When Ugandan troops marched on the border of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the end of November 2021, the Congolese were astonished. Shovel excavators, bulldozers and asphalt machines were delivered between the already-expected war equipment. People even cheered and clapped. The sight of such machines is a rarity in the Congo’s conflict-ridden eastern region, which is covered in muddy, potholed roads.
Just a few kilometers across the border, however, the whole convoy came to a standstill. The only wooden bridge over the Semliki River was full of holes — impassable for heavy vehicles. So, under the protection of the soldiers, the road construction machines set about repairing it.
Ugandan troops had last crossed this border almost 25 years previously. Back then — in the midst of the 1998 to 2003 Second Congo War — they illegally invaded Congo to plunder valuable raw materials, such as gold and diamonds. When the Ugandans finally withdrew after five years, there was not much left of the roads and bridges.
But this time, the soldiers are here at the invitation of Congo. Their goal is to defeat the Ugandan Islamist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group has been entrenched in the impassable border area since 2007. And now, the Ugandans don’t want to destroy Congo’s infrastructure — they want to rebuild it.
“Reparing the roads is an essential part of the military operation,” a Ugandan army colonel told DW.
Security in eastern Congo’s conflict zones can only be achieved through the construction of better roads, explains Kristof Titeca, a professor in development studies at the University of Antwerp.
“Roadblocks are an important source of income for these armed groups,” he told DW.
These roadblocks are usually erected on dilapidated bridges or deep potholes, where trucks can only be balanced slowly. On the one hand, better roads could be used to cut off the flow of money to the militias. At the same time, it will make it easier for the armed forces to intervene in difficult-to-reach areas.
“Many call [eastern Congo] a safe haven for armed groups, because there’s very little state presence and there’s very bad infrastructure. All of these makes it very difficult for state armed forces to intervene and take action. So, the building of roads indeed would facilitate that,” said Titeca.
Better roads in Congo are also beneficial for Uganda’s economy, says Susan Kataire, spokesperson for Uganda’s Ministry of Transport. Most of the trucks on Congo’s bumpy roads are from Uganda’s logistics companies, which often carry perishable goods such as plantains to Uganda.
“It takes them a long time to reach (Uganda), so they make a lot of losses,” Kataire told DW. “The stretch between Kasindi and Beni has greatly been improved and I am told that a journey that used to take people three hours is now only 40 minutes. That’s how beautiful this project is.”
From old enemies to new friends?
A lot is changing quickly — especially since Congo joined the East African Community (EAC) in April 2022, effectively doubling the territory of the bloc in one fell swoop.
Congo is an economic heavyweight in the region. On the one hand it is a huge sales market, as it produces very little itself. But on the other hand, it is rich in raw materials such as rare earth elements, which have to pass through neighboring countries to reach the global market.
There are also a number of oil reserves lying dormant along the border with Uganda, which — if all goes to plan — will be pumped to the world market via the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which is currently under construction. With all of this combined, the EAC states expect economic advancement.
But there is one obstacle: The sheer scale of Congo — a country roughly the size of Western Europe. It has an asphalt road network of approximately just 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) — a major factor as to why trade is not gaining momentum in the region.
Enter Uganda, which has pledged to help Congo with road construction. The government in Kampala also hopes that its “strategic” project will help double its own exports to the country.
DW research shows that the road construction project is actually part of a larger project. DW has been given access to a partnership agreement from November 2020, in which the Ugandan road company Dott Services and the Congolese state-owned mining company SAKIMA commit to a joint venture dubbed “Punia Kasese Mining” (PKM), in which Dott Services will hold 70% of the shares.
This gives the Ugandan company access to lucrative mining concessions in Congo’s Maniema Province and also in Ituri Province — right on the border with Uganda and on the exact location where Ugandan troops raged during the Second Congo War, drawn by rare earth elements such as tin and tantalum.
According to the document, Dott Services will not only supply new mining equipment for this area, but will also tar the local airfields. High-voltage lines will be built parallel to the new roads in order to boost industrial mining in eastern Congo.
Ordinary Ugandans meanwhile say they don’t have sufficient energy supplies for their homes.
$325 million in compensation
The fact that Ugandan taxpayers’ money is now being used to expand infrastructure in Congo has raised questions on both sides of the border.
In August, the Ugandan government again asked the World Bank for a loan of over €500 million ($542 million) to repair the dilapidated roads in the capital Kampala. Uganda’s parliament has been debating the Congo issue for a long time. After all, the national debt is already too high. So why would Uganda invest its tax money in neighboring Congo’s roads and not its own?
Rumors of a “controversial deal” are swirling. So, DW investigated.
