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We don’t have to sneak into DRC anymore, so let us learn French, By Joachim Buwembo

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Just as we started mimicking some French phrases ahead of our acquiring French visas for next year’s Olympics, authorities in Kinshasa and Kampala last week announced visa-free travel between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo!

So learning French has become even more urgent for Ugandans, as crossing to DRC is more realistic than flying to France; you just drive a car or board a truck.

Moreover, besides going to DRC being economically and socially more beneficial than going to France, the French you speak in Kinshasa doesn’t have to be half as good as that in Paris. Congo French is as atrocious as Congo Kiswahili to a connoisseur’s ear. But it is French all the same, far better than our no French.

The White Fathers (Peres Blancs) couldn’t make French popular here because the English-speaking British won the ultimate prize of being Uganda’s colonisers, and so the country couldn’t become Catholic territory. However, some very old Ugandans still call Sunday “Dimansi,” their way of pronouncing Dimanche.

Besides the greeting “Bonjour”, another “French” word or name most Ugandan know, but which cannot resonate with any French ear, is “Mapeera”, the first our grandparents heard when the first Catholic missionary landed by canoe from Tanganyika on February 17, 1879.

The 26-year-old Rev Fr Simeon Lourdel was being addressed as Mon Pere – My Father — by his assistant Bro Delmas Amans. So, Ugandans simply called the pioneer Catholic missionary Mapeera — guavas — which were planted in plenty around Catholic missions.

Next June 3, if you are among the million pilgrims coming from all over Africa to Kampala for Martyr’s Day, you now already know that the imposing white building in the city centre by that name is in honour of that religious young Frenchman who recruited, trained and led the famous 22 Uganda Martyrs.

For Mapeera’s everlasting presence in Uganda (even the country’s largest banking chain, Centenary Bank, was started by the Catholic church he established here), and our newfound love for athletics, over which we hope to brag in France next year, shouldn’t blind us to the bigger reason we have to learn French. We are talking of the opportunities that come with freely accessing DRC.

By the way, many Ugandan men living near the DRC border have been living a blissful double life of having a wife on either side. But still, they have to illegally cross the border every other day, because the cheapest visa costs $50, and to get a visa in the first place you need a passport, which most of our polygamists don’t have. Imagine having to sneak out to go to your family home!

This is very serious by the way — having two farms in two different countries, and if you have only one farm, chances are that it is in DRC while your first wife and family are in Uganda.

It is serious because a lot of the food eaten in the densely populated southwestern Uganda and even up to Kampala is grown in farms in DRC, which belong to Ugandan families.

Many Ugandans in Kampala, who don’t know this, wonder why their government invests in securing peace in eastern DRC – and wonder loudly even as they enjoy French(!) fries from potatoes grown on the other side by our Congolese wives, cheaply.

Uganda enjoys a huge trade balance with DRC, thanks to our infant industries exporting domestic consumables and building materials.

For some not-so-obvious reasons, though, Congolese men haven’t expressed that much interest in Ugandan women. Economists are yet to figure out in whose favour this non-monetary trade imbalance is.

The exception here is the few migrant male musicians settled in Kampala, who probably do it to sort out their immigration issues. Of recent, the most sought-after guitarist in Kampala has been Monsieur Charmant (Mr Charming). May we get more of his like now that they don’t have to hide from our immigration officers!

Ugandan ladies have to brace for some serious competition, though, to be posed by low-maintenance sisters from across, in abundant numbers. In my neighbourhood, our local carpenter, a man of very modest means, is married to one and she makes neck turns wherever she passes. Let us pray for domestic peace, as our wealthy guys rush to learn some romantic French phrases.

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:buwembo@gmail.com

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How South Africa, US elections could shape Tshisekedi’s bread in Kinshasa, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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The conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the future of the giant country, and that of President Felix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa could be dramatically altered by two distant elections. The first is South Africa’s May election, and the second is the US presidential vote in November.

A region already in turmoil was plunged into a new crisis when the M23 rebels returned to war after a nine-year hiatus, blaming Kinshasa for reneging on the terms of the political settlement that ended the fighting over a decade ago and for the persecution of the Kinyarwanda-speaking people of the country. That persecution has, in recent months, become a full-on ethnic cleansing campaign.

