KINSHASA (Reuters) - Stuck in traffic in a fume-filled taxi with a cracked windscreen, Peter Likiel says his four-mile daily commute has doubled to three hours since construction began on one of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi’s signature new overpasses.
The president had envisioned a series of sleek roadways above the capital Kinshasa’s congested boulevards that would strike a bold first impression after he took over from his long-serving predecessor, Joseph Kabila.
Instead, more than a year after his inauguration, the so-called “sauts-de-mouton” – French for “sheep-jumps” – are mostly half-built due to delays mobilizing funds, snarling traffic and ensnaring the government in accusations of graft.
“I thought it was a good thing, when it was announced,” said Likiel, 64, as his taxi nosed toward the construction site of the new Socimat junction overpass in downtown Kinshasa, a mess of girders and poured concrete where only one side of the bridge has been started.
The English teacher’s thoughts changed when his commute costs doubled to about a third of his salary.
“Now there are some places where it has become impossible to pass.”
The situation has become a full-blown crisis for Tshisekedi, who was already struggling to prove he had the political strength to modernize the country and stamp out corruption, despite being forced into a coalition government dominated by allies of Kabila, who was in power from 2001-2019.
The endless traffic jams and buck-passing between senior members of government have dominated the front pages of newspapers in the capital city of some 12 million people.
The public prosecutor announced this month that he had opened an investigation into the delays, requesting procurement documents from several ministries and the central bank.
Tshisekedi promised in July that the sheep-jumps would be a “Christmas present” to Kinshasa residents. Since then, different officials have offered wildly conflicting status reports.
The head of Tshisekedi’s party Jean-Marc Kabund said this month that only 30% of the work is complete while Tshisekedi’s chief of staff Vital Kamerhe has said over two-thirds is done.
Watchdog groups complain that none of the projects in the $304-million program for Tshisekedi’s first 100 days, which included roads, bridges and social housing, were approved by parliament in the 2019 budget.
Florimond Muteba from the Observatory of Public Expenditure, a Congolese transparency group, said wasteful spending has worsened under Tshisekedi, a charge the president denies.
Tshisekedi visited various sheep-jumps on Friday. At the Socimat overpass, he shook his head as workers briefed him on the project.
“The saut-de-mouton here, I was never in agreement with it,” he said.
Reporting and writing by Hereward Holland; editing by Aaron Ross, Edward McAllister and Ed Osmond