Why You Can’t Drive Across the Democratic Republic of the Congo

You can very easily make a case for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) being the most infrastructurally deficient country in the world.  The eleventh-largest country on Earth by area (2 345 409 km2 or 905 355 sq mi) and the 19th largest by population (73 000 000 people) has only 2 794 km (1 398 mi) of all-weather paved road, which would be barely enough to cross the 2 500 km-wide country in any direction, let alone service its population.  Making things worse is that only half of that paltry amount of all-weather road is in good condition.  By comparison for example, Guinea, another extremely impoverished African country, has 4 342 km (2 698 mi) of paved road despite being only one-tenth the size of the DRC, and Algeria, which is almost exactly the same size as the DRC but is ninety percent mostly empty desert, has 81 732 km (50 797 mi) of paved road. 

Congo_Transport_Map

Source: R. Perry, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Congo_Transport_Map.PNG.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The vast, vast majority of roads in the Congo are unpaved and unmaintained (those that are paved are usually either near the capital of Kinshasa or are near a mining operation).  The National Highway System of the DRC could hardly be called any of those three words.  Often, privately-built farm roads and church-built tracks are in better condition than the actual national road system (many of the roads shown on maps simply don’t exist).  Most roads are simply dirt tracks rather than actual roads as understood by wrestling standards, and are nearly impassable.  Those roads that can be travelled upon usually see travellers being stopped by armed soldiers (and if you’re a foreigner, that usually comes with a request for payment).  Trucks (cars are useless here) break down constantly and can be stuck for days, weeks, or months.  This leaves bicycles as the main method of land transportation in the DRC.

In the last two decades, only one pair of civilians have successfully traversed the DRC by vehicle; a Belgian couple completed the feat in a Toyota Land Cruiser in a rather harrowing 44 days in which they were constantly breaking down (including multiple days with no progress at all), stuck in potholes and deep ruts, navigating over bridges that were almost non-existent, and pulled over to be extorted for bribes time after time including brushes with ‘coupeurs des routes’ – roving gangs of machete-and-gun-wielding road bandits.  You are highly encouraged to read the enthralling full story here.  It’s loaded with imagery of the road system, and is well worth the read if you have the time; one truly gets a sense of the tragic level of infrastructural degradation and unrepentant corruption in the country.

With little government money put into road improvements (as with many things in the DRC, corruption means funds tend to get siphoned off before they can be allotted, and with the lack of development in the debt-riddled DRC there are limited funds to begin with), the country has turned to foreign investment.  An agreement with China signed in 2007 will see US$9 billion from China used to build and repair roads and railways, as well as other necessities such as schools and hospitals (compare with the 2011 DRC budget of just $7.3 billion).  In exchange, the DRC will open up its mines in the Katanga province in the southeast part of the country to Chinese development, where anywhere between US$40 and $120 billion dollars of copper, tin, tantalum, and cobalt are hoped to be extracted by China during the life of the agreement.  How this deal will be implemented and exactly what specific infrastructure is to be built or how it will be maintained afterward has not been completely determined.

Congo

An all-too-typical Congolese road.  Source: N. Viramo, http://www.flickr.com/photos/fizzphotos/2947009377/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.

Road leading out of Likasi town

The road leading out of Likasi, a city of nearly 400 000 people.  Source: N. Hobgood, http://www.flickr.com/photos/globalvoyager/6868461627/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.

The road to Kimwenza

A road outside Kimwenza, near Kinshasa.  Source: Society of the Sacred Heart, http://www.flickr.com/photos/rscj/6217251857/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.

Congolese Road

A road in Kinshasa.  Source: R. Strohm, http://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelstrohm/3987393263/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence.

