The German Society for Technological Cooperation, or GTZ, has become the victim of the judicial system in DR Congo. The case shows that corruption is still a major problem in helping Africa help itself.
The conflict arose in the Goma region of Congo
The GTZ maintains 44 bank accounts in DRC but is currently unable to access any of the funds in them, and the organization's main offices in Kinshasha have been disappropriated.
The reason is a 16-year-old legal case involving firewood.
In 1994, the GTZ hired Tabura Kashali - a middleman in the eastern Congolese city of Goma - to deliver wood for heating one of its emergency relief projects.
Salua Nour was the director of the GTZ's offices in Kinshasa at the time.
"After the transaction, the GTZ went to the delivery point to pick up the wood, and it wasn't there," Nour recalled for Deutsche Welle. "Kashali said, 'I brought the wood here - it's been stolen. And you have to pay me because I have to pay my suppliers.'"
Kashali sued the GTZ, and the case went to the Congolese Supreme Court, which ruled against him. Nonetheless, in 2003, the GTZ paid him a nominal compensation fee to end the legal squabbles.
But Kashali then refiled his suit with a lower court, something impermissible under Congolese law. The judge, who may have been acting in his own monetary interests, ruled in Kashali's favor and ordered the GTZ to pay the middleman over a quarter of a million dollars - a figure that included exaggerated sums for lost profits and interest.
The Congolese government paid half of that amount in an act of compensation, but Kashali has continued to insist he receive the other half, plus further interest and penalties.
"We've done nothing wrong," said GTZ Spokeswoman Anja Tomic in a recent interview with German radio. "We didn't make any legal mistakes or cheat anyone. We've just gotten caught up in the judicial machinery there."
'An insult to those who want to help'
The GTZ is Germany's main development organization
Environmental activist Rene Ngongo, who comes from Goma, also defends the GTZ, highlighting the organization's courage during the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003.
"It's a very unpleasant surprise that funds have been frozen because of this stupid decision," Ngongo told Deutsche Welle. "The GTZ stayed here during the war, when no other organization remained. If one forgets that, one endangers not just our cooperation with Germany, but with other countries who may feel insulted."
The case of the missing wood has yet to create much of a stir in the Congolese press, but it's angered German Development Minister Dirk Niebel. And to make matters worse, the Congolese non-governmental organization ICGP is also suing the GTZ for almost a million dollars, after the two groups terminated a working relationship.
The sums involved in the legal disputes now total almost 1.5 million dollars (1.14 million euros), leading Congolese judges to order the blockage of the GTZ's bank accounts. Niebel sees the credibility of his ministry's work at risk.
"The situation is unacceptable," Niebel told Deutsche Welle. "It is our specific goal and mandate to ensure that taxpayers' money is not inappropriately diverted. That money should not be going into the pockets of shady timber dealers. It should be flowing into the projects to improve the lives of the people of Congo."
Germany's Development Minister has been very active in Congo
Congo is one of Germany's so-called "focus countries" and received some 82 million euros ($108 million) in German aid last year.
Niebel has hinted that that aid could be up for discussion when Germany and Congo meet in late October to discuss bilateral agreements.
But Salua Nour, who left the GTZ last year to work at the Free University of Berlin, says ordinary Congolese should not be made to pay for the deeds of what could be common swindlers and a dysfunctional legal system.
"The Congolese suffer just as much or even much more under this judicial system than the GTZ," Nour says. "You can't just say: 'The Congolese are at fault.' They are also at the system's mercy."
Nour says that, in fact, more development aid money should go to Congo to help reform its judiciary and fight corruption.
At present, the GTZ and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development are hard at work trying to get the accounts unfrozen. Niebel says seven Congolese ministers are trying to help rectify the situation.
Niebel says he has also written to the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, about the situation. But for now, he's still waiting for an answer to his letter.
Author: Adrian Kriesch/Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge