By Earnest McBride
JA Contributing Editor
By whatever name it’s been called – Congo, Belgian Congo, Zaire, and DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) – the nation and its people have faced repressive and deadly intrusions into their lives ever since the 1885 Berlin Conference that colonized nearly the whole of Africa for European exploitation 136 years ago.
Today, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi stands at the threshold of bringing peace and prosperity to what many experts view as the world’s richest nation with an estimated $24 trillion worth of natural resources and plush farmland, but yet its people have remained among the world’s poorest in one of the most war-torn countries since its independence from Belgium in 1960.
Inaugurated in January 2019, Tshisekedi heads the first government to make a peaceful transition in the nation’s history. Now with a majority government known as the “Sacred Union,” he has begun waging peace among neighboring nations and disaffected militias in the eastern Congo while launching an anti-corruption campaign to end the illicit deals and theft of the nation’s precious stones and opulent mineral reserves.
Another feature that has helped spotlight Tshisekedi’s presence on the world stage would be his February 7, 2021, swearing-in as chair of the African Union (AU), the collective body of all 55 African nations primarily concerned with the defense, security, and stability of its members. Tshisekedi is the successor to South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, who served one year in the AU’s rotating chairmanship.
The new AU chairman calls for Africa to be economically self-sufficient and committed to peace. In the face of the current pandemic, he said, the continent should re-examine its socio-economic priorities.
The chairman goes on to remind his audience of one of the greatest episodes in modern African history.
“We are celebrating the 60 years of the disappearance of a worthy son of the Congo and Africa, Mr. Patrice Émery Lumumba, who strongly believed in the great destiny of Africa,” he said.
TSHISEKEDI HEADED FOR US?
Major discussions are currently underway on both sides of the Atlantic that, once put into place, will bring DRC President Tshisekedi face to face with an America that few other African leaders have experienced.
As explained by Dewayne Boyd, vice president of the Congo-based Women’s Agricultural cooperative COOPAGEL (DRC), three goals envisioned by the planners are:
(1) To make the DRC the centerpiece at the November 16-18, 2021 Florida International Trade and Cultural Expo (FITCE EXPO 2021) in Fort Lauderdale;
(2) To establish a sister-city relationship between Tuskegee, AL, and the city of Mbuji-Mayi, the second largest city in the DRC, reputed to be the home of the world’s most important industrial diamond deposits and a major industrial center; and,
(3) To introduce the DRC President to a gathering of automakers in Detroit to present his plan for developing a manufacturing component for electric-car batteries near the sources of the cobalt and coltan in the DRC. The DRC has an estimated two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply and 64 percent of the coltan, essential materials for lithium-ion batteries, cell phones, and electric vehicles.
“Since his inauguration, the President has practically toured the world, because he wanted to renovate very favorably all external relations on all levels: political, economic, cultural, social for the sustainable development of the DRC,” members of the government advisory committee said during the virtual meeting on June 27.
The DR Congo will be the first African nation spotlighted at the FITCE EXPO, now in its sixth year. Over 60 nations are expected to participate in FITCE 2021.
Whether President Tshisekedi will be the keynote speaker, as he has been invited to be, has yet to be decided among the several officials involved with the President’s schedule.
A spokesperson for the CPCE (The Permanent Framework for Economic Dialogue), an official advisory council for the legislative and executive branches of government, promised a response after consultation with the President or his legal representative.
WOMEN IN AGRICULTURE
Boyd and his wife, Leontine Boyd, the president of the DRC-based women’s farming cooperative COOPAGEL, are the leading figures in developing and coordinating the exposition that will show the DRC in its fullness and its vital importance to the world economy. Working closely with the Boyds are DRC team leader Moses Bushiri and Paola Isaac Baraya, the FITCE-EXPO event director and Broward County’s International Trade Economic Development specialist.
“Congo is the natural breadbasket of Africa,” said Boyd, a former staff assistant for African and African American agricultural affairs to the late Congressman John Conyers of Detroit. “It has the potential to feed two billion people, easily. As the world population grows from 7 billion to an expected 9 billion by 2050, DRC is expecting to play a key role in the agriculture sector to regain its status as breadbasket, not only of Africa, but of the world.”
Boyd met Baraya while on vacation in Florida at the first FITCE EXPO and introduced her to the potential of the DRC. Five years later, the DRC is scheduled to be the first African nation to be spotlighted at FITCE.
“It was because of the Congo’s agricultural largesse that Belgium stayed alive,” he said. “Without food from the Congo, Belgium could not have survived. The food they grew in the Congo kept them and the rest of Europe well supplied with an overabundance of food.”
Women across the Congo and most of Africa have been the backbone of the agricultural system and are the key to a viable agricultural economy, according to Boyd.
The AU’s Decade of Women’s Financial and Economic Inclusion (2020-2030) coincides with the avowal of the rights of women in the DRC’s Constitution.
