Uganda is channeling taxpayer funds into the construction of roads in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But what’s the rationale behind this, and is it related to Uganda’s compensation obligations stemming from the Second Congo War? This report delves into the matter.
When Ugandan troops embarked on a joint military operation at the end of November 2021 along the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, they brought with them an unexpected sight: construction equipment, including excavators, bulldozers, and asphalt machines. The people in the Congo, used to conflict-ridden, pothole-ridden roads in the eastern region, welcomed this development.
However, just a few kilometers across the border, the convoy encountered a major obstacle. The sole wooden bridge over the Semliki River was riddled with holes, rendering it impassable for heavy vehicles. Under the protection of soldiers, the road construction machines were deployed to repair it.
The last time Ugandan troops crossed this border was nearly a quarter-century ago during the Second Congo War (1998-2003). At that time, their entry was unauthorized, aimed at exploiting valuable resources like gold and diamonds. When they eventually withdrew after five years, little remained of the roads and bridges.
Fast forward to the present, Ugandan soldiers have returned to the Congo, this time by invitation. Their mission is to combat the Ugandan Islamist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group, entrenched in this inaccessible border region since 2007. However, their intent is not to harm Congo’s infrastructure but to restore it.
According to a Ugandan army colonel, road repair is a vital component of this military operation. In conflict-ridden eastern Congo, the construction of better roads is crucial for security as many armed groups rely on roadblocks for income. These roadblocks are typically set up on deteriorated bridges or in deep potholes, where trucks can only navigate slowly. Improving the roads could cut off funding to these militias and enhance the armed forces’ ability to reach remote areas.
Better road infrastructure in Congo also benefits Uganda economically. Most of the trucks using Congo’s rugged roads belong to Ugandan logistics firms, often carrying perishable goods like plantains back to Uganda. Improved roads have significantly reduced travel times, making the project valuable for Uganda’s economy.
The relationship between the two countries has been evolving since Congo’s inclusion in the East African Community in April 2022, substantially expanding the bloc’s territory. Congo, a regional economic heavyweight, is both a vast market and rich in raw materials. The East African Community states foresee economic advancement, but a major obstacle is Congo’s limited asphalt road network, spanning only about 3,000 kilometers.
Uganda has committed to aiding Congo in road construction, aiming to enhance trade and double its own exports to the country. This road construction project is part of a broader initiative. DW uncovered a partnership agreement from November 2020 between the Ugandan road company Dott Services and the Congolese state-owned mining company SAKIMA. This partnership, known as “Punia Kasese Mining” (PKM), grants Dott Services a 70% share in lucrative mining concessions in Congo’s Maniema and Ituri Provinces, near the Ugandan border.
Dott Services is not only supplying new mining equipment for these areas but also upgrading local airfields and installing high-voltage lines alongside the new roads to support industrial mining in eastern Congo. Meanwhile, ordinary Ugandans have voiced concerns about insufficient energy supplies for their homes.
Uganda’s funding of infrastructure expansion in Congo has raised questions. In August, the Ugandan government sought a loan of over €500 million ($542 million) from the World Bank to repair roads in the capital, Kampala, igniting debates in Uganda’s parliament. The nation’s high debt raised eyebrows regarding the allocation of tax money to Congo instead of domestic needs.
The backstory reveals Uganda’s financial obligations to Congo, stemming from the Second Congo War. In 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Uganda to compensate Kinshasa for gold, diamonds, and timber taken during the conflict. The ICJ set the compensation at $325 million, paid in five annual installments, including $225 million for personal injury, $40 million for property damage, and $60 million for plundered resources.
This compensation, which coincidentally matches the projected cost of Congo’s roads, raised speculation about a clandestine arrangement. Rumors circulate that compensation funds will be funneled into road construction, a purported deal engineered by Caleb Akandwanaho, known as Salim Saleh, brother of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and a key figure during the Second Congo War.
While Uganda promptly transferred the first installment in September 2022, Congo’s justice minister confirmed receipt, emphasizing its long-term benefit for war victims. Nevertheless, concerns remain about the establishment of a victims’ fund in Congo and the actual allocation of funds.
The ICJ encouraged Congolese authorities to invest the money in projects benefiting affected communities, potentially including infrastructure projects.
Dott Services, Uganda’s largest road construction company, took on the challenging task of road construction in Congo. Speculations about the contract’s award have circulated in Ugandan media, with theories ranging from political connections to corruption. Nevertheless, the company was the sole bidder during the tendering process in November 2020 due to a lack of competition during a strict COVID-19 lockdown and economic difficulties.
Under the contract, Dott Services will expand 1,200 kilometers of highways along three key cross-border trade routes, with two construction phases planned. Funding will come largely from loans, recouped through a toll system. The total cost, initially set at $335 million, has already risen to $500 million, partly due to delays in the conflict-stricken 100-kilometer stretch from Bunagana to Goma.
Dott Services reported receiving approximately $66 million from Uganda’s Transport Ministry and an equivalent amount from Congo’s Infrastructure Ministry, in addition to Uganda’s compensation payment. Uganda’s Finance Ministry clarified that the “modalities” of compensation payments are still under negotiation, as the compensation received by Congo and the road construction costs are similar.
The second installment of the ICJ-mandated compensation is due in September. Uganda has affirmed its commitment to fulfilling its obligations. However, amid improved diplomatic relations, Uganda seeks to renegotiate the “method of payment,” possibly aiming to include infrastructure repair as part of the compensation.