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DRC President Will Head Regional African Economic Body

VOA News - October 31, 2007

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The Economic Community of Central African States has named Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila to be its next head.  Analysts say Mr. Kabila, who has been accused of human rights abuses and corruption in his own country, is nevertheless a smart choice for the regional body.  Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

Despite decades of rebellion and economic instability, the Democratic Republic of Congo and its president, Joseph Kabila, are the logical choice to lead Central Africa's regional economic body, some experts say.

Muzong Kodi is an analyst for Britain-based research institute Chatham House.

"The DRC by itself with its 16 million-plus population has more people than the rest of Central Africa combined," Kodi said. "It also has a potentially very dynamic and rich economy which can contribute to the development of the sub-region."

Mr. Kabila was chosen at the 13th conference of heads of state and governments, held this week in Brazzaville, capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo.  Mr. Kabila will take over from that country's president, Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Kodi says the Democratic Republic of Congo's increased involvement in the Economic Community of Central African States and the country's increasing stability after democratic elections held last year, are what the regional economic body needs to become a real power.

"With all the problems that the DRC has had over the last two decades, there was no way the organization could really take off," Kodi said. "Now that DRC is coming out of the problems that it had, and its economy is showing signs to stabilize, I think the organization stands to gain quite a lot."

Despite some signs of progress in Congo, Mr. Kabila faces a growing conflict with rebels in the east of the country. Non-governmental organizations have accused his government of gross human rights violations and corruption.  But Kodi says his controversial profile is unlikely to hurt ECCAS.

"He is not any worse than many of the other presidents he is with," he said.

ECCAS members also include Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Cameroon,  Sao Tome and Principe, and Rwanda.  Chad and Central African Republic are grappling with rebellions and ethnic conflicts. 

Those countries, plus the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea, rank among the world's 20 most corrupt nations.  Other countries within the region have been accused of human rights abuse, illegal exploitation of natural resources and rigging elections.

The regional economic body was founded more than two decades ago to promote economic integration.

But so far, says Institute for Security Studies' Paul Simon Hendy, it has failed to implement key steps in that direction.

"Tariff and trade barriers are still very high in that region," he said. "That means the intra-region trade is extremely weak, partly because of these trade barriers.  And also, you still need a visa going from an ECCAS country to another one."

But he says he has seen signs the member states are starting to see the importance of lowering barriers.

"ECCAS is trying to find its way towards new dynamism, new vitality, and it is more than time to have that kind of resolution in the region," Hendy said.

In 1999, Angola, one of the larger economies in the region, joined the community, which analysts say was a catalyst towards integration. The European Union has also encouraged ECCAS to increase economic integration.

In a message to the ECCAS meeting in Brazzaville this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the region for its steps toward integration and peace.  But he said continued troubles in the region create obstacles to the population's prosperity and well-being.  

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