Congo joins East African trade bloc, widening the market

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — The central African nation of Congo has joined the East African Community, widening the trade bloc’s footprint with the admission of its seventh member.

Congo applied to join the regional trade bloc, commonly known by its initials as the EAC, in 2019.

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya announced Congo’s admission on Tuesday, calling it a “historic” moment for a group that originally only included Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

The bloc also includes Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. With Congo’s admission, it now commands a market of about 300 million people. Its overall goal is to create a political federation.

The bloc’s common market mandates free movement of people, goods and capital, although occasional trade disputes among members have raised questions related to protectionism among local authorities. There also have been political tensions among members that the bloc hasn’t been able to resolve.

Rwanda’s government closed a busy border crossing with Uganda in February 2019 in what Uganda called a trade embargo. Rwanda’s government ordered its citizens not to travel to Uganda, asserting that Rwandan citizens were not safe across the border. The border crossing was only reopened earlier this year.

But South Sudan and Congo, the EAC’s most recent members, were keen to join the bloc.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said his country is “looking forward to increased intra-EAC trade and reduction of tension” among neighbors, according to a communique announcing Congo’s membership of the bloc.

“It is the desire of (Congo) to see the creation of a new organ in the EAC that is solely focused on mining, natural resources and energy that will be based in Kinshasa,” he said.

Despite its vast size and wealth of natural resources, Congo remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Eastern Congo is particularly plagued by rebel violence as several armed groups vie for control of its mineral-rich lands.

One armed group, the M23, launched attacks against government troops near the Uganda border on Monday, forcing thousands of civilians to seek temporary shelter in Uganda.

In another part of eastern Congo, Ugandan troops are helping Congolese forces to hunt down rebels linked to an Islamic extremist group.

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