The Great Lakes, Great Expectations

By Vivienne Sequeira, Infrastructure Director, Corporate Council on Africa

As the leader of a U.S. organization solely focused on fostering business opportunities in Africa, The Corporate Council on Africa (CCA)’s President and CEO Stephen Hayes moderated a special panel on the Africa Great Lakes Region. This marks a significant turn in a discussion that has thus far focused mainly on policy and peacebuilding. Since 2011, the State Department has appointed three Special Envoys to the Great Lakes Region. Starting with Ambassador Barrie Walkley, who served from December 2011 to June 2013, followed by former Senator Russ Feingold, who served for 18 months from July 2013 to March 2015, and finally by Thomas Perriello, appointed in July 2015.

Perriello’s mandate, much like his predecessors, will be to engage local officials in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, with the support of international partners to usher peace, stability, strong democratic institutions and economic development throughout the Great Lakes Region (GLR).  

A tall order, to say the least, for a region that has known more than its share of strife and instability starting with the Genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and its reverberation in neighboring nations which includes thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) whose status remains unsolved more than two decades later. The recurrent reciprocal military incursions in neighboring states underscore the need for a lasting peace and a return to a robust Economic Community of the Countries of the Great Lakes (CEPGL) that existed in the mid-seventies.   

While much has been written about Senator Feingold’s role in negotiating the end of the M23 rebellion in Eastern Congo -- clearly a laudable achievement-- much less is written about the organic resurfacing of trade between formerly belligerent neighbors.  A look at the current pipeline of projects announced for discussion at the upcoming Private Sector Investment Conference organized by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) slated to take place February 24-25, 2016 in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reflects ICGLR’s determination to marshal the strength of the private sector to strengthen economic ties and promote trade in the Great Lakes Region.  Convening three regional economic communities (EAC, COMESA, CEPGL), the United Nation’s Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Said Djinnit anticipates that this investment conference will highlight trade opportunities and spur job creation in the region. A list of regional investment opportunities has been developed in consultation with regional stakeholders to drive the investment process. 

Projects such as the Ruzizi III Hydropower plant (Burundi, DRC, and Rwanda) and the Lake Kivu methane gas plant (Rwanda, DRC) illustrate the willingness of former foes to work for regional development. The development of the Northern, Southern and Central Multimodal Corridors are slowly paving the way for more trade and movement of goods amongst regional players. For these nations endowed with great natural resources, the demand for adequate energy is crucial for extractive industries and business as a whole. The ICGLR’s determination to focus on job creation for youth will bring stability and prosperity to the region. 

Yet, one can’t ignore the need for the establishment of a strong framework for democratic institutions starting with the respect of term limits for all elected leaders. We have already seen a reluctance, and sometimes, manipulations on the part of some leaders to ensure the prolongment of their term limits. The U.S. Special Envoy is said to be working closely with the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield on programs to strengthen democratic institutions and civil and political rights in the GLR. 

As the efforts of the State Department and the UN ICGLR envoys converge to meet the goals of peace, stability, and economic development throughout the region, the private sector will be watching the electoral processes, institution building and gauging the risk and opportunities in each of the nations of the Great Lakes Region. Several CCA members have already marked their interest for sectoral projects such as the LAPSSET Corridor and the methane gas project on Lake Kivu. With assurances of sound democratic institutions and business climates, more are expected to seek opportunities in the rift valley.

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