The M23 has since had its tail high, with a string of military victories that have seen it capture swathes of territory. The long-running, largely ineffective UN peacekeeping force, Monusco, which failed to pacify the region, has begun a phased withdrawal, in the face of popular Congolese anger against it.

The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) was bedevilled by the murkiness of Congolese politics and retreated at the end of 2023 after barely a year.

In Kinshasa, the war rhetoric and accusations and attacks against Rwanda for backing M23 — a charge Kigali denies — has reached fever-high, with President Tshisekedi threatening to march into Rwanda.

That has further inflamed sentiments against Congolese Tutsi, with daily reports and social media videos of lynchings. It also seems to have driven the Kinshasa government into a deeper alliance with FDLR, the largest of the 120 rebel groups in eastern DRC, which comprises elements blamed for the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, and who fled and set up shop in eastern DRC after their defeat by the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).

 

In recent weeks, a force from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has stepped in to help the Kinshasa government. Anchored by South Africa, which plans to have nearly 3,000 troops, it is looking to defy an inescapable trend of the past 60 years: Every foreign force has, in the end, lost its shirt in Congo.

Two South African troops have already been lost in shelling of their camp by the M23, and the rebels are alleged to have shot at one of its helicopters.

The two main opposition parties in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance (DA), seen as a largely white party, and radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema, have both been very critical of South Africa’s return to the Congo war theatre. They argue that the South African Defence Forces is a shambles, and the money spent on the DRC intervention would be better invested back home in an economy with the highest unemployment in Africa.

Three months before the election, most polls and analyses project that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) could have its worst performance at the ballot since 1994, when it won power following the end of apartheid.

While it could still win the most votes, it will be less than 50 percent, which will force it to govern as a coalition with parties that oppose its DRC project. A South African withdrawal, or significant cutback, would all but collapse the mission unless Tanzania steps up to the plate.
That is unlikely — at least not until after the October 2025 election. Tanzania, after all, did not join the ill-fated EACRF mission.

A lot would then rest on the US position. The US has flip-flopped on the eastern DRC conflict, bouncing between criticising Rwanda for alleged support of the M23, scolding Kinshasa for aggravation, and playing mediator.

In recent weeks, though, it has cosied up to Tshisekedi, and even briefly whitewashed the FDLR, calling it simply a “negative force,” a move from its previous categorization of it as a terrorist organisation, which seemed to sweep its genocide credentials under the carpet.

Scrambling to stem the shock, the US representative at the United Nations in New York, quickly put the FDLR back into the “terrorist organisation” box.

Regional analysts in East Africa, and many people in Rwanda, think Washington’s posture in DRC is driven by the need to get a slice of its vast precious mineral resources.

They specifically point to the heavily US-backed Lobito Corridor, a 1,344-kilometre railway project linking the Angolan port of Lobito to DRC through Zambia, through several large mineral deposits.

It is also a foil to China’s Road and Belt and would checkmate rival Russia’s further advance towards Southern Africa through a Central African corridor.

Many opinion polls, most of them admittedly shabby, have former US President Donald Trump, who will be the Republican candidate, leading incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden. Trump is an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin and will dismantle many of Biden’s sanctions against Russia, imposed after it invaded Ukraine two years ago. He is unlikely to put a premium on the Lobito Corridor, as Biden has.

But, most of all, Trump, wearing his racist cap, didn’t—and won’t—give a hoot about Africa, and will not lose sleep over the DRC.

With the ANC humiliated at the polls and Biden defeated, the geopolitical dynamics that Tshisekedi has exploited against both M23 and Rwanda could disappear. He could be on the run. M23 would get a leg up and, if took most of eastern DRC, it could well finally seek autonomy.

Or Biden could win, as the more thoughtful American pollsters and commentators predict. And the ANC could lose.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3

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Strengthening the state in Somalia, By Chris Oberlack

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In Somalia, the decade-long partnership between the government, the World Bank, and the UN demonstrates how collaboration between humanitarian and development actors is critical to state-building and delivering tangible support to citizens.

