What motivates ties with DRC’s President?

The President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Felix Tshisekedi, visited this week. The visit suggests close ties between Tshisekedi and senior politicians in Kenya – including President Uhuru Kenyatta and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. It is notable that Kenyatta was the only foreign head of state at Tshisekedi’s inauguration. It is also notable that most independent domestic and international observers disputed his election, maintaining that a rival candidate, Martin Fayulu, was the winner. In any case, the transition from Joseph Kabila to Tshisekedi marked the first peaceful transfer of power in the DRC’s post-independence history.

Given the circumstances of Tshisekedi’s election, it is worth asking why we seem to have chosen to strengthen ties with the DRC. What is the main motivation for wanting to strengthen the relationship with Kinshasa? In what specific ways will this further our economic and regional geopolitical interests? And what do our neighbours – particularly Uganda and Rwanda – have to say about the relationship?

Answering these questions is important for two main reasons. First, the DRC is not a paragon of stability and rule of law. Rampant criminality characterises its entire mining sector – including the so-called “formal” sector dominated by multinationals. This means that by investing in closer economic and diplomatic ties with the country, we stand the risk of importing some of this organised criminality into the economy. Such an outcome would be counter-productive to our collective national interest.

Second, as an aspiring leading nation in the region, we have an obligation to be clear about the values that guide our foreign policy. We owe the Congolese people a respectful relationship with their government. But such a relationship must also respect the Congolese people’s popular sovereignty and right to self-determination. As such, we cannot be seen to meddle in the DRC’s domestic politics, or to favour candidates who enter into office under a cloud of electoral malfeasance. The failure to criticise electoral malpractice abroad is a blotch on our record, and may in fact normalise the habit among our own leaders. These two concerns call for further clarification from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the main objectives driving our foreign policy with regard to the DRC.

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It is not lost on keen observers that our relations with our neighbors in the East African Community (EAC) are not at their best at the moment. Uganda abandoned the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and plans to build a pipeline through Kenya, opting instead for Tanzania. As a result, Rwanda is unable to join the SGR link to the Kenyan coast. Meanwhile, in addition to putting breaks on closer trade ties and mobility of human capital within the EAC, Tanzania has been outcompeting us as the preferred route for our landlocked neighbors. Is our failure within the EAC a motivation for our desire for friends further afield? How will the establishment of closer ties with the DRC impact our relations within the EAC? A coherent regional foreign policy agenda must consider these elements of regional ties, and evaluate how they relate with each other.

Finally, it is important to articulate how the relationship with Kinshasa will benefit ordinary Kenyans and not just a few individuals in government with commercial interests in the country. The DRC is the fourth most populous country Africa. As such, it is an enormous potential market for Kenyan exports. In crafting our goals for the relationship, the bottom line should be how we can leverage the relationship (whatever the motivations behind it) to create jobs for our people and foster mutually beneficial people-to-people diplomacy.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

Democratic Republic of CongoDRCFelix TshisekediKen Opalo