African Business / November 2001
By Larry Luxner
Standing in front of a wall map of Africa, Ambassador Serge Mombouli wastes no time pointing out the difference between his country, the Republic of Congo, and the similar-sounding, but much larger, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the east.
"Before 1997, when the DRC was still called Zaire, there was no confusion," he says. "Now there is, but we are here to explain the difference. What people know about the DRC is diamonds and the ongoing war. What they know about us is that we speak French and we're a big oil producer."
So big, in fact, that Congo-Brazzaville, as it's often called, now ranks as sub-Saharan Africa's No. 3 oil exporter after Nigeria and Angola. Mombouli says his country is producing some 370,000 barrels a day, more even than former OPEC member Gabon.
Mombouli should know. Before presenting his credentials to President Bush only a month ago, the businessman was chargé d'affaire at the Congolese Embassy in Washington for three years. And before that, he worked as an economic development and technology consultant in Houston for his own government; he also represented Togo and Gabon, and was an exporter of lubricants, foodstuffs and other goods to Africa.
Congo, the size of Germany, has a population of only 2.8 million. Its capital, Brazzaville, sits just across the Congo River from Kinshasa, the capital of former Zaire.
"The two cities are the closest two capital cities in the world," says Mambouli. "The distance is like New York and New Jersey. You can cross the river in less than five minutes with a speedboat."
That's exactly what thousands of refugees did in 1997, when Zaire's corrupt leader, Mobuto Sese Seko, was driven from office after 30 years in power by the army of Laurent Kabila. Upon taking office, Kabila immediately changed the name of the country back to Congo; he was later assassinated, however, and the DRC remains in a state of anarchy.
Despite the geographic proximity, however, the economic gulf between the two countries widens every day. Congo's GDP of $1.9 billion translates into a per-capita income of $680, while the Democratic Republic of Congo -- with its 50 million people -- has a GDP of only $5.4 billion, or only $110 per-capita, making it one of the poorest countries on Earth.
For Congo-Brazzaville, the burden of 110,000 refugees from neighboring Congo is made even worse by the legacy of its own civil war, which erupted in June 1997 after the former president, Pascal Lissouba, tried to have his rival, Denis Sassou Nguesso, arrested just weeks before a new election, on the grounds that Nguesso was planning a coup.
"Instead of organizing elections, Lissouba decided to attack the private residence of the former president, Nguesso, who was a candidate. Lissouba was convinced that he was not going to win re-election for a second term, so he decided to physically eliminate his opponent. They came to attack him at 3 a.m."
The attack led to a war which lasted until October 1997. Following a year of relative calm, fighting erupted again in December 1998 and went on until December 1999, when a ceasefire was finally signed.
Mambouli, who served for a time as N'Guesso's spokesman in the United States, says that since Nguesso's election, back salaries have been paid and the country's economy has been jump-started.
"Reconstruction is underway in Brazzaville," he told us. "Less than two years after the end of the war, it's difficult today to imagine that Brazzaville went through a civil war. The money has been used to reopen schools, rebuild existing hospitals, launch new programs, renovate the airport and build other infrastructure."
During 2000, the country enjoyed a growth rate of 5%; this year, the economy is expected to grow by 6%, says the ambassador.
"We utilize the CFA franc, which is used by 14 countries. The Congolese franc is the national currency of the DRC, which is accepted only in the DRC," said Mombouli. "The good thing about the CFA franc is that it has a fixed rate with the euro, so its value changes only according to the value of the euro. If the euro is strong against the dollar, then so is the CFA franc."
He adds: "We regret that there is still an ongoing war in the DRC. We Congolese would like to play a role through our president to help find a solution to that conflict."
Mombouli, 42, is originally from Pointe-Noire, Congo's chief port on the Atlantic. The fifth of 10 children, he left his native country for France in 1978, where he graduated in tourism management from the Superior Institute of Tourism in Paris. He also has bachelor's degrees in corporate law and transportation management from French universities, and worked for several years at Air Afrique and several other airlines. He settled in Texas in 1987, attending classes at Houston Community College and eventually becoming vice-president of international operations at Transworld Consortium Corp. in Houston.
