocks includes natural parks, some of which are World Heritage Sites. It also directly threatens the resources of local populations in some areas. Initiatives to promote financial and contractual transparency are contradicted by the lack of transparency in allocating concessions. The state’s failure to adequately regulate the diverging and potentially conflicting interests of companies and poor communities is clearly causing local resentment, which could easily flare up into local violence that could be manipulated.

In a context of massive poverty, weak state, poor governance and regional insecurity, an oil rush will have a strong destabilising effect unless the government adopts several significant steps regionally and nationally to avert such a devastating scenario. Regionally, it should draw on the close support of the African Union (AU) and the World Bank Group to design a management model for cross-border reserves and help facilitate a border demarcation program. Nationally, the government should implement oil sector reform, declare a moratorium on the exploration of insecure areas, especially in the east where the situation is again deteriorating, until these territories are made secure, and involve the provinces in the main management decisions concerning this resource.

Kinshasa/Nairobi/Brussels, 11 July 2012

Op-Ed / Africa

Hungry for Change: The Economics Underlying DR Congo’s Political Crisis

Originally published in African Arguments

At the heart of disenchantment with President Kabila’s government lie deep economic woes.

High taxes. Harassment by the revenue authorities. Lack of a stable exchange rate. Cheap imports from neighbouring countries. Lower demand.

All these factors and more were cited in a 4 November letter sent by the local Federation of Congolese Enterprises (FEC) to Kongo Central province officials, in western Democratic Republic of Congo. The revealing message was informing the authorities of the forthcoming closure of the Bralima brewery, a major employer in the city of Boma.

The concerns raised echo structural problems expressed by other Congo-based businesses contacted by Crisis Group during the past year in Bukavu, Lubumbashi and Kinshasa as well as by the national FEC.

The combination of political uncertainty, predatory state institutions and low commodity prices are contributing to an increasingly toxic situation.

As the DRC’s political crisis deepens – with the official end of President Joseph Kabila’s mandate on 19 December fast approaching – the combination of political uncertainty, predatory state institutions and low commodity prices are contributing to an increasingly toxic situation.

Recent street protests, in which dozens are estimated to have died, have focused on the constitution and delays to the electoral process. But the wish for change, usually focused on Kabila’s failure to improve the lot of ordinary people, has a strong economic sub-text.

Stagnant GDP, Shrinking Budget

Over the last ten years, the government has focused on macro-economic stability and investment in high-profile prestige projects such as Congo Airways, a new government building, airports, and roads in the wealthier parts of Kinshasa. This has done little to alleviate Congo’s deep inequalities. Nevertheless, riding on high mineral prices, Congo’s GDP growth averaged 7.7% from 2010 to 2015.

This year, however, the economy has hit a slump, leading official growth projections to be revised down to 4.3% for 2016, only slightly outpacing demographic growth. This stagnant outlook has seriously affected the already meagre state budget. Over the course of the year, the government lowered spending from $8 billion to $6 billion, though actual expenditure will come in even lower at around $4.5 billion. This leaves very little for new policies or to fund future elections whose cost is estimated at over $1 billion.

In January 2016, then Prime Minister Matata Ponyo announced a package of 28 measures to restructure the economy. In October, the government and parts of the opposition reached an agreement following their National Dialogue to push the presidential election due this year back to 2018. African regional powers quickly backed the deal, and soon afterwards opposition figure Samy Badibanga was appointed prime minister in accordance with the agreement.

But Badibanga will struggle to continue his predecessor’s donor-friendly reform programme at the same time as responding to various political pressures. This is especially the case since the reforms’ impacts – including desperately needed diversification of the mining-dependent economy – will only be felt in the medium-to-long term at best.

Currency Troubles

The economic crisis has also caused a serious depreciation of the Congolese franc (FC). This currency was stable at 920/930 FC per $1 for about three years, but has recently dropped to 1,170 officially, though rates are even lower on the street. Confidence continues to wane amid fears of a return to undisciplined money printing and consequent spiral of inflation.

The Central Bank’s resources to support the franc are also decreasing; foreign reserves are currently estimated at below $1 billion, less than four weeks of imports. Meanwhile, the government has reverted to paying the money it owes large companies in Congolese francs, drawing the ire of the business community.

In October, the government announced measures to cushion the effects of currency depreciation, including reducing import taxes and making available hard currency to import basic foodstuffs such as sugar and palm oil. But their impact is expected to run out in March 2017, after which price evolution will become more uncertain according to businesses consulted by Crisis Group. Fuel prices cause greatest concern; they have been stable due to subsidies and the low international market price, but any rise would have knock-on effects on commodities and urban transport relied on by most city dwellers.

