A civil war has been raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since.. well.. pretty much since the Belgians conquered the area, committed genocide, and called it a colony, as told in the excellent book King Leopold’s Ghost. But in the past 13 years, warfare has escalated and killed over 6 million Congolese, while rape has become an absolute epidemic and one of the main weapons of war. The UN’s top humanitarian official described the sexual violence against Congolese women as “almost unimaginable” for its frequency and ferocity.
This is a conflict that concerns us all, as it sheds crucial light on the functioning of global capitalism. At the center of the war is a mineral called coltan, short for Columbite-tantalite, which is used in capacitors, a necessary piece of electronics found in virtually every electronic device of modern capitalist society, from laptops to cell phones to cameras and jet engines. See Coltan: Learning the Basics. Coltan is just one of several expensive and rare minerals abundant in this remote region of central Africa, but coltan is ONLY available in this part of the world, which makes it extremely valuable.
The DRC government, Uganda, Rwanda, and various militias and guerrilla forces are fighting over control of the land where these minerals are mined. The local residents, whose traditional lifestyles have been disrupted by decades of civil war, are forced to dig tiny amounts of these “conflict minerals” from the soil in inhuman conditions, often with their bare hands. An estimated 2 million of the miners are children, and often they are literal or virtual slaves who are on the brink of starvation. It is a situation which can only be described as hell on earth.
When you hear about such extreme exploitation, you can be pretty sure that some folks are making a hell of a lot of money. In this case, it’s western corporations like Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Dell, IBM, Sony and many more who rely on extremely cheap capacitors in their electronics to make their profits from our Christmas presents. These companies have thus far avoided scrutiny by outsourcing the more direct business of extracting the minerals to smaller companies.
If there is any hope in this terrible situation, it is that capitalism is reaching the end of its ability to exploit the people of the world the way it has for the last centuries, and through the increased awareness of what is happening in places like the Congo, we as a people will say “Never again.” It is primarily the responsibility of those of us in the wealthy countries to put a stop to this paradigm of rape, slavery, and capitalist profit. Only we have the power to end the madness.
Below is a wonderful article that outlines specific solutions to the Congo civil war. [alex]
Conflict Minerals: A Cover For US Allies and Western Mining Interests?
Kambale Musavuli and Bodia Macharia
Originally published by Huffington Post, Dec. 14, 2009.
As global awareness grows around the Congo and the silence is finally being broken on the current and historic exploitation of Black people in the heart of Africa, myriad Western based “prescriptions” are being proffered. Most of these prescriptions are devoid of social, political, economic and historical context and are marked by remarkable omissions. The conflict mineral approach or efforts emanating from the United States and Europe are no exception to this symptomatic approach which serves more to perpetuate the root causes of Congo’s challenges than to resolve them.
The conflict mineral approach has an obsessive focus on the FDLR and other rebel groups while scant attention is paid to Uganda (which has an International Court of Justice ruling against it for looting and crimes against humanity in the Congo) and Rwanda (whose role in the perpetuation of the conflict and looting of Congo is well documented by UN reports and international arrest warrants for its top officials). Rwanda is the main transit point for illicit minerals coming from the Congo irrespective of the rebel group (FDLR, CNDP or others) transporting the minerals. According to Dow Jones, Rwanda’s mining sector output grew 20% in 2008 from the year earlier due to increased export volumes of tungsten, cassiterite and coltan, the country’s three leading minerals with which Rwanda is not well endowed. In fact, should Rwanda continue to pilfer Congo’s minerals, its annual mineral export revenues are expected to reach $200 million by 2010. Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen says it best when he notes “having controlled the Kivu provinces for 12 years, Rwanda will not relinquish access to resources that constitute a significant percentage of its gross national product.” As long as the West continues to give the Kagame regime carte blanche, the conflict and instability will endure.
According to Global Witness’s 2009 report, Faced With A Gun What Can you Do, Congolese government statistics and reports by the Group of Experts and NGOs, Rwanda is one of the main conduits for illicit minerals leaving the Congo. It is amazing that the conflict mineral approach shout loudly about making sure that the trade in minerals does not benefit armed groups but the biggest armed beneficiary of Congo’s minerals is the Rwandan regime headed by Paul Kagame. Nonetheless, the conflict mineral approach is remarkably silent about Rwanda’s complicity in the fueling of the conflict in the Congo and the fleecing of Congo’s riches.
