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Kinshasa–Brazzaville: The Border Between Two Cities

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Thomas Clapp

Cities all over the world are split in half by rivers: London, Prague, New Delhi, Seoul, New York and Cairo to name just a few - but the river is rarely an impediment as bridges and subways are eventually built and of which renders these rivers as boundaries in theory but not in practice. Notably, there is no bridge over the Congo River between Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazzaville (The Republic of the Congo) though they are close enough to be an agglomeration. This article hopes to give an in-depth insight into the two cities and address the barriers that prevent them from utilizing the power they would have in being a closer-knit bubble.

A Brief History

The histories of the two cities explain the oddity of their close geographical proximity but distant connections. Kinshasa was founded in 1881 as a trading post after the forceful colonisation of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by King Leopold II of Belgium because of its advantageous position on the Congo River. To this day, it is linked to Matadi - a port 150km away which skilfully links Kinshasa to the West African seaboard. Brazzaville was founded at the same time in 1880 by French colonists for its similarly advantageous position on the north bank of the River Congo, but also partly to counter Belgian expansion.[1] The two cities from their naissance were already in competition with one another.

Both former colonies became independent in 1960 but from there their paths diverged once again. The Republic of The Congo (ROTC) became a prosperous nation, with a third of the heads of households becoming bureaucrats, mainly in Brazzaville.[2] The discovery of oil in the 1970s also gave Brazzaville a prosperous middle class, but issues in the early 2000s with oil prices led to decline and reduced government efficiency. In contrast, life is very different in the neighbouring DRC. A crisis weeks after independence led to a military mutiny, and the country has only recently started to emerge from civil strife.[3] The DRC and ROTC never had the opportunity to formally set up legal and economic ties because of persistent instability.

Legal Issues as Barriers To The Private Sector

Both countries have had issues with the rule of law, making interactions between Kinshasa and Brazzaville challenging. A report by the World Bank on the DRC found that enforcing contracts and claiming indemnities could often exceed the claim itself by 50%, making it very difficult for small companies to seek legal help, and deterring larger companies from doing business.[4] The ROTC’s bureaucracy is stronger than that of the DRC’s but there are still issues with corruption. The International Finance Corporation found that companies were struggling to meet taxation demands and the bribes required by some officials in the ROTC in order to secure lucrative public sector contracts.[5]

Physical Barriers Between the Two Cities

The legal issues already make interactions between the two cities risky and potentially very costly but there are also physical barriers to a successful connection. There are currently no bridges between the two cities, despite them sitting opposite each other across the Congo River at one of its calmest spots.[6] This is partly a funding issue but also a manifestation of the lack of cooperation between the two cities and countries. Furthermore, there are few transport links between the two cities. They are connected only by a handful of ferries, and a five-minute plane flight a few times a week and some private motorised canoes.[7]

The Beach

However, there is evidence of a potentially powerful union between the two cities as demonstrated by the area known locally as “The Beach”. This area is a testimony to the thriving economy that can revolve around the two cities by way of the proximity between them. In a fascinating study on the area the Beach was revealed to be a lawless place outside the control of officials. It is a place of equality in this lawlessness, with locals comparing it to the gladiatorial environment found in ancient Rome, leading to the colloquial name “Romains” for people who work there. Still, it is not without its fault and there are issues of safety since multiple unofficial agencies claim jurisdiction over the area making the lives of people who trade there haphazard.

Another intriguing development is the status of people with disabilities within the Beach. The ferry crossing fare between the two cities was reduced for those with physical disabilities because of polio, and as a result, they are invaluable to the informal economy for transporting goods cheaply between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Informal connections show that there is an appetite for exchange, and this has the potential to grow in the future.

Scope for a Closer Relationship

The existence of a thriving informal sector suggests that with a change in policies closer integration is possible. Potentially relaxing customs on either side of the Congo River to make it quicker and cheaper for people and goods to move between borders.[8] This would also encourage traders to not take riskier but less expensive routes such as motorised canoes. Areas such as the Beach could also be more easily placed under formal control, and with customs reforms could still operate a thriving trade.

There is also the need for better infrastructure. The most effective investment would be a rail bridge between the two cities: it is quick, fares can be cheap, and it provides an opportunity for joint investment. It could perhaps also join the rail link to Matadi, providing both cities with quick access to the Atlantic. What this ultimately means is that the livelihoods of those living in the two cities, as well as the hinterlands could be improved with closer ties to one another. Now more than ever, it is important to make conscious efforts towards interconnectedness as in the global village in which we find ourselves there is great power in bridges than one may find in walls. Connecting Brazzaville and Kinshasa is a step forward towards unity and is an act that will reap diplomatic as well as economic benefits.


Image: Google Images

[1] T. Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991. [2] B. Whitehouse, "Discrimination, Despoliation, and Irreconcilable Difference: Host-Immigrant Tensions in Brazzaville, Congo," Africa Spectrum, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 39-59, 2009. [3] G. Vanthemsche, A. Cameron, S. Windross and K. Connelly, Belgium and the Congo, 1885-1980, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. [4] H. Herderschee, K. Kaiser and D. Mukoko-Samba, Resilience of an African Giant: Boosting Growth and Development in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Washington DC: World Bank, 2012. [5] I. F. Corporation, The Republic of Congo Systematic Country Diagnostic, Washington DC: The World Bank, 2018. [6] V. Foster, The Democratic Republic of Congo's Infrastructure: A Continental Perspective, Washington DC: The World Bank, 2011. [7] C. Devlieger, "Rome and the Romains: Laughter on the Border Between Kinshasa and Brazzaville," Africa, vol. 88, no. 1, pp. 160-182, 2018. [8] M. Brülhart and M. Hoppe, Economic Intergration in the Lower Congo region: Opening the Kinshasa-Brazzaville Bottleneck, Washington DC: The World Bank, 2011.

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