What Happens When the Sleeping Giant of Congo Awakes

Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo

AFRICANGLOBE – At first it might not look like it, but the exchanges between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s Renaissance Dam that the region witnessed these past weeks, tell us a lot about the tensions defining what the East African Community will look like in the years to come.

The dam on the River Nile, which Addis Ababa projects will cost $4.7 billion, will produce 6,000 Megawatts of power when fully developed, making it the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and the 14th largest in the world.

Egypt, which has in the past threatened to go to war over its “rights” to the Nile’s waters, issued a stern warning.

Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Bahaa-Eddin, arguing that the intended dam would divert 74 billion cubic metres of Nile water stored behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, said, “We are living in an era of water shortage and we will not allow any reduction of Egypt’s share of the Nile water (which is 55.5 billion cubic metres),” he said.

“Life in Egypt depends on the Nile, water is a national security matter for us and we will never relent on this issue.”

Last week, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy said he did not want war but would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered. He said that he was keeping “all options open.”

“As president of the republic, I confirm to you that all options are open,” he said. “If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt… If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”

Ethiopia, as stubborn a country as there can ever be, responded in kind to Morsi three days later. Its parliament unanimously endorsed the new Nile River Co-operative Framework Agreement, an accord already signed by five other Nile-Basin countries — Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi.

With that, it effectively replaced the 1929 treaty between Britain and Egypt that gave Cairo veto power over any project involving the Nile by upstream countries and gave it and Sudan the lion’s share of the river’s waters.

On the same day, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni backed Ethiopia, and said Egypt should stop trying to block other African countries from exploiting the Nile waters.

Last week, Egypt stopped the sabre-rattling and took the diplomatic road, sending Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr to Addis Ababa for talks that, both sides said, were “productive.”

These tensions over the River Nile, however, are just a small part of bigger forces pushing and pulling to determine the economic and political shape of not just East Africa and the Horn, but also Central and Southern Africa.

This was not temporary insanity on Egypt’s part. The Nile is critical for Egypt because it actually lives and dies by it. It is the country’s sole source of fresh water, and it would be imperilled, given its population of 83 million (which continues to grow), if the amount of Nile water it receives dropped off considerably.

However, Ethiopia has an even larger population than Egypt, at 90 million, and it too is growing quickly. Ethiopia in the past 15 years had remade itself from a country where millions starved to death, largely by exploiting the Nile waters for irrigation, and is building itself into a rising energy power in Africa by ramping up the building of dams.

Important as the River Nile is, it would not be a matter of life and death were one of Africa’s richest rivers, the River Congo in the Democratic of Congo (DR Congo) producing electricity.

The planned Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River will not only be nearly seven times bigger than the Renaissance Dam, it will be almost double the size of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in China, which is currently the world’s biggest hydroelectricity plant.

DR Congo’s Inga dam has the potential to supply Egypt, Ethiopia, and half of Africa, with their electricity needs, making the brinkmanship over the Nile unnecessary. The problem is that DR Congo has been notoriously unstable and in haemorrhage.

And its instability has posed serious security problems for East African Community states like Rwanda and Uganda, which in turn have got into international trouble by getting themselves sucked into the rebellions in eastern DR Congo over the years.

Regional Dynamics

Any understanding of the future of the region, therefore, needs to also explore how the various economic, political and social forces active in its western, northern, and coastal magnetic points are playing out.

Indeed, there is a lot happening in these magnetic points. In the past few months, East Africa has seen a flurry of furious deal-signing of mega-infrastructure projects, the scale of which was unimaginable just a decade ago.

There’s the $25 billion LAPSSET (Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor), poised to open up Kenya’s arid and largely forgotten north, tap into oil reserves in northern Kenya and South Sudan, and provide Ethiopia with a second link to the sea (apart from the port of Djibouti).

Even before the ink had dried on the LAPSSET deal, Tanzania announced an even bigger project — the $32 billion Mwambani Port and Railway Corridor (Mwaporc) in the Tanga region, which will consist of a deep sea port as well as a new standard gauge railway that will link the Uganda and the DR Congo to the Indian Ocean through Tanzania.

Though that seemed a huge undertaking, there was more to come: In May this year, Tanzania signed a $11 billion deal with China to set up another port at Bagamoyo, just north of Dar es Salaam. The port at Bagamoyo will have the biggest capacity in the region, able to handle 20 million containers a year, compared with Mombasa’s current 800,000 and Dar es Salaam’s 550,000 containers a year.

On a single day in March last year, three countries in the wider East African region announced discoveries of oil and gas — Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique — joining Uganda on the list of potential oil and gas exporters.

With this frenzy, clearly the shape of the regional economic bloc will be remade, depending partly on which of these initiatives come on line first, and succeed.

Part Two