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Resumption of river traffic a great relief to the public

BRAZZAVILLE, 16 Nov 2005 (IRIN) - Only five kilometres separate the ports of Brazzaville and Kinshasa but a two-week suspension of river traffic between the two cities made the distance seem infinite. To the relief of Brazzaville's 856,410 residents, authorities reopened the trade route across the River Congo on 4 November.

Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is the main supplier of both food and non-food commodities to Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo (ROC), on the south bank of the mighty River Congo. The traffic ban, which was imposed on 18 October, triggered price hikes and shortages in the ROC's capital city.

River traffic between the two capitals was suspended after former Zairean army troops occupied Brazzaville's riverside port, known as the Beach, and demanded that they be allowed to return to the DRC.

The troops had fled Zaire to the neighbouring Republic of Congo in May 1997 after Ugandan and Rwandan-backed guerrillas, lead by Laurent-Desire Kabila, toppled Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko and renamed the country Democratic Republic of Congo.

The ex-army troops, who were members of Mobutu's presidential guards, had been trying to return home from ROC after what their representative, Capt Ambroise Kusa, said were "several tough years in exile". Authorities in both Congos, however, had blocked the river crossings, saying there had been no accord between the two governments for this movement.

After successful negotiations between the two countries, the first group of soldier returned to Kinshasa on 1 November. Now that the issue of repatriation has been completed, the trade route has also been reopened.

Effect of port closure

The ban on river crossings had an immediate effect on Brazzaville's residents. Some food prices in the market rose sharply: a 30-kg sack of fufu flour, the cassava-based staple, rose from 18,000 francs CFA to 32,000 francs (US $32 to $57).

Port officials at the Beach reported that during the closure smugglers tried to keep the lifeline open by supplying small quantities of some of these commodities via small, motorised canoes but they could not meet demand.

ROC imports vegetable oil, palm oil, soap, margarine, coffee, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, brown sugar, biscuits, salt and salted fish from DRC. In addition, building materials like cement, concrete, and steel reinforcements also come from the DRC.

Commerce at Brazzaville's Beach contributed "enormously to the economic development", according to river transport agent Joachim Lemba. Therefore a repture in traffic between the two cities could squeeze of lot of people out of work.

"I live from day-to-day thanks to my odd job at the Beach. During the two weeks [of traffic suspension], it was difficult to provide for my family's daily needs," declared Arsène Elombila, a self-employed port labourer.

"On average I make 12,000 francs CFA [$21.41] per day. This enables me to feed my wife and two children," he said.

Importance of the Beach

The Beach is always a hive of activity. Porters rush around loading and off-loading goods. Under the shady mango trees that dot the port, moneychangers do brisk business and turn a healthy profit, thanks to the strength of the ROC's currency.

Merchants on opposite banks of the river transport their goods on barges belonging to the national river transport companies of both countries: la Coordination nationale des transports fluviaux (CNTF) in the ROC and the Office national des transports (ONATRA) in the DRC. The Beach also serves as a border post and is staffed by immigration, customs and police agents.

Some 30 percent of ROC's imports come from DRC, and the latter imports 5 percent to 10 percent of its wood, plywood and wooden electricity poles from ROC. The ROC Customs Department said it lost 100 million francs ($178,450) in duty during the traffic closure.

Despite being a producer of crude petroleum, ROC depends on its neighbour for much of its refined paraffin, oil, gasoline and jet fuel.

ROC's foreign trade office, the Direction générale du commerce extérieur, has recorded 30 billion franc CFA ($53.54 million) of imports from DRC since 2001. This amount represented about one-third of the country's total global annual imports, making the resumption of traffic a welcome relief to the public and the nation as a whole.

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