Fluent in English, French and Lingala -- the predominant native language of Congo-Brazzaville -- Mombouli says the DRC's civil war is having a tremendous impact on his country's economy, particularly since the international community isn't contributing enough money to care for the refugees in its midst.
"Under normal circumstances, the seaport of Pointe-Noire supplies products to the DRC. Now with the country at war, trade between the two countries has decreased dramatically," he said. "That has cost our national budget a lot of money."
Even so, the ambassador points out, "we have a brotherly relationship with the DRC. We have always had a good relationship with the former Zaire."
He adds that "relations with the United States are excellent at this moment. The U.S. government understands that we went through difficulties in the past, and they recognize all the efforts that the Congolese government has made so far." As such, the United States provides more than $20 million a year in humanitarian assistance to Congo.
"Our country has made a tremendous effort," said Mombouli. "We have done something that never happened anywhere in the world. We have stopped the war and solved an internal problem by ourselves, without foreign intervention. It's true that we went through civil unrest, but today, stability is back in the Congo. We had a national dialogue for reconciliation that has been very successful."
The Congolese Embassy, located in a stately mansion at the intersection of Sixteenth Street and Colorado Avenue, houses a staff of 18, including six career diplomats and two military attaches. In addition, Congo has a UN mission in New York and a consulate in New Orleans; it will soon open another consulate in Houston.
"Congressman Jefferson from New Orleans has been a big promoter of trade between Congo and Louisiana," he said. "There are similarities between the two. Congo produces oil, and Louisiana refines a lot of oil from Congo. Many companies from Louisiana do business in Congo, and there are numerous joint projects in agriculture, such as rice, fertilizer and animal feed."
Mombouli says Congo's biggest challenge "is to become one day a developed country instead of a developing country."
"We are lucky to have a president who has experience from the past, and who knows how to use that experience to avoid mistakes that many countries have made. We must maintain peace and stability in the country. When you have a war, you can't make use of oil revenue. You have to keep on fighting. Just look at Angola."
Mombouli says U.S. investment in Congo-Brazzaville stands at around $1.5 billion, mainly in oil, diamonds and the food industry. The largest single investor is Chevron, followed by a dozen other U.S. companies including ExxonMobil, CMS Energy and Seaboard Corp.
A Chevron official who asked not to be named said the company has invested "several hundred million dollars" in two offshore oil fields: Nkossa, in which it has a 30% interest, and Kitina, in which it has a 29.25% stake. Nkossa is operated by European conglomerate TotalFinaElf, while Kitina is operated by Italian oil giant Agip. The offical said Chevron has been in Congo since 1994, and that the investment climate is good. "I haven't heard of any security issues from my people there," he said.
Bob Davis, a spokesman for ExxonMobil in Houston, says his company has purchased exploration leases for a 2.5 million-acre offshore concession in which it has a 30% interest.
"We have drilled a well in 6,200 feet of water, and we're currently evaluating the results of that well," said Davis, adding that ExxonMobil has made a "considerable investment" in the project.
Another U.S. company, Seaboard, has invested heavily in agribusiness projects.
"The government of Congo has been extremely helpful on the privatization of our flour mill at Pointe-Noire," said Ralph Moss, the company's Washington-based director of government affairs. "From the beginning, we have had excellent communications with the government, and they have been responsive to all of our concerns and issues driving the privatization process. Seaboard has invested over $8 million in the mill, and we continue to have open-door access to the government."
Besides the United States, Congo's other key trading partners are France, Italy, Belgium, Israel, Germany, South Africa, China and South Korea.
Meanwhile, investment is being sought in industries outside of minerals and petroleum. Says Mambouli: "We are encouraging U.S. companies to get more interested in telecom and tourism, because the market is there and the potential for return is great."