Congo waits sceptically for the lights to come on

From a mud hut under the world's longest high-tension power line, Tshisumpa Nvita can see the rusting remains of a power station that, for a few months 30 years ago, brought electricity to this corner of Congo.

Like many local villagers, the 76-year-old was hired as a temporary worker on the US-funded Cold War-era project.

But when work was completed, the lights went out again.

"We hoped it would give us power too. It wasn't until they finished that they said none of this was for us. It was for the mining companies," Nvita said.

"After all the work we did, we were angry."

Decades of mismanagement under former ruler Mobutu Sese Seko and a 1998-2003 war, which killed an estimated 4 million people, left Democratic Republic of Congo in ruins.

Few paved roads exist in the vast nation the size of Western Europe. The rail system is plagued by daily derailments. And what electricity there is, is produced by unreliable generators running off costly imported diesel.

Following the first democratic election in four decades last year, President Joseph Kabila announced a five-point plan to get the former Belgian colony back on its feet, with a heavy emphasis on rebuilding infrastructure.

With more than $300 million from the World Bank, the power line, which runs 1,700 km (1,056 miles) from the extreme west of the central African nation to its mineral-rich southern Katanga province, is set to provide power for people like Nvita.

"The project is to help rehabilitate and modernize the transmission system to help evacuate power from Inga hydropower station to the industrial heart of the country and eventually to extend access to a majority of the population in the hinterland," said Sam O'Brian Kume, team leader for the World Bank's energy program in Congo.

The renovations, due to begin later this year, include construction of a new line to the capital, Kinshasa, a city of some 8 million people which is plagued by chronic blackouts.

The existing line, which runs over Nvita's house in Western Kasai province, is also to be refurbished.

PLOCAL NEEDS

Some are skeptical the renovation will fulfill expectations.

Cosmas Mbope, former deputy governor of Western Kasai, said the real problem was distributing the power to villages.

"The high tension lines pass straight through the middle of Western Kasai, they give power to neighboring countries, but Western Kasai still doesn't have electricity. It's holding up development," he said.

Despite being unable to provide power to most of its people, Congo exports a total of 220 megawatts to Zimbabwe and South Africa. neighboring Zambia has also become increasingly dependent on Congo to power a booming copper mining industry.

Jean-Thomas Lokala, technical director of Congo's national power company, said Congo was simply not equipped to divert the line's load to supply the local population.

"It requires technology we don't have," he said. "We had a surplus, so we had to export."

That could change following a promise last month by the South African unit of Swiss engineering firm ABB to invest $200 million in developing Congo's power distribution.

Among the company's proposals are plans to redirect supply from the power line at a site called Tshimbulu, in Western Kasai, towards the provincial capital, Kananga.

Mbope has heard this kind of promise before.

A plan to construct a hydroelectric power station at the Katende Falls to supply power to the long-neglected province has been on the drawing board for more than a decade. South African investors pulled out during the chaotic late 1990s.

There are no newspapers, no television, and only a radio as a source of information, so news is slow to reach Nvita's village. He says he is unaware of all the talk surrounding the line that passes overhead.

"We haven't heard anything about it. If they've all given this money, why are we still in the dark?," he said.

Reuters