Death toll from blasts in Congo Brazzaville reflects bad urban planning

This disaster could have been averted by shifting rural newcomers to Congo Brazzaville to safer neighborhoods, and away from a dangerous site like the arms depot that blew up Sunday.  

This video image taken across the Congo river in Kinshasa, Congo Sunday March 4, shows a blast that rocked Brazzaville the capital of the Republic of Congo.

The blasts leveled buildings and were felt as far as five miles away, across the river in the neighboring city of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But the blasts at the arms depot of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Congo – which killed at least 213 people on Sunday, injured hundreds, and trapped many more within collapsed buildings – have reverberated far beyond Congo’s borders. The reason: like many African countries, Congo has found that its rapidly urbanizing population is moving into areas where large populations were never intended to be, such as this arms depot.

The high death toll shows what happens when countries don’t take urban planning seriously, says Nicolas-Patience Basabose, editor of the French-language news weekly Le Congolais, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“This disaster could have been prevented,” he says in a phone interview. “Twenty or 25 years ago, that area around the depot was an open place, but the city grew up around it, and nobody thought about why these buildings were there. And nobody in the city government thought that maybe the depot should have been moved out of there.”

“It is true of many African countries, including my own country, the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), which have inherited colonial structures,” says Mr. Basabose. “For many government officials, it’s all about power and how to stay in and how to maximize the money through corruption. Nothing is being done to plan the city properly and think in the longer term interest. Now they are paying the price.”

More than a day later, there were still reports of detonations and fire squads were struggling to keep fires from reaching a second arms depot nearby.

"For the time being, there are Russian, French and Congolese experts in the field who are trying to put out the fires. Their goal is to prevent the fires reaching a second depot of even heavier weapons," said Delphin Kibakidi, spokesman of the local Red Cross in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, according to the Associated Press.

The cause of the blast is still uncertain, but Congolese officials were quoted by the French language magazine Jeune Afrique as saying they believe the blast may be linked to a short circuit at the depot.

According to Le Figaro, the streets of Brazzaville were empty of cars after the blast, perhaps because of a curfew by the Congolese military to secure the area and to prevent looting. Windows were shattered, roofs were ripped off. Several churches were destroyed; the blasts took place at the time of mass.

One resident described the scene to Le Figaro like this.

“There are many people on the street: they flee with their luggage on their heads, barefoot, some are barely dressed.There is no traffic, no buses, no taxis."

A blog in the Paris-based paper Le Monde noted today that the arms depot was located in a district close to the private residence of Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso. President Nguesso came to power after winning the 1997 civil war, with the help of Angolan troops. Since that time, the Mpila district has remained a neighborhood for supporters of Nguesso, Le Monde said, and the fact that he kept weapons close by “says a lot about his confidence in the future.”

“The considerable intensity of the explosion, shows that in Brazzaville, he who wants peace prepares for war. It's not that Congo Brazzaville is in a period of tension. Instead, the small country living so far from the eyes of the world is pretty near out of the phase of rebellions and insurrections that followed the civil war. But the size of the stock of ammunition that President Sassou Nguesso was keeping says a lot about his confidence in the future.”

Perhaps because the blasts have literally hit so close to home, Nguesso is belatedly thinking of moving the arms depot, and indeed the Congolese Army barracks, farther out of town, Jeune Afrique reported.

‘According to the text signed by the Minister for Communication and Relations with Parliament and the government spokesman, Bienvenu Okiemy, “the chief of State insisted on the need to relocate the barracks of the Congolese armed forces outside of Brazzaville.’ Wise decision.’

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