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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

We have given significant support to civil society in the DRC, both before and during the elections, to enable organisations to undertake civic education and to act as observers, and we are also supporting the media to help improve accountability. More than 30 per cent. of our support goes mostly to international non-governmental organisations to deliver programmes. That support will include £27 million over three years to two large NGOs to provide free basic health care in 20 health areas.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the continuing concerns highlighted on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning about arbitrary arrest and violence by President Kabila’s regime towards political opponents? There are also problems of rampant corruption, especially in the extractive industries, and a continuing history of a lack of development in the basic infrastructure. Will the Government put renewed pressure on President Kabila to end those autocratic practices, as without a real and meaningful development of civil society all our increased aid budget will be frittered away? Is not a significant civil society a prerequisite for meaningful and long-term economic development?

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. The DRC is a country where virtually everything is broken. That is the truth, as I saw for myself on my recent visit, and as did the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the Opposition spokesman on international development, who has also been there recently. I raised precisely that point in my meeting with President Kabila, because the people of the Congo want to see that the Government will reach out and embrace the Opposition there and allow civil society the time and space to acquire a voice. In that way, for the first time in their lives, people will be able to experience good governance. Unless good governance comes to the Congo, none of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be dealt with, but establishing it will take time.

I strongly commend the Secretary of State for the huge personal effort that he has made, and the amount of work that he has done, in supporting the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in getting the election process under way. Will he do his best to ensure that the Government of the DRC use the country’s enormous mineral wealth, and any aid that is being donated, to develop primary education? I visited the DRC last year as an election observer, and it seemed to me that the illiteracy rate was rising not falling. Unless we address that, all the other development goals will be impossible to achieve.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the interest that they have taken in the Congo. Indeed, a number of hon. Members acted as observers in the elections to which the UK was proud to be the largest contributor. That was an extraordinary moment in the country’s history.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the DRC does not lack natural wealth. The truth is that it has been raped and pillaged—first by its colonial masters, and then by some of the neighbouring countries. That treatment is now being continued by some Congolese, but good governance is the solution, as that will ensure that the natural resources are used in the interests of the people and not of the private pocket.

We are working with the World Bank on a programme to help abolish school fees in part of the country. For the very poorest families, they act as an obstacle to getting children into the classroom, which is where they belong. Education, good governance and an open form of politics are three essential elements that must be secured if the country is to make progress.

I commend the Secretary of State for what he is doing in Africa and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but he will be aware that the Government of that country and President Kabila have a unique relationship with President Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Is the right hon. Gentleman able to exert pressure on Zimbabwe, through President Kabila, to promote civil society in that country? I hope that he feels that we should use every avenue open to us to try to bring a change in Zimbabwe, as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

May I simply say that the development of civil society is vital for all countries and communities, including Zimbabwe? As I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, if the countries neighbouring Zimbabwe spoke up more loudly and truthfully about what is going on there we would see faster progress towards enabling the people of Zimbabwe—and of the DRC—to express their views, openly and without fear, about what they want to happen to the future of their country.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Congo’s ruling elite has understood that the purpose of government is to benefit the welfare of the people, and that it is not an exercise in looting? What progress has been made towards the integration of the army? As he knows, it does not defend the people but poses a threat to their welfare.

The cultural and political change—if I may describe it in that way—to which my hon. Friend refers in the Congo can be described only as work in progress, because it has a long way to go. Army integration is an example of that. There has been some progress, but one of the difficulties is that the large amount of money that comes out of the Exchequer every month to pay for the armed forces does not bear a direct relationship to the number of soldiers who need paying. One of the points that I made to President Kabila both on my recent visit and previously is that if the Government of the DRC want the international community to give more support to army integration—the UK is doing something to provide tents and clean water to those who are part of the integrated brigade—they have to demonstrate that the money that the donors are putting in is being used for the purpose for which it is intended. Army integration is crucial to the future of the country. The country has to stop having separate armed forces representing separate political groups. There is one elected President. The army must come behind that President and act on behalf of the country as a whole.

In spite of the Congo’s awful history and the accurate comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), does the Secretary of State agree that the recent elections, the performance of the United Nations forces, whose mandate must be renewed, and the support of the British taxpayer all give some grounds for optimism in a country whose stability and prosperity is crucial to that of all of Africa? Since it is clear that building space for the Opposition in Parliament there is of vital importance, will he say a little more about his Department’s future plans for supporting the promotion of that?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Despite all the difficulties that we have just been discussing, the transitional Government represented real progress and the elections—the first for 43 years— were extraordinary. I join him in paying tribute to the contribution of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I agree with him that MONUC has got to stay there for quite some time, because the country needs the security and the reassurance that it provides. I specifically raised with President Kabila the issue of space for the Opposition. I met members of the Opposition both in the National Assembly and separately. It was hoped recently that they would meet President Kabila. I understand that that meeting has not taken place, although they met one of his advisers. Some of the Opposition have now gone back into Parliament, having boycotted it for a while. This issue is the real test. In the end, President Kabila is the President of the whole country and he has a great responsibility, as well as an opportunity, to reach out to all those who won representation in the elections and to show that the Congo will be a country in which people can say what they think and participate in that very fragile democracy, which, if they commit to it, will allow the country to move forward. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are going to stick with that process every step of the way.

I also applaud the work of the Secretary of State and the progress that has been made in the DRC. Will he tell us a bit more about what President Kabila said, on the Secretary of State’s recent visit, about providing space for the Opposition? We have met Opposition politicians here who have been concerned about that. What support can we continue to give via EUSEC—the EU security sector reform mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—in particular in relation to the crucial issue of the security forces and their integration?

President Kabila expressed to me his commitment to the democratic process. In the end, the international community should judge the President and the country by what it does, as well as by what it says. Only time will provide the answer. On EUSEC, we have provided support in the form of the secondment of staff and we have provided funding, as I indicated in answer to an earlier question. For the reasons that I set out, it is important that the process of army integration continues.