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The violence of coltan: purchase of a global silence

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?

June 24, 2017
8 min read

Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila (above) operates less like a stereotypical dictator and more like a ruthless CEO with a military wing.

In February 2017, a video filmed in the village of Mwanza Lomba went viral.

It showed unarmed civilians – women and children – being massacred by soldiers of the state army, and 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 where, since the outbreak of the Kamwina Nsapu insurrection last August, millions of civilians have been displaced by armed forces and militias of the Kabila regime, but for some reason 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 eleventh 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 today, the same organisation’s 2016-2020 forecast omitted to include it in its ranking altogether, while Syria, now firmly in the international spotlight, has climbed to 6th 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 that directly implicates the president of the state.

Yet while in Syria, recent chemical attacks against civilians, captured on video too, have prompted a US military intervention and calls from around the world for the immediate departure of Bashar El-Assad from power, DRC’s Laurent Kabila seems to enjoy a license to carry on and with impunity.

A GLOBAL WAREHOUSE OF ORES

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 is a legacy that 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 of an ascendant automobile industry.

During the Second World War, the USA used the highly toxic Shinkolombwe’s uranium to supply the secret Manhattan project for the manufacture of the world’s first atomic bomb including those dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Once again, it was Congolese blood that 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, known also as ‘grey gold’.

Coltan is a mineral of great value for the high-tech industry and has transformed Eastern Congo into the “rape capital of the world”, since 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, proves an insurmountable obstacle to any effort made to conflict-resolution in the region.

The demand for cobalt now grows with demand for the lithium-ion batteries that charge electric vehicles and store renewable energy.

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 the manufacturing industries of the West, the demand for low-cost Congo minerals will only increase and in order to meet that demand and keeps costs down, a ruthless CEO is what is needed.

ABSOLUTE IMMUNITY

The DRC’s open-pit high grade copper mines rank amongst the ten 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, for example, ranks Congo fourth of all the countries in the world in terms of practice of torture. 70% of the crimes and human rights violations recorded in DRC in 2016 were committed by the national security forces, under direct or indirect orders from the head of state or his immediate entourage.

The list of uninvestigated mass graves 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 mass grave of Maluku, like so many others, remains a mystery.

Leaked documents reveal that as far back as 2014, orders from the Ministry of the Interior, distributed to senior officials of the National Intelligence Agency, the Police Force 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.

A PRIVATE ENTERPRISE

As it was in the past for King Leopold II, Congo is Joseph Kabila’s private enterprise.

There are mines that are directly controlled by the president and his family. Those that are not are sub-contracted, in the name of Joseph 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 and 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, and 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, facilitating what is more politely described as a process of “cross-border economic development”.

Saracen Uganda Ltd, for example, 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 criticized in a 2002 UN 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.

THE PURCHASE OF 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 Mr. Kabila’s government with foreign aid”.

In 2010, a law was created in the US by the Democratic Party called The Dodd-Franck Act that had as its aim the prohibition of trade in minerals obtained through conflict. This law, however, has had the unintended affect of giving a boost to illicit cross-border trafficking, which are used in such a way as to hide the supply chain.

According to UN investigators, smuggling is facilitated by the Congolese national armed forces (FARDC) 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.

RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT

EU and US sanctions, targeted against Congolese officials but not Joseph Kabila, are ineffective in the field. They remain untouchable princes in the Congo, living in style and with impunity. And 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 (RtoP) – a political commitment designed to end the worst forms of violence and persecution – should sincerely fulfil this commitment towards the Congolese population.

It’s time Joseph Kabila should 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 we who enjoy electronic devices, cars, planes, smartphones and drones…

How long can this injustice be sustained?

Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo are the founders of the Orion Congon Studies Network (OCSN)

 

This feature was commissioned by the Black Journalism fund. 

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