The Democratic Republic of Congo has joined the East African Community (EAC) as its seventh member, massively expanding the territory of the trade bloc, giving it access to the Atlantic Ocean and greatly increasing the numbers of French speakers in what began as a club of former British colonies.
What changes immediately?
EAC heads of state have approved the admission of DR Congo into the bloc at a summit meeting on Tuesday, but although it officially has become a member, not much can change straight away.
Congolese lawmakers still have to ratify the EAC laws and regulations before they come into effect.
Congolese citizens wishing to visit the other member countries – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda – without a visa may need to wait a little longer because full integration into the EAC could take months or even a year.
For example, South Sudan took four months from acceding to the community treaty in April 2016 to becoming a full member of the EAC in August that year.
Why does DR Congo want to join the EAC?
DR Congo applied for membership in 2019, hoping to improve trade and political ties with its East African neighbours.
It will allow Congolese citizens to travel freely to the other countries and trade will become much quicker, simpler and cheaper, which should benefit businesses and consumers in all countries.
The country shares borders with all EAC members except Kenya, and hopes to attract more investors from the region.
Joining the bloc gives DR Congo better access to facilities such as the Indian Ocean ports of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa.
Import taxes for goods accepted as being made in DR Congo will be removed or greatly reduced when entering the other countries, while transporting goods will become much cheaper.
What are the challenges?
It won’t be easy to integrate such a huge, chaotic country into the rest of the EAC.
The country’s poor infrastructure and insecurity have been a matter of concern to EAC partner states.
“If you look at the border posts that enter or border DRC, once you get to these borders, literally the infrastructure stops,” said Damali Ssali, a trade expert.
“Even the infrastructure that is supposed to catalyse trade at the border is not as good as when you compare to the other countries. Then once you get into DRC, the corridors leading into the major towns have to be worked on because the roads are very poor.”
Then there is insecurity.
In December 2021, Ugandan troops crossed into DR Congo at the invitation of the Congolese government to help eliminate the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), one of many armed groups wreaking havoc in the resource-rich east of the country.
“Insecurity restricts trade – however, more official trade between the EAC and DRC may actually reduce conflict in the eastern part of DRC as it would reduce smuggling as a result of greater cooperation in various areas including customs, trade, and security,” says Penina Simba, a trade consultant.
What language will the EAC use?
English and Swahili are currently the official languages of the East African Community, although there has been talk about introducing French, which is spoken in Rwanda and Burundi.
DR Congo’s official languages are Swahili, French, Lingala, Kituba (Kikongo) and Tshiluba. Experts say that the multilingual nature of the region should be looked at as an opportunity and not a barrier.
There has been a push to promote the widespread use of Swahili, especially after the African Union adopted it as an official working language in February 2022. However, some regions such as western DR Congo and parts of the other EAC states do not speak it.
“Going forward, we expect an EAC that is multilingual, which could even lead to more interaction between EAC citizens and the Francophone countries in Central Africa,” Mr Simba said.