DR Congo’s business dreams flatlined by violence
The question is so absurd that Butembo’s deputy mayor misses a beat before answering. What is the town’s unemployment rate?
“Unemployment is the norm around these parts,” says Godefroid Kambere Matimbya. “There aren’t any businesses.” Butembo is no ghost town, but a city of 1.1 million in Democratic Republic of Congo’s restive North Kivu province.
Fabled for its natural riches, the lush east of the country abounds in forests, lakes, farmland and mineral-packed peaks. For many, its wealth is its curse.
“Nothing has gone right for the past 10 years or so” in Butembo, Kambere says. In fact, for the past two decades rival armies and insurgents have ripped through North Kivu, fighting each other, stealing resources, uprooting and killing civilians in their wake.
Butembo-”the city of ficus trees” in Kinande, the language of the local Nande ethnic groupwas once known for its coffee farming and a cornucopia of worldly goods. Electrical appliances, clothing, shoes: the coveted foreign items used to draw shopkeepers from neighboring provinces in one of the world’s least developed countries. Today it would be too dangerous for traders to travel the roads to Butembo.
Butembo also once boasted an industrialscale factory, the Cobeki soft drinks maker.
But it went out of business in the transitional period between DR Congo’s second civil war (1998-2003) and its 2006 elections.
Living ‘by the grace of God’
The period that followed, in the wake of President Joseph Kabila’s election, has not treated the region any better. Around 700 people have been killed, mostly hacked to death, in attacks since October 2014 around Beni, its neighboring city to the north.
Beni, now a shell of a city, no longer buys Butembo’s goods. “The people have been run out of the fields, and now must live by the grace of God,” Kambere says.
“Insecurity is the big problem,” says Butembo’s Polycarpe Ndivito Kikwaya, president of the local branch of the Congolese Business Federation. Foreign goods do still make it to Butembo although only in “very, very small” numbers, shipped to the Kenyan port of Mombasa and then transported via Uganda. But with the insecurity, “buyers no longer come since they are afraid of being robbed” along the way, he explains. Strangely, it is the period of civil war from the late 1990s that fires up economic nostalgia. Butembo then was the stomping ground of the RCD/K-ML, a militia group backed by neighbouring Uganda. “Business was good,” recalls Elie Kwiravusa, a member of Butembo’s Civil Society Coordination grouping of local citizens. “During the rebellion, we could trade goods,” he says. “The rebellion was profitable for people”-unlike today, he adds. —AFP