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Saturday02 August 2014

Where rich and poor collide

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With development in Africa at the top of the agenda at next week’s G8 summit, BD investigates the issues affecting the continent starting here with Cassie Knight reporting from war torn Brazzaville

Small potted palm trees line the central boulevard, planted in time for a state visit by French president Jacques Chirac, one of next week’s summiteers at Gleneagles. Men had worked by the light of car headlamps in defiance of the latest power cut to paint the roadside kerbs with shiny stripes of red and white, all for the benefit of the French head of state.

But now the palm leaves are wilting and turning brown for lack of water and the road painting is half done, abandoned at the last minute when Chirac cancelled his drive around town.

This is Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, a central African country run by a government happy to waste cash on cosmetic improvements while resources for the average individual are so tight it takes more than six years to build a house.

Brazzaville’s city-centre architecture proclaims wealth and modernity. Just beyond, the story is different: poor planning, lack of public investment and poverty sum up the situation of the majority of Congo’s citizens.

Since the 1970s, offshore oil drilling has made this small nation rich, but most of the money went to the ruling elite, and the majority of its 3 million people live in absolute poverty.

Brazzaville is a city of roughly 700,000 people that lies on the north bank of the River Congo. The city centre is clean and quiet. Old, low buildings left behind by the French colonisers squat beside towers of concrete and reflective glass. Designed to impress, these house government ministries and African development banks.

The showpiece of Brazzaville is the Tour Nabemba, otherwise known as the Elf Tower. Built with oil money lent by the French oil company Elf Aquitaine, it is the tallest building in Brazzaville, standing 106m. Named after Nabemba, the highest mountain in Congo, it was built to prove Brazzaville’s superiority over Kinshasa, its larger neighbour and rival. Kinshasa is the bigger and better-known capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), which stands just opposite Brazzaville on the other side of the River Congo.

Outdoing its neighbour was (then) more important to Congo-Brazzaville’s politicians than building schools, hospitals or roads, and the Congolese people are still paying the price. The Republic of Congo, despite being oil-rich, has the largest debt per head of any African country.

Tour Nabemba was designed by Jean Marie Legrand and built during the Marxist government’s five-year plan of 1982-6. Its 29 storeys house various ministries and the offices of well-meaning groups such as the African self-help development initiative, the New Partnership for African Development and Unesco. Its shape is elegant and concave, the sides curving in at the centre and out at the base like the inverse of Foster’s Gherkin. It is alien technology from a different continent.

Standing on a rectangular pedestal that forms the central core of its structure, the exterior is made up of alternate strips of glass and white concrete, forming vertical lines that accentuate its slender form. From level six to 27, the floor plan comprises three concentric circles: at the centre are the lifts and technical support offices; then there is a circular corridor; and finally an outer ring of offices, divided into segments by moveable modular walls. The windows are sealed shut and an air-conditioning system pumps air through a cold-water cooling system. Three 430 KVA generators power the building during the city’s frequent power cuts. It costs £3 million a year to run — this in a country where health and education systems are failing and whole regions are cut off because of a lack of roads.

When civil war ripped through Brazzaville in 1997, bringing the Marxist dictator, Sassou Nguesso, back into power, the Tour Nabemba was reduced to a ruin. The totem was rebuilt for £6 million — more than it cost to originally build. Congo’s oil wealth had fuelled the fighting and its oil revenue was used to restore the tower to its former glory. Nearby offices and apartments are still pockmarked with bullets and the old French supermarket, Score, is a burned-out shell.

Local architect Norbert Mbila describes the Tour Nabemba as “a strategic building that was built for prestige. It is neither appropriate nor efficient, and it requires a great deal of maintenance.”

Mbila says Brazzaville’s architecture is dominated by overseas influences. The town hall and the Bank for Central African Development were built by French architects Legrand and Charlier & Simon. The stadium and Parliamentary Palace were built by the Chinese, identical in design to counterparts in Kinshasa.

For 27 years, architecture was dominated by politicians. There was no space for inspiration. Idealogy dictated everything

“For 27 years, when Congo was a one-party state, architecture was dominated by politicians,” Mbila says. “There was no space for inspiration. Ideology dictated everything.”

Now there is more freedom for architects, but, in reality, most construction is haphazard and buildings go up without an architect being consulted. “All you need is permission from the Central Town Hall,” says Mbila. “There is no national policy for urban development. The last urban development plan was published in 1978.”

Beyond the centre the popular neighbourhoods are crowded and poor. The oldest houses are built of mud brick and have four sloping sides and metal tinned roofs. Breeze blocks and cement have replaced sun-baked bricks as the materials of choice, and cheaper single-slant roofs replace the fifties steep peaked roofs.

People design and build their own houses, hiring the services of masons and carpenters when they are needed and can be afforded. One survey revealed that, on average, it takes 6.2 years to build a house, and can take as long as 22 years. With little access to credit, people build in stages when they have saved enough money. First they buy the land, then the materials, they lay the foundations, make the bricks, then bring in a mason, followed by a roofer to fix the wooden frame and corrugated iron sheeting, then the carpenter to make the doors and windows, a plasterer and finally an electrician.

Access to electricity, water, sewage systems and roads is the responsibility of each family. Half of all urban houses have a piped water system and there is only enough piped water to meet 36% of Brazzaville’s needs. Those without access to piped water either collect water from wells, springs and rivers, or pay a neighbour to use their tap. In many areas, taps are installed but run dry: a water cut in the suburb of Moukondo lasted more than two years.

A third of houses in Brazzaville are connected to mains electricity, but they suffer frequent power cuts. Despite the huge hydro-electric potential of the powerful River Congo, Brazzaville does not produce enough electricity from its two small dams to meet domestic demand and it relies on imports from Congo-Kinshasa.

In contrast to the cleanliness of the town centre, the popular neighbourhoods are dirty and poorly maintained. The roads are dusty and narrow, and filled with heaps of rubbish. Stagnant water provides breeding areas for mosquitoes. A few key roads are paved and traffic runs along two main arteries, one leading north and one leading south.

There is a clear division between the neighbourhoods of the north and the south: the people speak different languages and they are mutually suspicious of each other; taxi drivers sometimes refuse to leave one side of the city to venture into the other.

This division reflects the pattern of migration over the decades of Brazzaville’s growth as a capital city, and it is the result of years of civil war. Congo-Brazzaville suffered three civil wars during the 1990s and the population became polarised.

In September 2004, the government announced it would build 1,110 new houses. The Minister for Construction, Urbanism & Habitat, Claude N’Silou, explained that the “New Hope” programme would see 1,000 new homes built in Poto-Poto in north Brazzaville, and 110 new homes in Bacongo in south Brazzaville. Existing houses in the development zones would be bulldozed, the owners compensated and new semi-detached villas and apartments built in their place. Local residents would have a first option on buying the new homes.

But the locals are unimpressed. Felix Batantou stands in front of one of the houses destined for destruction in Bacongo and explains: “The government has never done anything for us. Why should we start believing them now? If they destroy these houses, it is certain that they will never get as far as building the new ones.”

Grandiose plans, whether for office blocks or suburban developments, leave the people of Brazzaville unimpressed. They are in no doubt as to their priorities: roads, waste disposal, electricity and running water. For the time being, new hope in Brazzaville remains a distant prospect.

Cassie Knight is an aid consultant and is writing a book about Congo-Brazzaville.

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