Brussels has every reason to believe that the reelection of incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi, shown to be leading in recent polls, would serve its foreign policy and economic interests – writes Nathalie Beasnael.
Despite current instability in the Middle East and limited to capacity for additional strategic focal points, the upcoming presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), scheduled for 20th December 2023, should be of interest to all politicians, economists, business leaders and climate activists in the European Union. The DRC has been an invaluable partner of the EU. With the potential for the upcoming election to upend the balance of power in the country, what the EU requires now is stability in this country integral to its long-term economic interests.
The centrality of the DRC to EU economic interests can be seen most clearly in the import of raw materials, primarily copper and cobalt ore. Copper is one of the most widely used materials in the construction and electronics sectors due to its high conductivity of heat and electricity, increasing the efficiency of power cables and whole energy systems. Cobalt, on the other hand, is essential for the manufacturing of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, powering phones, tablets, laptops, other small electronic devices, e-bikes and scooters, electric cars, as well as solar backup power units.
The EU is already importing a substantial amount of refined copper from the DRC, making up more than 20% of its total copper imports in 2022. EU industries currently import and consume a comparatively smaller amount of cobalt, however, reliance on foreign sources of the ore is set to increase dramatically over the coming 30 years.
The EU’s European Green Deal, launched by the European Commission in 2019, contains a range of policy initiatives covering the areas of climate, energy, transportation and industry, among others, combinedly aiming to facilitate a target of climate neutrality by 2050.
As part of the Green Deal’s Industrial Plan, the EU is taking up the challenge of competing with some of the world’s largest economies, China and the United States in particular. This is in order to increase its industrial and manufacturing capacity and to ensure the production of its own net-zero technologies and products. Being able to reliably source raw materials and the stability as well as the shortening of supply chains is at the cornerstone of this strategy. This is imperative as the longer the supply chain, the higher the carbon credit impact and the higher the security risk. The transition to renewable energy resources, the electrification of transportation, the production of electronic vehicles and charging stations, and the storage of energy will demand the increased use of both cobalt and copper. According to projections, EU copper demand could rise from 4.3Mt to 6Mt by 2050 while current cobalt demands of 20kt could reach as much as 100kt by 2050.
As the one of the largest sources of refined copper and the foremost producer of cobalt in the world—accounting for over 70% of the global output—the DRC is well-positioned to become one of the EU’s primary, if not the most prominent, partner in meeting its goals of the green transition. It has to be said that most mineral rich countries are seeking to implement an Indonesia-like local beneficiation strategy to capture more value from their minerals, this can be seen in Zimbabwe and Ghana with the ban of unprocessed lithium. It is therefore critical for the EU to consider strategic partnership with private and public entities linked to the national beneficiation strategies, for which international partnerships are key. China has already understood this and will reportedly start adapting from its current importing model to one of national transformation. This will ensure a strategic alignment with mineral rich countries.
In President Felix Tshisekedi, the EU found a reliable partner that has prioritized the diversification of the economy, whilst also improving its mining sector by supporting and encouraging the increase of the refining, processing and export capacities of the DRC. He has also improved the overall business climate of the country. This has taken place alongside the promotion of agriculture and what has been called the new climate economy. One of the recent and notable business endeavors in the DRC has been the Buenassa project, building a copper-cobalt hydrometallurgical plant for the production of copper cathodes to London Metal Exchange (LME) standards valued at $350 million. Buenassa, a privately and Congolese held company, is working with the US-based Delphos International to raise the capital required to build the DRC’s and Africa own refining and processing capacity with expected output of 30 MT of copper and 5 MT d’hydroxyde de cobalt per year. Furthermore, Entreprise Generale de Cobalt “EGC” is in advanced discussion with Buenassa in its effort to formalize the artisanal mining. This project is of particular interest to the EU considering the fact that most of the DRC’s copper and cobalt has to date, been exported to China for refining for processing
In addition to building up the DRC’s refining sector, a recent framework agreement signed with the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa and the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) paves the way for the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in the DRC for the production of electric vehicles. The DRC’s priorities in this regard are wholly in line with those of the EU, with the DRC soon hosting the 2nd DRC Electric Vehicle Battery Forum, to be held in Kinshasa in the middle of next month. The EU’s various financial mechanisms, including PROIMVEST, The Centre for Development of Enterprise, the BizClim program, the Microfinance framework program, and the European Investment Bank’s Investment Facility, are promoting the improvement of regulatory frameworks to increase public-private sector cooperation, encouraging investments in new technologies, and sponsoring businesses in launching new projects.
Of course, one cannot ignore political and security circumstances when doing business with the DRC. Indeed, President Tshisekedi has navigated the vicissitudes and risks emanating from the DRC’s long-standing security threat in its eastern provinces, continuing to present a threat for the mining, refining and export of raw materials.
Tshisekedi was elected president of the DRC in January 2019, marking the first peaceful transition since the country gained independence from Belgium, ending 18 years of the previous president’s rule, which itself followed a dictatorship, albeit inheriting the decades-long history of wars. Despite the conclusion of two Congo wars by 1998, the 2000’s brought about the emergence of multiple rebel groups, including the March 23 (M23) movement in the Ituri and Kivu provinces. In 2022, M23 attacks resurged against Congolese troops, alongside the committing of extensive war crimes, supported heavily by the Rwandan government according to various UN reports. The spokesperson for the Congolese army has argued that the rebels’ agenda has less to do with the ethnic strife of the past and more with the economic interests presented by the DRC’s natural resources. While the DRC’s relations with Rwanda, Uganda as well as Burundi remain tense, President Tshisekedi’s diplomatic initiatives have managed to contain the risk so far.
The re-election of Tshisekedi would certainly ensure continuity in terms of containment of the security threats emanating from the country’s eastern provinces and benefit the expansion of the development program started in the DRC’s industrial sector. Results from a representative sample of public opinion polling conducted in the DRC by international polling firm Global Researches, in Kinshasa, North Kivu, Katanga and Equateur suggest that the president has the strong backing of voters in the runup to the elections. 92% of interviewed voters in Equateur and 71% in Kinshasa support the president while the overall data suggests a comfortable 65% support of his campaign for re-election across the DRC.
Continuity in the security and economic policies of the DRC would indeed serve EU interests. With a new round of European parliamentary elections on the horizon in 2024 and increasing climate pressures impacting the continent, demonstrating the impact of the European Green Deal becomes more and more important. Reliance on the trade partnership with the DRC and the further development of cooperation would certainly help secure the EU’s future raw and, perhaps even, refined material needs to make the EU’s green dreams a reality.
Nathalie Beasnael is a social entrepreneur, humanitarian and philanthropist. She is the founder of the Health4Peace non-profit which provides medical supplies to hospitals in the rural areas of Chad, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, and Nigeria and holds a board position as Director of Community Affairs with Upward African Woman.
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