The background: Uganda owes Congo money — a lot of money. In 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which regulates disputes between states, ordered Uganda to pay compensation to Kinshasa for the gold, diamonds and timber stolen during the Second Congo War.
The exact compensation amount would be negotiated bilaterally. Initially, Kinshasa demanded over $10 billion. But Uganda argued that such a large sum would ruin the country and refused. So, Congo returned to The Hague in 2015 and in February 2022, the ICJ case was settled on $325 million as compensation — the highest in the history of international justice.
And to ensure that Uganda didn’t go bankrupt, the court determined that the sum would be paid in five annual installments of $65 million. The breakdown of the full sum includes: $225 million for personal injury, $40 million for property damage and $60 million for the plundered resources.
The first installment from Uganda now corresponds approximately to the amount that is planned as the Congolese contribution to the joint road construction project. And the total amount of compensation is almost equivalent to the total cost of Congo’s roads. Is it a coincidence?
In this context, Uganda’s Daily Monitor reported on a secret deal, according to which the compensation money will ultimately be invested in road construction. This agreement was allegedly engineered by Caleb Akandwanaho, better known as Salim Saleh — the brother of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.
According to a report by United Nations (UN) investigators, he was a general in the Second Congo War and commanded the large-scale looting by Ugandan troops. Has he once again now ensured that the compensation payments benefit his own county?
Just in time for the agreed date of September 1, 2022, Uganda transferred the first installment to Kinshasa. Congo’s Justice Minister Rose Mutombo confirmed that the money was deposited in an account of the ministry and should benefit the war victims in the long term. There has long been a discussion about a victims’ fund in Congo that would also provide individual benefits. But so far, nothing has been paid out.
In its ruling, the ICJ said it “encourages” Congolese authorities to invest the money in projects that benefit affected communities “as a whole.” For example, in infrastructure.
Risky road projects in a war zone
Dott Services is based on the top of one of the numerous hills in Kampala. It is Uganda’s largest road construction company and has previously paved roads in Tanzania and South Sudan.
But the company boss openly admits that its assignment in Congo is its most expensive and risky to date. The director declined to give an official interview. But he was willing to provide background information to clear up the rumors.
Ugandan media is speculating over how Dott Services got the contract worth a total of $335 million in the first place. From ties to Uganda’s presidential family to corruption: All kinds of theories have been suggested.
But as both Dott Services and Uganda’s Ministry of Transport confirm to DW: The company was the only one of its kind to pass the tendering process in November 2020. Amid a strict COVID-19 lockdown and faltering economy, there was simply no competition at the time.
According to the contract signed between Uganda and Congo, Dott Services is now preparing to expand 1,200km-worth of highways along three important cross-border trade routes.
Two construction phases are planned: First, the routes will be levelled out and expanded to four lanes. Second, the asphalt layer will be added. It has been agreed between the states that each will contribute 20% of the total cost, which is intended to cover the first phase.
Dott Services will finance much of the project through loans, the expenses of which are to be recouped in the long-term via a toll system. In other words, use of the road will be subject to a fee.
The company admitted to DW that the total cost has already increased to $500 million and is likely to continue to rise. The reason: A delay on certain sections of the route. The approximately 100km stretch runs from the border town of Bunagana to the provincial capital Goma — right through the middle of the conflict zone.
Just days after Dott Services deployed new construction equipment at the border post in June 2022, March 23 Movement (M23) rebels captured the area. The border — and the most important trading hub between Uganda and Congo — has been closed since. with bulldozers still stationary today on the Ugandan side of the border, driving up costs every day.
Dott Services confirmed to DW that Uganda’s transport ministry transferred approximately $66 million to the company in October 2021. Congo’s infrastructure ministry paid the same amount from its own budget. In other words, it’s not just using the money that Uganda transferred to Congo’s justice ministry as part of the compensation deal.
When asked whether this rate would be considered part of the compensation amount, Uganda’s transport ministry spokesperson Susan Kataire told DW: ” This is a different arrangement. It has nothing to do with the compensation at all.”
However, Uganda’s finance ministry emphasized that the “modalities” of the compensation payments are still being negotiated. After all, Congo receives $60 million in compensation from Uganda and spends $65 million on roads — so the actual contribution to its overall national budget is small.
The second installment of the sum determined by the ICJ is due at the beginning of September. “We will fulfill our obligations,” Jim Mugunga, spokesperson for Uganda’s finance ministry told DW.
But against the backdrop of the “new good relations,” Uganda hopes that Congo will be willing to negotiate the “method of payment.” In other words, Uganda apparently actually hopes that the repaired infrastructure will be considered as part of the compensation.
This article was originally published in German.
Adapted by Ineke Mules
Edited by Benita van Eyssen