Congolese critics accuse Sassou-Nguesso [President of Congo] of using the Chinese-backed building boom to move from his ‘authoritarian-authoritarian’ model to something nearer the ‘developmental authoritarian’ style of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. However, Sassou-Nguesso was in triumphant mode as he inaugurated a spate of Chinese construction projects in the country’s hinterland on 14-18 May. These projects are intended to bring the benefits of oil-backed growth to regions previously isolated from the bustling cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. Now known locally as ‘The Cutter of Ribbons’, Sassou-Nguesso is using oil money and plans to develop Congo-Brazzaville’s mineral resources to shape a new relationship with China. Once a key commercial and diplomatic ally of France, Sassou-Nguesso’s headlong rush to Beijing coincides with the election of President François Hollande. Hollande’s African policy team promises to break with the old Françafrique networks. Among their advisors is the activist lawyer William Bourdon, who has been pursuing a case against Sassou-Nguesso in France for stealing Congolese state assets…..
From fibre-optic installation and new dams to more than 1,000 kilometres of paved roads, companies like China Road and Bridge Corporation and China State Construction Engineering Corporation have quietly landed most of the major contracts issued by the Brazzaville government. That means large profits and more deals to come.
Congo-Brazzaville, for so long the preserve of European companies, is drawing serious attention from China. The two countries have signed deals to develop special economic zones, build a new oil port and revamp an ageing refinery. For the Chinese investors, the lure is Congo-Brazzaville’s rich but under-exploited resource base. Having relied for decades on offshore oil riches and forestry, the country has until recently made little effort to exploit its mineral deposits, develop its more remote regions or diversify the economy into commerce and services. That could change if the new Asian relationships live up to their billing. For Sassou-Nguesso, the big attraction is an engagement based purely on economic and financial criteria, with a partner who does not impose awkward governance or human rights conditions.
This is not Congo’s first encounter with Asian investment. South Korean and Malaysian companies, via the Consortium Congo Malaisie Corée, had proposed a huge resources-for-infrastructure deal that would build new rail lines in exchange for access to forestry and mining permits in 2008. That deal didn’t work out but the Chemin de Fer Congo Océan received part of its order of engines and cars from Korail in August 2011. Malaysian investors have looked at opportunities in the hydrocarbons sector and – building on their experience of rural Congo in the timber business – palm oil production. In 2010 Atama Plantation agreed to invest $300 million in new oil palm plantations and processing capacity.
The most recent interest from Chinese entities takes the engagement a step further. Alain Akouala Atipault, a Minister in the Presidency, was China’s guest at an international infrastructure and investment forum in Macau where, on 24 April, he signed an agreement with the China Friendship Development International Engineering Design and Consult Corporation (FDDC) – an offshoot of the Trade Ministry in Beijing. FDDC will seek out Chinese investors interested in setting up operations in four special economic zones, which Congo plans to establish in Brazzaville, Pointe- Noire, Ouesso and the Oyo-Ollombo area. FDDC will also help to mobilise financing for the zones, build their infrastructure and carry out feasibility studies……
China’s engagement in Congo is typical of its strategy elsewhere in Africa. Beijing often takes a long-term view of whether projects will generate an economic return. Viability is seen in broad terms, encompassing not just the specific project’s concerns but also the wider trade and political benefits of partnership and the political goodwill that could open up access to valuable natural resources. Congo has both major reserves of high-value timber – a sector where Congo Dejia Wood Industry, Jua Ikié, Million Well Congo Bois, Sino-Congo Forêt and Société d’Exploitation Forestière Yuan Dong are already active – and reserves of minerals such as iron ore and potash, which are largely untouched.
China National Complete Plant Import & Export Corporation is developing the potash reserves at Mengo with Canada’s MagIndustries; Australia’s Sundance Resources relies on finance and expertise from Hanlong Mining and other Chinese infrastructure companies to make its designs on iron-ore projects in Cameroon (Mbarga) and Congo-Brazzaville (Nabeba) viable. Sundance is waiting for final approvals from Yaoundé and Brazzaville and expects all the paperwork to be signed before the end of 2012.
Beijing’s policy of ignoring questions of democracy and human rights is certainly helpful to Sassou-Nguesso’s regime – which has a poor human rights record, is marred by widespread corruption and remains fundamentally authoritarian despite the trappings of a multiparty system.
Excerpt, Congo-Brazzaville: Sassou Draws in Beijing,AllAfrica.com, June 2, 2012
See also A Continent for Sale through Queensway