By Ignatius Bahizi
I have been following criticisms by various media outlets in connection to the recently announced plan by the government of Uganda to Invest more than USD300 million in the construction of strategic roads in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The Joint investment plan was discussed between president Museveni and his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi last year.
The venture is intended to enhance trade, Investment and security between the communities of both countries.
Sources which were close to the meeting say that the return on investment on those roads is more than 20 percent, a rate that is much higher compared to the 12 percent rate of return condition set by the World Bank in order for it to provide loans for road construction.
Uganda for a fact is not a ‘donor’ country, neither is it a great power nor a regional power eeconomically; however, as a journalist with a focus on the Great Lakes’ region, there is need to applaud this government’s decision because of the interconnectivity of the peoples of the region in almost all aspects of life, whose integration is going to be cemented as a result.
In fact, the investment will come close to solving the mystery of insecurity and economic development in the region.
One of the challenges that regional and UN peace keepers have faced in curbing armed insurgences such as Allied Democratic Forces in that region has been poor roads which hinder their movement.
To those who do not know the DRC, or have only heard about the country through news of conflict, mineral deals or its famous music, there is another angle to know about DRC; it is a country with a very huge investment potential, virgin markets and high purchasing power as a result of its mineral wealth.
The planned roads will facilitate wider access to these markets, and it should be good news for Uganda which is investing heavily in manufacturing and value addition.
The protracted wars that have characterized Eastern DRC for decades have meant little meaningful production in the region mainly because majority of the people have been on the run.
Those still in the country need food and several other essential manufactured goods. Therefore, once security is restored through different interventions including construction of roads, most of the Congolese refugees will return home and spur demand for goods triggering more trade across the region.
Apart from being a reporter on reginal affairs, my village home is a stone throw from the border with DRC, I have first-hand experience of what the two countries mean to each other in terms of trade.
Some towns like Mupaka-Busanza on the Uganda side which was recently elevated to a town council would not have been born if it was not for trade with our DRC neighbours.
In this small town, Ugandan products ranging from fish that comes from 500km away in Lake Victoria, brews, medicines, construction materials and all types of manufactured products are consumed by the Congolese people.
Some Ugandans may also not be aware that parts of North Kivu use the Uganda shilling to transact local businesses!
As I write this piece, Ugandan Matooke from as far as Ntungamo is being sold in Kyengerero Market inside DRC about ten Kilometers from the Bunagana border point.
Other Ugandan agricultural products like dry Cassava from as far as Masindi and Kasese, Chicken, Eggs, Beans, Maize and Rice are sold in Goma city, Rutshuru town, and are taken as far as Bukavu the capital of South Kivu on the shores of lake Kivu.
Mark you; the distance from Ntungamo to Goma is shorter than that from Ntungamo to Kampala.
Ugandan manufactures such as Mukwano will also tell you that a lot of their goods have found a stable market in DRC, but the biggest problem to fully exploit the market has been the challenge of bad roads and insecurity.
A few weeks ago, I went to talk to residents of the border town of Bunagana on the Uganda side about the government plan to contribute to the construction of the roads.
They told me how they spend three days on a 90km distance from Bunagana-Goma to deliver goods from Uganda.
They were all upbeat about the news, and wished this plan had been thought about many years back.
The other issue that came from my interaction with the border traders was insecurity, apparently by armed robbers, and all kinds of militias in the area taking advantage of the poor roads slowing down the trucks resulting into ambushes to rob, kidnap and sometimes kill when they don’t get what they want.
With improved road network, these insecurities will reduce and trade will be more rewarding.
Indeed, we also need more smooth roads internally, however, this does not take away the fact that if Uganda invested in those roads in DRC, the entire economy will benefit enormously.
Finally, another important point to note is that once Uganda government succeeds in those projects, it will also have scored a diplomatic goal considering the previous tainted relationship between the two countries as a result of accusations that Uganda has had a hand in the protracted violence and plunder that have plagued the mineral rich country.
The writer is a Journalist and Student of International Relations