A toll booth in Kasai Central province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, operated by a Chinese construction company has drawn sharp criticism from local residents, as part of the growing hostility towards Chinese business interests in the country.

Tolls are collected by CREC 7, the Congolese branch of China Railway Group Limited, on a road built by the company that connects the town of Matamba to the border post of Kalamba-Mbuji, next to Angola. The post was opened in 2018 to provide a route to the sea from landlocked Kasai Central.

Guylain Balume, our Observer based in Goma, posted on social media about the toll fees after taking the road toward the Angolan border in February 2019.


A video taken at the Matamba toll booth by our Observer



In his tweets (in French), Balume accused CREC 7 of creating a barrier between the towns and making him pay a toll "under the pretext that the government owns the company money". Balume also demanded an answer from the Congolese government.
 
Twitter users swiftly condemned the company, calling the fees "unthinkable."

Balume's posts were reshared by other social media users, who called the tolls "unthinkable" and asked, "Where did our sovereignty go?"

"It took us four days instead of 24 hours!”

Balume told The Observers the road was in extremely poor condition.

I shared these photos and videos because I didn't understand why we had to pay the Chinese to drive on roads that are in such a sorry state. It took us four days instead of 24 hours to make the trip! Our car had four-wheel drive, but we still spent hours digging it out when we got stuck in the mud. One of the bridges was broken and we had to go find wood to make a path that we could drive across.
A bridge on the Kalamba-Mbuji road. (Photo: Guylain Balume)

The Kalamba-Mbuji road. (Photo: Guylain Balume)

They made us pay $10 USD for our Jeep. That’s extremely expensive for a road that isn’t even paved. For a truck, it is $100 USD.

Photos of the toll fees where shared on Twitter and Facebook by users who accused "the Chinese off making money off the Congolese”. A CREC 7 employee in Kananga, the capital of Kasai Central province, confirmed the rates.

Social media users shared photos of the toll fees, accusing CREC 7 of "making money off the Congolese".

"You can’t charge a toll for a road like that!”

The CREC 7 empoyee in Kananga, who identified himself only as "Mr. Sami", said the company charged a toll to cover the costs of building the Kalamba-Mbuji road:

The Kalamba-Mbuji road was built to open up the Kasai region. CREC 7 built a road that didn’t exist before and financed it with its own means. Neither the central nor provincial government put money toward the project.

In 2018, when the dirt road was finished, Governor Denis Kambayi initially wanted to put in a toll booth without giving CREC 7 any of the revenues. That’s why the road is in such a poor condition. The provincial authorities took over a road that they didn’t have the means to maintain.

We came to an agreement with the province last October. We were allowed to set up a toll booth to earn back the money we had put into the road. We've since been taking care of the road and are working to repair the damaged bridge.

Locals blame Chinese company for lack of jobs

The animosity toward CREC 7, which has carried out several roads projects across the Democratic Republic of Congo, has grown in recent months as people seeking jobs in road construction have been turned away by the provincial agency.

In March, newly elected President Félix Tshisekedi pledged to spend $135 million USD, or around €120 million, to improve roads as part of a 100-day emergency programme to boost the country's economy and security. Construction on roads in Kananga began March 25.

But the Kananga roads agency's announcement that it was not hiring sparked anger among locals, who blamed Chinese companies for the lack of jobs. On March 28, thousands of young job seekers waiting outside the agency's offices began protesting and chanting "No to the Chinese," according to Alain Saveur Makoba, a journalist for the Congolese website Matin Infos.

The young people wanted to break into the building, and some of them tried to climb through the windows. The police tried to force them back but the anger didn’t go away.

They went up Lumumba boulevard, right up to the governor's office, chanting “No to the Chinese, we don’t like the Chinese." A white missionary was attacked because he was mistaken for a Chinese man and protesters threw rocks at a car with a CREC 7 label.

John Badibanga, director of Katanga’s road and road maintenance agency, said the agency had to first launch construction work with machines before hiring workers.

"Kananga residents blame the Chinese company because they think that giving them road contracts costs local people work," Badibanga said. "They would rather that the contracts go to the roads agency."


This story was written by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi).