On March 29, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was admitted to the East African Community (EAC), becoming its seventh member state, alongside Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest country in the bloc with a population of around 90 million. Its inclusion means the EAC now stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, representing a combined economy of 266 million people and a GDP of $243 billion.
Who will benefit from this agreement and why has President Felix Tshisekedi applied for EAC membership when the DRC is already a member of some of the continent’s eight other regional economic communities, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC)?
The primary purpose of regional economic communities is to facilitate regional economic integration among African Union member states, but they are increasingly engaged in areas beyond economic integration, including peace, security and governance.
The 1980 Lagos Action Plan for Africa’s Development and the 1991 Treaty of Abuja proposed creating regional economic communities with a view to regional and eventually continental integration. But they have evolved individually and under different geopolitical circumstances, and thus their roles, capacities and structures differ significantly.
The criteria for admission to the EAC are set out in Article 3 of the founding treaty of the bloc and essentially include sharing a border with an EAC member state and acceptance of the treaty principles. The inclusion of the DRC in the EAC seems long overdue. The country borders five EAC member states and shares ethnic populations, languages and the natural environment with its neighbors. The markets of the Democratic Republic of the Congo account for about 7% of EAC exports and will continue to grow in the coming years.
For the EAC, the admission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo brings considerable economic opportunities. The economy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, was well above the continental average at about 7.7% annually between 2016 and 2021. With a population of 90 million, the country is a valuable marketplace, particularly for Rwanda and Uganda, which are the first and second largest exporters to the DRC in the region, respectively.
The mineral-rich DRC produces 68% of the world’s cobalt, which is used to make batteries, and 30% of the world’s copper, which is used in electric car assembly and renewable energy infrastructure. Along with gold, lithium, uranium and other precious metals, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is positioned to provide the raw materials critical to future technologies and the fourth industrial revolution.
The World Bank argues that DRC, with 80 million hectares of arable land, huge hydroelectric potential and more than 1,100 listed minerals and precious metals, has the potential to become one of the continent’s richest economies if stability problems can be overcome. Consequently, there is a growing list of companies looking for investment opportunities, with Kenyan banks in particular building a strong foothold.
What the Democratic Republic of the Congo can gain
For the DRC, joining the EAC will allow access to the customs union and the bloc’s common market. These are intended as “transitional stages and components thereof, later a monetary union and finally a political federation”.
The EAC Customs Union has successfully created a common customs territory, eliminating internal tariffs and introducing a common tariff for out-of-region imports. The Common Market Protocol has entailed the harmonization of immigration procedures and the waiver of work permit fees in some member states. Today, citizens of East Africa can cross borders with their identity documents, and international tourists only need a visa to travel between countries in the region.
The African Regional Integration Index identifies the EAC as one of the best integrated blocs on the continent, assessed on five dimensions: trade, productive, macroeconomic and infrastructural integration, and free movement (see chart).
But DRC recording also brings major security issues. Eastern DRC is notoriously unstable and home to around 100 rebel groups. Recently, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which have been responsible for some 6,000 civilian deaths since 2013, allied with Islamic State’s West Africa Province, recruiting new recruits from across East Africa and expanding its operational presence in Uganda and Rwanda.
Relations between the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda have been plagued by conflict and distrust, with much of the rebel groups’ activities in the region being a by-product. Rwanda has long been accused of supporting M23 rebels in eastern DRC, allegations that have resurfaced in relation to recent M23 activities.
Strengthening ties between Kigali, Kampala and Kinshasa would have been unlikely a few years ago. As leader of the AU, President Paul Kagame unexpectedly questioned the results of Congo’s contentious 2019 elections, which gave Tshisekedi (backed by former President Joseph Kabila) a victory over opposition coalition candidate Martin Fayulu. But Tshisekedi has met Kagame on several occasions since he came to power, and there has been notable bilateral cooperation on both economic and security issues, perhaps heralding a major political shift in the post-Kabila era.
In 2019, a joint intelligence team was set up to analyze data collected by the two countries fighting the ADF. Two high-profile rebel leaders, Sylvestre Mudacumura and Juvénal Musabimana, were killed in raids by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) with the help of Rwandan intelligence. And last year, following terrorist attacks in Kampala, Uganda’s military deployed alongside FARDC forces in eastern DRC to find and destroy rebel strongholds.
Security risks to regional economic projects can help create a rapprochement between the states that could accelerate the DRC’s integration into the East African Community. The conflict in eastern DRC lies near oil-bearing areas near Uganda’s western border, which Kampala is keen to develop and transport through a proposed new pipeline.
Rwanda will need the resources, markets and access to ports on DRC’s Atlantic coast if it is to overcome its relatively small geographic size and population and become the African powerhouse that Kagame seems to envision for the nation. In recent years, Rwanda has successfully used military diplomacy to support its economic and foreign policy ambitions. Its operations in the Central African Republic and Mozambique have given the appearance of a highly professional military capable of defeating rebel groups.
Is SADC the loser?
But the DRC’s admission to the EAC has raised concerns among some in southern Africa that this development indicates Rwanda’s growing influence as an economic and military power and could result in companies from SADC member states losing investment opportunities in the DRC . The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not the only country that is a member of several regional economic areas. Tanzania is a member of the EAC and SADC, while Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are also members of the East and Southern Africa Common Market.
But integration agendas can differ between blocs, and membership in overlapping customs unions can create problems in setting common external tariffs. This is an issue for the African Continental Free Trade Area to address.
There are additional complications in peace and security issues. Regional economic communities normally take the lead on peace and security issues, in line with the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the AU and sub-regional organizations and the principle of complementarity that governs relations between the AU and regional economic communities.
SADC has deployed troops in eastern DRC since 2013 as part of the United Nations Mission’s Force Intervention Brigade. It is unclear which regional economic communities will ultimately take the lead in solving the major security problems in eastern DRC.
Rwanda’s deployment of troops to Mozambique last year ahead of SADC forces angered some member states by playing off SADC solidarity and influence in Mozambique against unilateral Rwandan interests, further complicating Rwanda-SADC relations.
In the past, SADC has publicly rebuked Rwanda for supporting armed groups in eastern DRC. South Africa, a key SADC actor, expelled Rwandan diplomats in 2014 after attacks on Rwandan exiles and dissidents on South Africa’s borders.
It remains to be seen whether having the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda at the same table will improve cross-border security.