GOMA, DRC— In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, road users are in revolt. Bus and truck operators are canceling services and, according to the authorities, refusing to pay tolls to protest the state of the roads.
Seven in the morning on a weekday at the "Bon Voyage" or "Have a Good Journey" parking bay in Goma. This is where minibuses normally wait for passengers going to Butembo, in the north of North Kivu province.
Passenger Pastor Didier Lukinga, who said he also is a bus owner, is wondering where most of the buses are. He said five bus companies make this trip, but this morning there are only two buses here. This shows, he said, the strike has started against road tolls because none of the money appears to be spent on fixing the roads.
The head of the provincial branch of the Drivers’ Association of Congo [ACCO], Oscar Bulambo, said that like just about everyone else in Congo, the association’s members are deeply frustrated with the state of the country’s roads.
“They are terrible," he said. When it comes to the roads, Bulambo said the Congolese are living in hell compared to their neighbors in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.
Traveling times are far longer in most of the DRC than in neighboring countries. Last year the United Nations reported that a convoy of food trucks took nearly two weeks to cover 300 kilometers in North Kivu province.
Bulambo asserted that the condition of the roads has worsened since 2008 when the government set up a new body called FONER or the National Road Maintenance Fund, which is run from the capital, Kinshasa. FONER now collects and administers all the road tolls.
“Do you really think people in Kinshasa - 2,000 kilometers from Goma - are going to stretch themselves to repair our roads even when it’s an emergency?” asked Bulambo.
Lately, he said, an important bridge at Epulu gave way and it took five months to repair, and another key bridge at Lindi, linking two major cities, also took five months to repair.
The solution, argued Bulambo, is to hand the road tolls back to the province and to the local business federation, which used to manage them jointly.
The provincial government, not surprisingly, agrees that it could better manage the road tolls.
Bus operators who spoke with VOA, like Christophe Gasinda, also agreed the old system was better.
“With the old system,” said Gasinda, “at least we saw some achievements. They did try to repair the roads, but nowadays with FONER they don’t repair any part of the network.”
VOA visited the FONER office in Goma. No one was there apart from a watchman, who said the five staff who normally work there had all been away for the past four days.
Finally, the deputy director of FONER for North Kivu, who gave his name as Mutaka, was reached on a bad phone line, and asked for his reaction to the complaints.
“FONER is not an agency that carries out road works, it is a funding agency," he said. "We finance the roads.” Mutaka blamed the Roads Office, the government agency that normally carries out the repairs. He said they should have to explain what they had done with FONER’s funding.
Mutaka said that recently the governor of the province had received $500,000 and with that money the work was to be done.
But the provincial director of the Roads Office, Nkonko Kimalua, told VOA that FONER had not provided $500,000 for road repairs in the province and, that in any case, the amount was far short of what is needed.
A United Nations expert, Hien Adjemian, agreed that far more needs to be spent. He told VOA that the United Nations had spent a million dollars in the past year trying to open up North Kivu’s roads, an amount he described as "not very significant."
According to the Roads Office in Goma, the international community used to take much more responsibility for maintaining the DRC’s roads. Nkonko Kimalua said that until 1991 the World Bank was spending $60 million a year on Congo’s Roads Office, enabling it to pay for the fuel for its bulldozers and earth-moving equipment. The office in Goma still has these machines, but they are now mostly idle.