By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA May 20 (Reuters) - Millions of dollars were misused in the first phase of a project to build a national fiber optic network in Democratic Republic of Congo, a parliamentary mission has found.
Aimed at reducing communication costs in the infrastructure-poor country, construction of a national "backbone" by Congo's state-owned telecommunications company (SCPT) and China International Telecommunication Construction Corporation (CITCC) began in 2012. It was financed in part by China's Exim Bank.
The backbone links Congo to the West Africa Cable System (WACS), a submarine cable system in the Atlantic Ocean.
The first phase, connecting Kinshasa to the coastal town of Muanda at a cost of about $70 million, was completed in 2013 and work on the second phase, laying 3,500 km of new fiber from Kinshasa to the mining province of Katanga, is underway.
"We note already serious irregularities during the first phase of production," the mission's report, released this week, stated.
The report does not provide an exact figure for those irregularities but cites examples totalling millions of dollars.
In one case, the report says that at least $3.4 million loaned for the construction of a landing station for the submarine cable appear to have been withdrawn from a bank account by beneficiaries "not directly linked to the project."
The report also says that the government paid more than double the standard rate for the cables connecting Muanda to Kinshasa, which it says were widely defective and not suited for subterranean use.
"The amount that was misappropriated is much more than what was spent on the installation of the cables," said Emery Okundji, a national deputy who helped launch the investigation in 2012.
Mismanagement of the project has resulted in long delays in implementation and unreliable connections, the report says.
Telecommunications companies connected to the backbone include Tigo, Vodacom, Airtel and MTN.
According to a World Bank report last year, the price of bandwidth in Congo is up to 10 times the price of similar services in east African countries. Work on the project's 10 phases is expected to last 25 years. (Reporting By Aaron Ross; Editing by Toby Chopra)