The Congo and Conflict Minerals

On December 9th, Joseph Kabila was re-elected President of the Democratic of the Congo.  Overseen by international observers, this was the first ever election organised from with the DRC… and it was a whitewash.  With serious electoral irregularities being minimised and ignored by the international community, the election was a farce.

The DRC is one of the richest countries in the world: a land rich in natural resources.  Aside from the gold, diamonds and oil, it also holds approximately 80% of the world’s coltan – a mineral essential in just about any electronic device that you can think of.  Yet the average income of a Congolese citizen is approximately £1.50 per week, and the country ranks last in UN indices of development, health, education and life expectancy.

Much of this is due to the ongoing violence over the control of these resources. Multiple armed groups operate throughout the country, using murder and mass rape as deliberate tactics to secure control of mines, material supply and trading routes.  Millions are made by these groups from the trade of such minerals, financing the purchase of weapons thereby giving them increased influence in a tragic spiral.

Since his election ten years ago, Kabilha, despite tough rhetoric, has shown little appetite for tackling the violence engulfing the country in the ongoing quest for profit.  Congolese women in particular have been the collateral damage.  With nearly half a million rapes estimated each year in a country with a population of approximately 60 million, systematic sexualised violence sustains the conflict and is used as a tool to gain and maintain control over resources.  Breaking marriages, families and kinship ties, it devastates communities rendering them fractured and traumatised, too weak to provide any local leadership or support to resistant efforts to the robber barons who strip their resources with impunity.

In a country with no legal abortion, rape also provides a steady stream of recruits for the militias.  Children born of rape, rejected by their families and communities are abandoned to the streets and left to fend for themselves: easy pickings for the militia recruitment which need a steady supply of cannon fodder.  Brutalised and hungry, the prospect of regular meals provides a strong pull, while death and violence holds no fear for children already accustomed to its proximity.

While the militias and their trading partners strip the country’s resources one load at a time, Kabila has been selling them off wholesale.  Approximately $5.5bn has been lost to the Congolese people through the government selling off state assets at a fraction of their value, including one sale of mining assets independently valued at $800m, sold for little over $100m to a substantial and generous backer of Kabila’s 2006 election campaign.

The international response to the Congo has primarily concentrated on the supply of conflict minerals, particularly targeting technology consumers, but a lack of a transparent supply chain means that there is no ability for consumers to track where the resources used in their technological products are coming from. In response these concerns the US government passed the “Conflict Minerals Law” – part of the Dodds-Frank Act, in July 2010 – yet there are considerable criticisms of this approach.  Evidence is emerging that it is encouraging smuggling of the minerals into Rwanda and other neighbouring countries for certification thereby undermining the spirit of the law, paradoxically increasing the violence as armed militias fight all the more viciously over control of the extended supply chains.

For all the international hand-wringing, there is little appetite for supporting the Congolese people to have the governance and accountability which could provide the necessary oversight of the industry and tackle the ongoing lawlessness it fuels.  The main response of the UN and the US was to “appeal for calm” in the face of the disputed election results, despite obvious electoral manipulation.  The rounding up of opposition figures following the election and threats of a brutal clampdown on any dissent have largely kept people off the streets.  At the same time, international protests from the Congolese diaspora have been stamped down upon, with 143 arrested at a peaceful protest in London and a young woman in a coma after brutal policing of protests in Belgium, the former colonial rulers of the Congo, who first perfected the art of raping the country.

The Congolese are rapidly losing faith in the kind of democracy which only serves to provide Western consumers with a cover of legitimacy for  the asset stripping of the country.  This asset stripping will continue until the Congolese can establish security and respect.  Neither of these are possible when peaceful protests are met with violent repression and the diplomatic community colludes with fraudsters and charlatans to secure the supply of raw materials to meet Western technology industry demands.   The campaign against conflict minerals cannot be effective until there is appropriate control over Congolese mines and transportation and that can only come with accountable and democratic governance.

The conflict, stolen elections and even the international protests are stunningly under-reported in the West, which has a vested interest in telling a story of a democratically elected leader, besieged by brutal savages in a backward country, while the technology industry continues on apace.

A version of this post was first published in the Scottish Socialist Voice

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