- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

On the heels of enjoyable and productive meetings with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso has been the subject of several misconceptions recently published in these pages.

In addition to his discussions with Mr. Bush and his leadership as head of the African Union on issues such as Darfur, Somalia and HIV/AIDS, President Sassou-Nguesso’s trip also includes meetings with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Republic of the Congo is seeking debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative administered by the World Bank and IMF.

Since the beginning of the HIPC process, the Republic of Congo has agreed to the many stringent criteria set by the World Bank and IMF and has met all the milestones required. In particular, to address financial irregularities in the state-owned oil company, the government has taken measures to remove conflicts of interest, increase transparency and improve overall governance. The government agreed to a comprehensive audit by KPMG (ongoing) and has posted all the audit results to date on our Web site. This is a serious process overseen by well respected, independent organizations.

The recent commentators seeking to tarnish the Republic of Congo’s image and preclude debt relief are not concerned citizens wanting to share their views with the readers of The Washington Times. They are paid commentators — hired guns — working for private “vulture” fund creditors. The vulture funds are in the business of making money by buying the discounted debt of the world’s poorest countries and collecting for hundreds on the dollar. Their self-interest in preventing Congo from working through the HIPAC process is obvious. What is most offensive and egregious is that these funds are largely headquartered in offshore tax havens. So while they hide their revenues from the IRS, they are more than willing to tie up the U.S. judicial and legislative branches with bogus claims against Congo.

The Republic of Congo has among the heaviest debt burdens of any country in the world, estimated at $9.2 billion at the close of 2004. According the World Bank, this level of debt is equal to a Net Present Value of 806 percent of fiscal revenue. Thus, the need for debt relief is obvious and urgent. Debt relief for Congo under HIPC would significantly reduce the country’s external debt, thereby allowing vital funds to be directed toward improving government services for the population.

The world’s major lenders recognize the Republic of Congo’s need for debt relief and have worked closely with the government to restructure and cancel some debt. In March 2006, the Republic of Congo, the World Bank and IMF reached the “decision point” under HIPC confirming that the Republic of Congo meets the criteria for HIPC relief and established the path for final, “irrevocable” debt relief. The April 2006 IMF staff report concluded that the Republic of Congo is committed to making reforms to alleviate poverty, streamline spending, increase transparency and establish a better financial system for state run oil company.

The Republic of Congo, under the leadership of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, has pursued economic reforms and solidified democratic institutions to emerge as an example of progress in Africa. Indeed, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso was among the first to call for free and fair elections in 1992 and stepped down after conceding defeat. Only after the country had once again fallen to disarray was he returned to office in 1997 and was re-elected in 2002. As current president of the African Union, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso’s tireless efforts to instill peace and stability on the continent have been praised by President Bush and Miss Rice. Mr. Sassou-Nguesso’s commitment to promote development of the continent is matched by his determination to make the Republic of Congo a model for peace and progress in Africa.

With all the wheels in motion toward development, growth and prosperity for Congolese citizens, it is important that all our efforts are supported. Right now, there are several players acting in concert to throw this progress off course. I am optimistic these exaggerated claims by parties with clear monetary interests in precluding Congo debt relief will be taken with a grain of salt and that the Republic of Congo’s earnest commitment to meeting all the criteria for HIPC relief will be objectively considered.

Alain Akouala is communications minister for the Republic of Congo.

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