01 March 2014, Kinshasha – The row over how to patch up the severed highway was heating up. With truck crews close to blows over who should lay the massive rocks into the mud that had halted traffic for a week, one driver pinned the blame on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) highest authority.
“The road is rotten! Congo is rotten! Can’t you see it? If the president was here right now, I would be kicking him,” the man said bitterly before returning to the quagmire to pacify his colleagues.
Decaying infrastructure is a fact of life across DRC, the legacy of multiple wars and a chronic lack of investment. But the condition of the R617 highway in the southern province of Katanga, as well as recurrent cholera epidemics, seems grotesque given the region’s lavish natural resources.
Katanga, a province the size of Spain, holds many of DRC’s reserves of copper, cobalt and other valuable minerals. Scores of trucks thunder daily along its few paved roads laden with metals bound for export and shipping through Durban and other distant ports. However, few of the many millions of dollars in taxes paid by mining companies to DRC authorities are invested in Katanga’s economic or social development, leaving swathes of the population mired in poverty.
400,000 displaced by armed rebellion
The disconnect has fanned political tension between Katangan leaders and the central government in faraway Kinshasa. It has also fuelled an armed rebellion in the mountainous centre of the province that has displaced up to 400,000 people and prompted the UN to declare a humanitarian crisis in the region.
Ibond Rupas Anzam, director of an NGO promoting regional development in DRC, said central governments had traditionally devoted few resources to development anywhere in the country. Corruption, embezzlement and poor allocation have further diminished the impact of those meagre budgets.
The International Monetary Fund on 25 February urged the government to foster “inclusive growth” in the economy, which is expanding at a rate of more than 8 percent annually, and spend more on education, health and basic infrastructure.
In Katanga, both provincial and the national authorities have shown “some willingness” to improve things, Anzam said, pointing to road projects in and around the major towns. Provincial officials say some indicators, including school attendance rates, are improving from a low base.
“But in rural areas, kids are learning and teachers teaching in conditions that would make you cry,” Anzam said. “If you see the extent of what has been done so far compared to the overall needs, it is really insignificant.”
Like the roads, Katanga’s railways are in a lamentable state. Regular trains once enabled rural farmers to supply towns such as Lubumbashi and Kalemie. Today, those services have broken down, and there is little incentive for farmers to produce more than they consume themselves, Anzam said. As a result, Katanga’s urban population has become dependent on maize flour imports from neighbouring Zambia.
Subsistence farming leaves rural families vulnerable to external shocks such as drought, disease or unrest, including the mass displacement caused by the secessionist militias operating in central Katanga’s so-called “Triangle of Death”.
“Everyone hopes for stability in this zone, which doesn’t deserve this fate,” said Amadou Samake, head of the Katanga office of the World Food Programme, which is distributing rations to the displaced. “It is a (potentially) rich zone, quite fertile for agriculture.”