Corruption is also an ongoing drag on the economy. The government’s anti-corruption taskforce, led since June 2015 by a former justice minister, has had little impact, though several high-level cases have recently come to light, including one that touches on election financing.

Former PM Ponyo previously complained that he had no control over large parts of the economy, including the mammoth parastatal mining company Gecamines, and that he had to “navigate crocodile infested waters”. Large-scale corruption scandals damage the economy, though citizens and businesses suggest they are most concerned by the omnipresent, mid-level or “petty” corruption which permeates their daily lives.

Prices Rise, Salaries Fall

With the prices of bread, rice, cornmeal and palm oil rising steadily over the past six months, poorer urban families are seeing their precarious living conditions eroded. A normal loaf of bread still costs 200 FC but now it is much smaller. Households dependent on cornmeal have seen their food expenditure increase by 12%.

Corn is particularly important in southern provinces, where a price spike earlier in 2016 added to local political tensions and led the government to send senior officials to Zambia to try to increase imports. But Congo’s southern neighbours have themselves been hit by a recent drought. In early December 2016, prices increased again.

Education, a cornerstone for social change, is a high priority for the population, but both access and quality have suffered.

The salaries of public servants, except for those in the security services, have declined by 30% since June, typically from the equivalent of $100 to $70. Food allowances were also cut for soldiers. In the private sector, businesswomen called maman ya zando have struggled because of the franc depreciation. Commercial banks contacted by Crisis Group said they have recently seen more small businesses defaulting on debt repayments.

Particularly vulnerable groups such as sex workers, often the sole bread winners for their households, are also feeling the pressure. The numerous, mostly young, street traders selling shoe shines or paper handkerchiefs for 250 FC barely survive in normal conditions. Even a small increase in their costs can push them and their dependents into hunger.

Financial pressure on families also puts the solidarity system within communities under stress, particularly in dealing with illness and schooling. In Ituri, primary school fees have increased dramatically from 1,500 to 5,500 FC for the 2016-2017 school year. The minimum fees in Kinshasa are around $350 per year, an ever-increasing sum in local francs. This has pushed numerous children out of school. Education, a cornerstone for social change, is a high priority for the population, but both access and quality have suffered.

The Economy Turns Political

Economic troubles are gaining political prominence. In a defensive 15 November state of the nation address, President Kabila painted a positive picture of his 15 years in power, but also acknowledged that “the absence of jobs and the resulting idleness obscure future prospects”. He warned that such frustrations should not be used for political ends.

At the start of the school year in September, the opposition platform le Rassemblementattempted to tie the economic and political crises together through actions known as écoles mortes (school boycotts). Many children did stay away from school, partly for fear of violent incidents.

Youth groups, in particular Lutte pour le changement (Lucha), focus on the economy and unemployment, but they too see politics and economics as two sides of the same coin. Initially campaigning for better public services in Goma, they are now focused on protecting the constitution, particularly the provision that the president can only serve two terms.

Students are easily mobilised when confronted with rising costs, such as tuition fees. In early November, a fee increase at a higher education institute in Kinshasa led to violent riots. The measure was quickly reversed and the institute’s director sacked. On 19 November, one month before the end of Kabila’s second term, Lucha in association with other youth platforms launched the new campaign “bye bye Kabila” on social media and on the street, but it was quickly repressed by authorities.

The economic slowdown is most visibly felt in the cities. Illuminating new research shows differences in the evolution of prices across the country, pointing to possible different political reactions in rural areas. This suggests that economic decline will not necessarily lead to more coherent political protest as people are driven first and foremost by survival, something the government is keenly aware of. But as the government’s resources for patronage shrink, things could unravel even in remote areas. New provinces hurriedly established through the breakup of existing provinces (decoupage) in 2015 lack resources, and the appearance of new armed groups in North Kivu and recent violence in Kasai Central province are provoking considerable stress.

Prime Minister Badibanga and his new government have to allay social unrest while funding what will be a costly election process. This may prove a near-impossible task, while the combination of political uncertainty and a major economic recession is creating a dangerous impasse.

The risk is not just an explosion of anger on 19 December when Kabila’s term was supposed to end, but a slow atrophy thereafter.

The risk is not just an explosion of anger on 19 December when Kabila’s term was supposed to end, but a slow atrophy thereafter. A major concern is the funding of salaries and operational expenditure for the army and other security forces. If this significantly deteriorates, it is likely to cause major disorder as was the case in 1991 and 1993.

The population is hungry for change, but is frustrated by the lack of development and socio-economic opportunities, and by the complacency of the governing elite. Economic mismanagement fuelled popular anger during the slow decline of the Mobutu regime in the 1990s.

Political change through elections symbolise hope, and the government and the international community should do all they can to make them happen in the right conditions, with no further undue delay.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Congo
Fellow, ​Central Africa