The United Nations estimates DRC population in 2021 at 92.5 million. Women make up 53 percent of the population, according to World Population Review.
Under the DRC Constitution, Women are protected from discrimination and acts of violence in their public and private lives. Gender equality and fair representation at national, provincial, and local government institutions are guaranteed. And a primary education is “compulsory and free” for every citizen.
Despite the constitutional guarantees, however, families throughout vast stretches of the DRC cite the lack of affordability of education for their children as another of their major concerns. Many parents have to pay school fees although the government officially opposes the practice. Nearly 25 percent of school age children never go, and among those who do, only 60 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls make it through.
Article 14 ensures “elimination of discrimination against women” and promotes the “participation of women in the development of the nation.”
The same article requires authorities, at all levels, “to take steps to combat all forms of violence against women in their public and private lives.”
The sister-city links to be established between Tuskegee – both the city and Institute – and Mbuji-Mayi may become the model for an extensive economic development program, as envisioned by Boyd and his friend and associate Wendell Paris. Mbuji-Mayi is the world’s largest repository of industrial diamonds and is near the President’s home province of Kasai.
Paris has spent a big part of the past 50 years working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, creating opportunities for more Black people to retain or to recover the farmland that lies all around them.
“I’m a Tuskegee graduate and I was a classmate of Johnny Ford, a six-term mayor of Tuskegee and now the President of the World Council of Mayors,” Paris said.
“It was a natural fit for students from Africa and the Caribbean to come to Tuskegee because the socioeconomic conditions they are accustomed to in their homelands were comparable to what we had in the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta. The Black Belt and the Delta are essentially the same, except for the depth of the fertile topsoil. The topsoil of the Delta runs six feet deep; In Alabama, six inches.”
Setting up a feeder-pig program and a credit union that still exists in the Tuskegee community, and establishing a relationship with Tuskegee’s School of Agriculture and its School of Veterinary Medicine was a boon for both the farmers in the cooperative and the students who came to share their knowledge and skills with them, Paris said.
“Whatever programs we develop out of the sister-city for DRC could be replicated for other African cities or the Caribbean, to empower us and our people to a trillion-dollar agribusiness instead of just being workers,” said Boyd.
“Congo is seeking to counter the new scramble for Africa – the African land grab – where China, Belgium, France, and other countries are coming into Africa. Most of these food producers buying land across Africa are doing so not to feed Africans, but to ship the food to their own countries,” he said.
“That’s our motivation for creating and empowering the Congolese through cooperative development and establishing our sister-city relationship with the Tuskegee agricultural university and to go on from there.
“The agricultural cooperatives will play a major role, because the DRC has the most arable land on the continent, if not in the world for agricultural production. A well-ordered cooperative development will give Congolese access to the skills and technology necessary to lift them from subsistence farming to small and medium-sized mechanized farming. But we must emphasize the idea of ‘sustainable’ farming operations so as not to deplete the rain forest or destroy nature’s habitats.
“The people of the Congo and various other nations will need to look at a variety of cooperative business models because the cooperative development model makes more sense than any other type of business model. This way you’re including the local people in the ownership and operation of their own business.”
Boyd says the DRC already has in place a broad plan for agricultural development.
“The national plan was put in place by the Presidency and the Minister of Agriculture. It will set up 22 National Agricultural Development Parks across the nation. And the small-holder farmers will feed these larger operations with the products they produce and process to assure the nation’s food security and food sovereignty,” Boyd said.
TSHISEKEDI GETS MAJORITY
When he assumed the office of President in February, Tshisekedi faced a constant barrage of accusations that he would simply be a pawn for the outgoing Joseph Kabila, who had hung on to power for two decades. Kabila’s party, the FCC (Common Front for Congo) held a majority of the 500 seats in the assembly and would be able to take over two thirds of the cabinet posts.
In December 2020, Tshisekedi began making moves that would put the government solidly under his control. He won a no-confidence vote against the pro-Kabila speaker of the assembly.
Working in the background to help forge the new power coalition, Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga Province, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former Vice President, and the leader of a large military group, affirmed their support. The President won over 200 of the 367 pro-Kabila MPs. Tshisekedi then turned to an assembly holdover from the Mobutu regime, Mboso N’kodia Mpwanga, to conduct assembly business until a new speaker is selected.
At final count, Tshisekedi had gathered 391 assembly votes in support of his “Sacred Union.”
“Felix Tshisekedi, President of the DR Congo, is in full control of a new government,” an attentive media source announced on April 12.
Friends of the Congo’s Paul Pumphrey observed that Tshisekedi still had a lot to accomplish before the next presidential elections in 2023. How will he safeguard Congo’s natural wealth and put it at the service of its people?
“There are literally billions of dollars being taken out of the Congo every year and the Congo doesn’t even get one100th of the amount,” Pumphrey said.