This April, the Democratic Republic of Congo joined the East African Community (EAC).
It effectively became the seventh member of a regional bloc comprising Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.
“The EAC now spans from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean making the region competitive and easy to access the larger African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA),” Peter Mathuki, the body’s secretary-general said at the time.
Beyond trade, a regional collaboration in tackling longstanding conflict in parts of the mineral-rich DRC, especially in its eastern region, is also being touted as one of the reasons for its joining the community.
The current violence in the DRC is partly rooted in the massive refugee crisis and spillover from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After Hutu génocidaires fled to the eastern DRC and formed armed groups, rival Tutsi and opportunistic rebel groups arose, as well.
Unable to defeat the various armed groups – some of which directly threatened neighbouring countries and led to war – the Congolese government sought help from outside the country.
Just weeks after the announcement that DRC was joining the EAC, the body commenced negotiations with dozens of rebel groups in the eastern DRC – including the infamous M23 group – to discuss the terms for an amnesty deal.
Only days before the negotiations, the presidents of Kenya, the DRC, Burundi and Uganda, alongside Rwanda’s foreign minister resolved to form an intervention force to go after those groups who continued fighting, at an EAC summit in Nairobi.
Raymond Tshibanda, former foreign affairs minister in the Joseph Kabila administration and current head of the pro-Kabila opposition platform the Common Front for Congo (FCC), spoke to Al Jazeera on the feasibility of these interventionist efforts and the long-term implications of DRC joining the EAC.
Al Jazeera: So, what are your thoughts now that the DRC has joined the EAC?
Tshibanda: It is a political decision without technical basis, thoughtless, even irresponsible, on the part of a power which does not understand that between states, only interests count; a power that seems more concerned with pleasing the leaders of neighbouring countries than with satisfying the requirements of the security and economic competitiveness of itself.
Like five years ago, insecurity prevails in the DRC region bordering EAC. The plundering of DRC’s natural resources, with the complicity, or for the benefit of certain EAC member states continues unabated. DRC’s infrastructure and industry are less developed than those of most other EAC member states.
Furthermore, DRC’s own budget revenue depends heavily on export taxes.
In short, the economy of the DRC is less competitive and less resilient than that of the EAC, and its member states.
Under these conditions, given the implied removal of tariff barriers and free movement of goods and people within the Community, DRC’s joining of the EAC is unquestionably beneficial for the member states. To name but a few benefits: an instant growth of 90 million new consumers on the EAC domestic market; a drop in the cost price of raw materials from the DRC on the EAC market and a trade increase between the EAC member states.
In the DRC, the expected economic and security benefits of joining the EAC are hypothetical and long-term, while the negative consequences are almost certain and immediate. The same community rules will have rather perverse effects including no progress in industrial development in the face of competition from cheap manufactured goods from the more industrialised EAC member states.
There will be no significant results in the fight against the looting of the country’s natural resources and a drastic drop in customs revenue due to the removal of intra-community tariff barriers.
Ultimately, it will be more difficult to manage security risks for the country due to the visa-free policy between member states, and even worse, the policy of relying on pyromaniacs to help put out the fire they started, and that they work tirelessly to keep burning.
Al Jazeera: During your time as foreign minister, were there opportunities for the DRC to join the EAC bloc?
Tshibanda: Yes. There were not only opportunities but also recurring and pressing invitations to join from member states and the organisation’s secretariat.
In fact, for the EAC, getting the DRC to join the community has been a lifelong dream. Given the natural resource endowment, size of its territory and population, the DRC’s membership of the EAC is seen as a game-changer, for member states and the community.
Al Jazeera: On what grounds did you refuse?
Tshibanda: Mainly for national security and economic reasons. Cost-benefit studies carried out by a multidisciplinary team of Congolese experts from the government and the private sector have clearly established that, for our country, there was, at the time, more to lose than to gain by joining the EAC. Membership was therefore premature and contrary to the interests of the DRC.
Al Jazeera: You mentioned that there is more to lose than to gain by joining the EAC. What does the DRC gain as part of the South African Development Community (SADC) bloc, that is not possible in the EAC?
Tshibanda: Mostly, security and stability. EAC is made up of seven countries, three of which have had to attack the DRC and have maintained rocky relations with her for 25 years.
Alternatively, SADC has always been on the side of the DRC, and militarily supported the latter in the face of the aggression to which it was subjected by the said [EAC] countries in 2018. Later, it helped her neutralise negative forces and armed groups, including the M23, as part of the MONUSCO (The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) intervention brigade.
Al Jazeera: What impact will the DRC’s joining of the EAC have on the country’s relations with the SADC bloc, If any?
Tshibanda: Relations between DRC and SADC countries are historic and indestructible.
These relations are based on the ideology common to all African freedom and emancipation fighters, such as Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda and Sam Mujoma for Southern Africa, and Patrice Emery Lumumba, Mzee Laurent Désiré Kabila and Joseph Kabila Kabange for the DRC. Moreover, they have been cemented in blood, the sons and daughters of SADC having shed their blood to safeguard the territorial integrity of the Congo.
DRC’s joining of the EAC will therefore not substantially alter her relations with SADC. It nevertheless constitutes an additional challenge for DRC leadership as it will have to fulfil sometimes contradictory obligations vis-à-vis two economically and commercially competing regional communities which are at different levels of development.
Al Jazeera: Since you’re not eager to join the bloc, would this affect your working relationship with the bloc if your political party were to win the elections in future?
Tshibanda: Our political mega-structure is not sceptical of regional integration. When we were still in charge of the country, we only thought, and we still think today, that our country was not, and is not ready for a DRC’s win-win joining of the EAC. General conditions permitting, our stand would have been different.
In any case, for my party, the dignity, credibility, and interests of the Congo, as a nation and a state, come first. This means honouring commitments made by any legitimate Congolese government, on behalf of the country.
Moreover, EAC states are sister countries. We are bound to live together, and hopefully live in harmony.
So when our party wins the elections – and I’m sure it will next time – we will meet all of the DRC’s statutory obligations under the EAC charter. We will however ensure that other EAC State Members respectfully their obligations under the same charter and under international law.