Admit the DRC to the East African Community

The East African Community (EAC) should move swiftly to admit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There are substantial challenges to the DRC’s integration. These include domestic problems with infrastructure development and chronic insecurity as well as economic and political squabbles within the EAC itself. These should certainly not be taken lightly. However, the massive potential of the DRC’s population of nearly 87 million people as a market for the EAC’s goods cannot be passed up. The DRC’s inclusion in the EAC has the potential to reverse current negative trends in trade volume with the EAC member states (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda) and the DRC. The DRC may also be a mediator capable of navigating disputes between current member states and would help revitalize the EAC’s commitments to regional integration.

Current State of Affairs

At a summit on February 27, 2021, the heads of state of the EAC instructed the Council of Ministers, the organization’s central decision-making body, to expedite the DRC’s admission. They directed the Council of Ministers to conduct a verification mission in the DRC to ensure it meets the EAC’s criteria for integration. The findings will be presented at the next summit, which has yet to be scheduled. The DRC requested admission to the EAC in June 2019. However, consideration of its request was postponed due to a lack of quorum at the Heads of State Summit scheduled for February 25, 2020.

The DRC’s Motivations for Joining the EAC

Since the beginning of his tenure in late January 2019, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi has, according to observers, focused on building relationships with East Africa more than any other region. Tshisekedi has pushed for reconciliation to calm tensions between Rwanda and Uganda and between Rwanda and Burundi. For Tshisekedi, the promotion of economic exchanges and “integrated development” are critical to successfully resolving security-related disputes. He has emphasized the need for improved cross-border transport mechanisms and energy infrastructure. In contrast to his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, one of Tshisekedi’s top objectives is promoting regional connectivity and trade. Improved trade relations with the EAC are especially critical for the eastern DRC, which relies on East African ports to import goods due to the logistical challenges associated with using the DRC’s distant western ports.

Challenges to the Admission of the DRC

The DRC’s domestic problems are well documented. It places 175th of 189 countries listed on the UN’s Human Development Index Ranking. In addition to widespread poverty, the DRC is battling multiple epidemics, including an Ebola resurgence in North Kivu. Violence between armed groups and against civilians in eastern DRC further undermines stability and standards of living. The poor state of infrastructure throughout the country, particularly its roads, pose a huge challenge to efforts to increase the DRC’s trade with its neighbors. Looming over all these issues is the prospect of a political crisis between Tshisekedi and Kabila as the former moves to consolidate his power and lessen his predecessor’s strong residual influence over key organs of government, the security forces, and the economy.

Some commentators fear that admitting a country with such substantial internal political and economic issues would introduce another “problem child” to the EAC. South Sudan, which joined the EAC in 2016, has struggled to integrate. The country has repeatedly failed to pay its required annual contribution and, in 2020, was over 28 million USD in arrears to the EAC.

There are also issues within the EAC that may hinder the DRC’s integration. Political tensions between current member states coupled with thousands of non-tariff barriers to trade undermine regional economic integration. Kenya and Tanzania have, at varying points, restricted trade in sugar, milk, eggs, wheat, and other goods as well as imposing tit for tat COVID-19 travel restrictions. Over the past few years, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi have traded accusations of one country or another sponsoring subversive political movements. This political friction slowed trade to a “trickle.” Recently, however, relations between the three countries have started to improve. The EAC is also struggling with limited funding and low public awareness of the Common Market Protocol, which was supposed to secure free trade and movement of people throughout the region. This is consistent with what some observers allege is a lack of commitment to regional economic integration from the member states’ leaders.

The EAC Should Move to Admit the DRC Despite Challenges

In August 2020, the East African Business Council (EABC) published a report revealing that trade between most EAC countries and the DRC is in decline. This is, in part, due to trade disputes and political tensions within the EAC. The COVID-19 pandemic and related movement restrictions have further disrupted commerce. Admitting the DRC to the EAC presents an opportunity to reverse this trend and expand the EAC’s export opportunities. The DRC’s population of 87 million presents a massive potential market for the EAC’s goods. However, the EAC currently faces extensive non-trade barriers in the DRC that hamstring efforts to expand imports and exports. Admitting the DRC to the EAC would help reduce some of these barriers and facilitate improved access to markets on both sides of the DRC’s border. Although severe infrastructure challenges remain, the admission of the DRC would help establish a trade corridor across the continent. The integration of the DRC into the EAC would also cause a higher volume of goods to flow through the EAC’s major port cities, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam.

Given the serious issues of poverty and instability along the DRC’s eastern border, the DRC’s incorporation into the EAC and the accompanying increase in trade flows may play a key role in promoting stability in the region. Greater economic integration would help reduce price differences and price volatility among the agricultural products that people in the region depend on.

The admission of the DRC, led by Tshisekedi, may also help to revitalize and reorient the EAC towards its stated goal of regional integration. Tshisekedi has demonstrated his interest in improving economic and political ties with the EAC member states. From within the EAC, he may be able to play a mediating role as other member states work to settle their disputes.  If admitted, the DRC’s status as a member of the Southern African Development Community would help bring the two regional organizations closer together at a time when the continent is looking to implement the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

Joseph Hartung is a Researcher at the HORN Institute.

Photo: DR Congo security agencies at a past public function (Photo Credit: Reuters)

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