Road repairs

A crew repairs a road in Bas-Congo province. Source: Scamperdale, http://www.flickr.com/photos/36517976@N06/4749436044/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

deviations

Even in open areas, Congolese roads are dangerous.  This aerial shot show the myriad tracks carved by vehicles attempting to avoid the treachery of the actual road seen in the middle.  Source: FredR, http://www.flickr.com/photos/fredr/1302424874/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

With 4 007 km (2 490 km) of railroad and 15 000 km (9 300 mi) of inland waterways, the DRC may be the only country where the amount of paved roadway is outnumbered by both the amount of rail and the amount of navigable waterways.  Not that that’s a huge help for transportation; much of that railway is extremely degraded thanks to years of war and neglect, not to mention few trains actually run on those lines let alone run safely, most of those rail lines don’t even connect to each other, and the people who work on the rails are often owed multiple years’ worth of back pay.  Train journeys meant to take three days often take twice as long or more. For the largest cities, barging in supplies and people by water, especially along the Congo River, is thus the main method of long-distance transportation; the DRC has more navigable inland waterways than any other African country.  Because of the incredible difficulties in travelling on land in the Congo, the alternative for many is air travel.  Unfortunately, that’s not an especially optimal method either.  Airlines in the DRC operate under such poor standards that every single airline in the country is banned from entering European airspace.

Further Reading

European Commission (2012).  List of Air Carriers of Which All Operations Are Subject To a Ban Within the EU.  3 April 2012.  Available at http://ec.europa.eu/transport/air-ban/doc/list_en.pdf.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Gardner, B. (2011).  Chinese in the Congo.  France 24, 16 May 2011.  Available at http://emergingworld.blogs.france24.com/article/2011/05/16/chinese-congo-0.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Global Witness (2011).  China and Congo: Friends in Need. London: Global Witness.  Available at http://www.globalwitness.org/sites/default/files/library/friends_in_need_en_lr.pdf.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Keane, J. (2011).  Waiting in vain for a train in DR Congo.  BBC News, 24 November 2011.  Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15859686.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Pelletier, C. (2010).  Kinshasa or Bust.  Jalopnik, 24 November 2010.  Available at http://jalopnik.com/5697358/the-first-people-to-drive-across-the-congo-in-20-years.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Porter, D. (2011).  Congo Road Trip.  PRI’s The World, 25 November 2011.  Available at http://www.theworld.org/2011/11/congo-road-trip/.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Ridley, L. (2010).  Road Trip to the D.R.C.  Polo’s Bastards, 5 August 2010.  Available at http://polosbastards.com/pb/road-trip-drc/.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Stupart, R. (2012).  The DRC you don’t see in the news.  Matador Network, 16 February 2012.  Available at http://matadornetwork.com/trips/the-drc-you-dont-see-in-the-news/.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

Willems, F. (2010).  Democratic Republic of Congo: Lubumbashi to Kinshasa.  Expedition Portal, 19 October 2010.  Available at http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/50799-Democratic-Republic-of-Congo-Lubumbashi-to-Kinshasa.  Accessed 5 April 2012.

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One thought on “Why You Can’t Drive Across the Democratic Republic of the Congo


  • Even the Congo's waterways are falling far short of their potential. Due to corruption, lack of money, and other reasons no one seems able to define, the volume of inland waterway shipping has plummeted in recent years.

    Further adding to its woes, the Congo has no decent seaports. Ships can travel only about 150 miles up the Congo River due to massive rapids. The inland shipping, or what's left of it, starts upriver from the rapids with no ocean access. The seaport of Matadi is at the head of oceangoing navigation, connected to Kinshasa by a semi-decent road and a barely functioning railroad. Unfortunately, Matadi suffers from severe corruption and inefficiency, and because the government can't afford to dredge the river larger container vessels can't use the port at all. There is a deepwater seaport named Banana, of all things, but it's usable only for oil imports because it's connected to Kinshasa by a pipeline but no road or railway.

    It's gotten to the point that the Congo has to pay the neighboring Republic of the Congo to allow its shipping through the port of Pointe Noire. In contrast to Matadi, Pointe Noire is a fully functional modern port, connected to Brazzaville by a decent railway.

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