Advocates of the conflict mineral approach would be far more credible if they had ever called for any kind of pressure whatsoever on mining companies that are directly involved in either fueling the conflict or exploiting the Congolese people. The United Nations, The Congolese Parliament, Carter Center, Southern Africa Resource Watch and several other NGOs have documented corporations that have pilfered Congo’s wealth and contributed to the perpetuation of the conflict. Some of these companies include but are not limited to: Traxys, OM Group, Blattner Elwyn Group, Freeport McMoran, Eagle Wings/Trinitech, Lundin, Kemet, Banro, AngloGold Ashanti, Anvil Mining, and First Quantum.
The conflict mineral approach, like the Blood Diamond campaign from which it draws its inspiration, is silent on the question of resource sovereignty which has been a central question in the geo-strategic battle for Congo’s mineral wealth. It was over this question of resource sovereignty that the West assassinated Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba and stifled the democratic aspirations of the Congolese people for over three decades by installing and backing the dictator Joseph Mobutu. In addition, the United States also backed the 1996 and 1998 invasions of Congo by Rwanda and Uganda instead of supporting the non-violent, pro-democracy forces inside the Congo. Unfortunately and to the chagrin of the Congolese people, some of the strongest advocates of the conflict mineral approach are former Clinton administration officials who supported the invasions of Congo by Rwanda and Uganda. This may in part explains the militaristic underbelly of the conflict mineral approach, which has as its so-called second step a comprehensive counterinsurgency.
The focus on the east of Congo falls in line with the long-held obsession by some advocates in Washington who incessantly push for the balkanization of the Congo. Their focus on “Eastern Congo” is inadequate and does not fully take into account the nature and scope of the dynamics in the entire country. Political decisions in Kinshasa, the capital in the West, have a direct impact on the events that unfold in the East of Congo and are central to any durable solutions.
The central claim of the conflict mineral approach is to bring an end to the conflict; however, the conflict can plausibly be brought to an end much quicker through diplomatic and political means. The so-called blood mineral route is not the quickest way to end the conflict. We have already seen how quickly world pressure can work with the sidelining of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and the demobilization and/or rearranging of his CNDP rebel group in January 2009, as a result of global pressure placed on the CNDP’s sponsor Paul Kagame of Rwanda. More pressure needs to be placed on leaders such as Kagame and Museveni who have been at the root of the conflict since 1996. The FDLR can readily be pressured as well, especially with most of their political leadership residing in the West, however this should be done within a political framework, which brings all the players to the table as opposed to the current militaristic, dichotomous, good-guy bad-guy approach where the West sees Kagame and Museveni as the “good-guys” and everyone else as bad. The picture is far grayer than Black and White.
A robust political approach by the global community would entail the following prescriptions:
- Join Sweden and Netherlands in pressuring Rwanda to be a partner for peace and a stabilizing presence in the region. The United States and Great Britain in particular should apply more pressure on their allies Rwanda and Uganda to the point of withholding aid if necessary.
- Hold to account companies and individuals through sanctions trafficking in minerals whether with rebel groups or neighboring countries, particularly Rwanda and Uganda. Canada has chimed in as well but has been deadly silent on the exploitative practices of its mining companies in the Congo. Canada must do more to hold its mining companies accountable as is called for in Bill C-300.
- Encourage world leaders to be more engaged diplomatically and place a higher priority on what is the deadliest conflict in the World since World War Two.
- Reject the militarization of the Great Lakes region represented by AFRICOM, which has already resulted in the suffering of civilian population; the strengthening of authoritarian figures such as Uganda’s Museveni (in power since 1986) and Rwanda’s Kagame (won the 2003 “elections” with 95 percent of the vote); and the restriction of political space in their countries.
- Demand of the Obama administration to be engaged differently from its current military-laden approach and to take the lead in pursuing an aggressive diplomatic path with an emphasis on pursuing a regional political framework that can lead to lasting peace and stability.
Kambale Musavuli is spokesperson and student coordinator for Friends of the Congo. Bodia Macharia is the President of Friends of the Congo/ Canada.