How coltan and greed fuel Congo's violence

A miner searches for coltan in the Democratic republic of Congo.

In February, a video filmed in the village of Mwanza Lomba in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, went viral.

It showed unarmed civilians — including children — being massacred by soldiers of the state army. The clip quickly moved from the social networks onto television news channels around the world. But then it vanished again without any further debate about what it meant and what it revealed.

In April, more than 40 mass graves were discovered in the same region, Kasai Province. There, since the outbreak of the Kamwina Nsapu insurrection last August, millions of civilians have been displaced by armed forces and militias of President Joseph Kabila’s regime.

But the story of their plight appears to go largely unchallenged.

According to the 2011-2015 forecast of the University of Sydney’s Atrocity Forecasting Project (AFP), DRC ranked second and Syria 11th of the countries most at risk of the onset of genocide or “politicide”.

Yet in spite of the fact that mass atrocities are ongoing in DRC, the same organisation’s 2016-2020 forecast omitted to include it in its ranking altogether. Meanwhile Syria, now firmly in the international spotlight, has climbed to sixth position.

Genocide, defined by human rights activist John Prenderghast, as “eliminating a group of people based on their identity”, is a daily reality in DRC in which the president is directly implicated.

In Syria, recent chemical attacks against civilians, also captured on video, have prompted a US military intervention and calls from around the world for the immediate departure of Bashar al-Assad from power. But Kabila seems to enjoy a license to carry on and with impunity.

Blood for resources

DRC is known not only as a vast cemetery of forgotten holocausts and veiled genocides, but also as a huge mass grave where millions of victims of Africa’s great wars have been buried in support of a global culture of consumerism.

This legacy dates back to 1885 when the Belgian monarch, Leopold II, sacrificed tens of millions of Congolese by cutting off hands, fingers and feet. Death and displacement were the price required to satisfy the insatiable need for rubber for an ascendant automobile industry.

During World War II, the United States used the highly toxic uranium from the DRC’s Shinkolombwe mine to supply the secret Manhattan project for the manufacture of the world’s first atomic bomb. This uranium was used in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Once again, Congolese blood paid for the enrichment of the West.

Since 1996, in multiple and complex wars, millions of Congolese have paid in blood for the extraction of coltan, also known as “grey gold”.

Coltan is a mineral of great value for the high-tech industry. The scramble for coltan has transformed Eastern Congo into the “rape capital of the world”. Militias and the national army use rape as a means of displacing populations in order to gain control of mines.

The global demand for tantalum, columbium, tin, gold and tungsten, all commonly used in computer chips and electronic gadgets including smartphones, also proves an insurmountable obstacle to conflict-resolution in the region.

The demand for cobalt, used lithium-ion batteries that charge electric vehicles and store renewable energy, is also growing strongly.

The country that controls access to this high-grade Congo “blood cobalt” therefore controls the energy of the future.

Now, as we hear new calls to revive manufacturing industries in the West, the demand for low-cost Congo minerals will only grow.

Absolute immunity

The DRC’s open-pit high grade copper mines rank among the 10 largest in the world. But in the field of human rights, the country lingers at the bottom of the list.

The British NGO Freedom from Torture ranks it fourth out of all the countries in the world in terms of the practice of torture. About 70% of the crimes and human rights violations recorded in DRC last year were committed by the national security forces, under direct or indirect orders from the head of state or his immediate entourage.

The list of mass graves that have not been investigated can beggar belief: Kibumba in North Kivu, Makobola, Tingi-Tingi, Mbandaka, Kisangani, Beni, Sumbi, Nienge, Lolo Bene in Bas-Congo, Rubare in North Kivu, Camp Kibembe, Lubumbashi. Two years since its discovery, the source of the mass grave of Maluku, like so many others, remains a mystery.

Leaked documents reveal that as far back as 2014, orders from the interior ministry, distributed to senior officials of the National Intelligence Agency, the police and the Directorate General for Migration, justified the use of torture when used with “discretion” against political opponents, and as a “method of silent repression and intimidation” to maintain a hold on power.

Kabila’s private enterprise

As it was in the past for the Belgium king, Congo is Kabila’s private enterprise.

Many mines are directly controlled by the president and his family. Those that are not are sub-contracted, in the name of Kabila, to militias, mercenaries or trading systems of companies that do business in “vacant lands” that lie beyond the state’s control.

Kabila’s economic empire consists of at least 70 companies, all managed or majority-owned by members of his family. It includes the death squads that operate as false flags throughout the country as part of the government’s general military strategy.

Military officers and undercover civilians recruit mercenaries by order of the president and his family. They do so under the protection of the regional general intelligence services of nations including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

These armed gangs, known as “presidential militias”, operate freely in the Congo but also work as a kind of sub-regional mafia. They facilitate what is more politely described as a process of “cross-border economic development”.

For example, Saracen Uganda Ltd, a company dedicated to transforming professional security services in East Africa and providing access to explosive ordnance disposal, car tracking services, security dogs, and guards, was criticised in a 2002 United Nations Security Council report for training rebel paramilitary forces in the DRC.

General Salim Saleh, half-brother of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, is one of the company’s founders. Uganda has become the factory and cradle of mercenaries, and the commercial hub of the gold trade despite the denunciations of international NGOs and observers.

Mining concessions in DRC have been acquired by huge international mining companies either at suspiciously low prices or for billions of dollars that never reached the Congolese state coffers.

Purchasing silence

The New York Times reported recently that Kabila “has softened criticism from his Western allies by ensuring that they profited from Congo’s wealth. Huge mineral concessions were handed to corporations from countries that finance Congo’s elections and that support Kabila’s government with foreign aid.”

In 2010, a law was created in the US by the Democratic Party called The Dodd-Franck Act. It aimed to ban trade in minerals obtained through conflict. This law, however, has had the unintended effect of boosting illicit cross-border trafficking, which is used in such a way as to hide the supply chain.

According to UN investigators, smuggling is facilitated by the Congolese national armed forces, as well as by the national armies of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

Ituri gold is exported from Congo to Uganda and sold as Ugandan; coltan from North Kivu to Rwanda and sold as Rwandan; diamonds from Mbuji-Mayi to China and Zimbabwe; and gold from South Kivu and North Katanga to Burundi and Tanzania.

EU and US sanctions, targeted against Congolese officials but not Kabila, are ineffective in the field. They remain untouchable princes in the Congo, living in style and with impunity. In any case, history teaches us that several authoritarian regimes, against all odds, have resisted international sanctions.

UN member-states committed to the Responsibility to Protect — a political commitment designed to end the worst forms of violence and persecution — should sincerely fulfil this commitment towards the Congolese population.

It is time for Kabila to be held accountable for his crimes.

The status quo sacrifices any basic right to life and dignity for the people of the Congo in favour of the happiness of those of us who enjoy electronic devices, cars, planes, smartphones and drones. But how long can this injustice be sustained?

[Reprinted from Red Pepper. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo are the founders of the Orion Congon Studies Network.]