Since the collapse of the state three decades ago, Somalia continues to face significant challenges, including high levels of conflict and violence, an unfinished political settlement, weak government institutions, recurrent crises, and significant levels of socioeconomic exclusion.

Today, over 70 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, and approximately a third require humanitarian assistance. In this context, an important factor in the success of this partnership has been the ability to maintain a shared strategic objective to build a more stable and visible state that delivers for Somalis, while strengthening resilience to overcome crises and helping the country address the drivers of fragility that undermine peace and development.

The partnership between the government, UN and World Bank provides support to those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, while building the capacity of the state to administer and deliver predictable support across the country.

Joint priorities focus on strengthening human capital and enhancing resilience. The key challenge is how to strike the right balance between addressing the vast immediate needs today, and building sustainable country systems and institutions that can last for the long term.

Over the past decade, this partnership has evolved significantly. While many actors channelled short-term assistance outside of state institutions, since the adoption of a provisional constitution in 2012 this partnership deliberately focused on long-term support to Somali government institutions.

This helped pave the way for the debt relief process through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, which led to increased development assistance in 2020 through financing from the International Development Association (IDA).

However, the debt relief process coincided with a confluence of shocks – Covid-19, a desert locust outbreak, and heavy floods – that deepened socioeconomic challenges. IDA re-engagement therefore brought crucial development financing to Somalia to complement humanitarian assistance.

In addition, IDA grants enabled the Government to scale-up ‘people-centred’ support and strengthen the capacity, visibility, and presence of the state. Given that the majority of Somalia’s population has grown up without functioning state institutions, this approach has been important to help mend a fractured social contract.

In practice, this means that for several projects, IDA resources have been channelled through the Government to UN agencies and NGOs to deliver World Bank-financed operations. Through this unique approach, the Bank provides predictable development financing and strengthens the Government’s ability to manage a growing development portfolio and respond to shocks.

It leverages the operational presence and capacity of UN agencies to deliver assistance to communities on the ground. This partnership model, representing approximately a quarter of the World Bank’s $2.3 billion portfolio in Somalia, extends across six operations.

For example, the $418 million World Bank-funded “Baxnaano” Project has provided predictable cash transfers to 200,000 families in Somalia with the support of UN agencies. Through the project, WFP delivers emergency cash transfers in response to shocks and Unicef helps build social protection systems that are essential for direct government management of safety net programs in the future.

The Somalia Urban Resilience Project, in collaboration with United Nations Office for Project Services (Unops) and Internal Organisation for Migration (IOM), strengthens local government systems to support service delivery and resilient infrastructure in urban areas, including those hosting internally displaced people. Several other projects, ranging from crisis recovery to health and social protection, also use this operational partnership.

Though there have been challenges in operationalising this approach, collaboration across these sectors is critical to enhance the Government’s capacity to administer services for its citizens moving forward.

Through a joint liaison function, supported by the UN Partnership Facility under the Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund and the World Bank’s Somalia Multi-Partner Fund, this partnership has also helped advance the strategic dialogue on shared priorities and ensure close coordination on security and political developments.

The experience in Somalia underscores how operational partnerships can advance the strategic vision to build a more capable state that delivers services for its citizens in a complex FCV context. While there is still a long way to go, the last decade and recent achievements, including the completion of the debt relief process, have shown that significant progress can be made if the Government and international partners align strategic priorities and financing.

Looking ahead, an approach anchored in government leadership and impact-driven partnerships must continue to support Somalia’s state-building journey.

Building on the lessons learned from this partnership – including as part of the World Bank’s new country strategy for Somalia – will be crucial to continue building government institutions, strengthening intergovernmental relations, enhancing resilience to crises, and providing access to basic services to millions of Somalis.

Importantly, this can also provide a roadmap for how governments, the World Bank, and the UN can come together to deliver in other fragile and conflict-affected settings.

Chris Oberlack is UN-World Bank Liaison Officer and Miguel de Corral is Senior Operations Officer, FCV Group, World Bank

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