The Looting of the Congo
by Colette Braekman
New Internationalist magazine,
Only the tiny planes that sit on Kamituga's
bare earth runway link this mining town in the eastern Democratic
Republic of Congo to the rest of the world.
The last time Europeans visited Kamituga
was over five years ago, before the war began. The children shout
with surprise when they see white skin.
The installations of the former Sominki
(Societe des Mines du Kivu) company have been ransacked, the shafts
flooded and the jungle has invaded the crumbling sheds and offices.
But exploitation of the site continues.
Teams of local diggers remove lumps of
stone, threaded with veins of gold from grooves hand-cut into
the hillsides. The work is intense. The diggers take the stones
to women who grind them for hours until they have reduced them
to powder mixed with spangles of gold dust. The dust is then carefully
For this slave labour, the women receive
a dollar a day. At night, if they agree to prostitute themselves,
they receive another dollar.
Once the diggers have collected a small
quantity of gold, they must file past the rebel 'commander' of
this place. Everyone calls him 'Divide-by-Two' because the diggers
have to cede half their gold to rebel soldiers belonging to RCD
Goma (Rally for Congolese Democracy). Soldiers and officers use
the revenue to buy and transport the arms they need for the occupation
of this province, Kivu.'
In January 2004 a delegation from the
capital, Kinshasa, managed to dethrone Divide-by-Two and his men.
Up till then the RCD rebels had total control of the place.
If in Kamituga there is no road and no
school; if the majority of girls are pregnant by 13 and have to
give birth by caesarean because their pelvises are too small;
if no campaign against HIV has ever been conducted; it is not
through lack of wealth. The place is rich in cassiterite (tin
ore), colombo tantalite ore (coltan) and other precious minerals
Iying in land that is fertile and abandoned by farmers.
This is the 'geological scandal' that
is the Democratic Republic of Congo. For a long time its environment
has provided the resources that the industrialized world requires
(see 'A Short History of Plunder', page I6). The mines of the
Congo have poured forth diamonds as well as metals and minerals
- niobium, tungsten, pyrochlore, coltan, and germanium. These
minerals, used in hi-tech manufacturing from mobile phones to
spaceships, are the valuable stakes which the perpetrators of
the last 10 years of violence have been playing for.
Used in the service of the nation, these
resources could have earned an estimated revenue of two or three
million dollars a year. Yet in Kamituga, as in the rest of the
Congo, the wealth that lies underground has become synonymous
with war, misery and under-development.
A war amongst thieves Two key factors
helped to plummet the Congo into war.
In the late 1980s the money to be made
in the country had attracted the attention of some 20 large international
corporations from South Africa, France, Canada, the US and Australia.
They vied for control of the main Congolese state mining companies
such as Gecamines (copper and cobalt), Okimo (gold), Miba (diamonds)
and Sominki (gold and cassiterite).
Yet the corruption and decadence of the
then-ruling Mobutu regime and the chaos reigning in the country
prevented such deals going ahead. Mobutu was opposed to the privatization
of such companies, not out of nationalism, but because they were
the main cash cows of his regime and the source of his vast personal
wealth. The international community became increasingly keen to
replace Mobutu with a more co-operative business partner.
Then, in the 1990s, several wars in the
African Great Lakes region emerged one from the other like Russian
dolls. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, largely by the Hutus
against the Tutsis, nearly two million Hutu refugees fleeing a
counter-offensive poured across the border into neighbouring Congo.
The refugee crisis helped destabilize
the eastern Congo, for among them were perpetrators of the Rwandan
genocide. Militarily organized, they threatened the local population
and promised to re-enter Rwanda. The situation was a festering
abscess largely ignored by the international community.
In October 1996, Rwanda took action to
control its border with the Congo and prevent the return of the
genocidal Hutu militias, forming a strange coalition - the Alliance
of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). It was
led by Congolese veteran guerrilla fighter Laurent Kabila, an
opponent of Mobutu since the 1960s. The majority of the fighting
force were members of the new Rwandan army and supported by Ugandan
units. The Rwandan forces killed thousands of Hutus in the refugee
camps. After seven months the coalition went on to capture Kinshasa
and Kabila was installed as President.
This was a sort of African 'joint venture'
in which Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers, Angolan planes and Zimbabwean
financial contributions all played a part. The coalition sought
not just to overthrow Mobutu; it was also intent on appropriating
the Congo's resources.
It wasn't long before the logic of a war
fought for resources became apparent. A month before the fall
of Kinshasa, on 16 April 1997, Kabila's AFDL made a million dollar
deal with US-Canadian corporation American Mineral Fields to extract
copper, cobalt and zinc in the southern province of Katanga. In
exchange for an advance which ultimately was used to finance the
war, the company also received a monopoly over the diamond-buying
counters of Kisangani.
Several other companies entered the fray.
South Africans Genscor and Iscor competed with rival Canadian
corporation Ludin for the exploitation of copper and cobalt at
Tenke-Fungurume in Katanga. The Canadian Barrick Gold Corporation
(whose board of directors include George Bush Senior, former Prime
Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney, and the former director of
the German Central Bank Karl Otto Pohl) was interested in the
Gold Office of Kilo Moto in the eastern province of Ituri. Meanwhile
another Canadian company, Banro Resources Corporation, eyed up
the Sominki concessions in Kivu.
Although he was brought to power by foreign
armies in May .1997, Kabila had the imprudence to show himself
ungrateful. He reneged on contracts signed during the war and
attempted both to limit the repayment of war 'debts' to and restrain
the influence of Rwanda, Uganda and their corporate allies. [
Kabila, an old Leftist from the 1960s, baulked at repaying the
.S foreign debt, arguing that the money lent during the Cold War
had enriched only Mobutu. Most crucial of all, he decided to centralize
the sale of diamonds, create a Congolese exchange office for raw
materials and limit foreign corporations' access to the country's
vast regions of mineral wealth.
Wanted: compliant regime
Kabila's unwillingness to be a tool of
the West was his undoing. On 2 August 1998, with the consent of
the international community - in particular the US, who monitored
the whole operation and sent Special Forces into the east - Rwanda
and Uganda launched another war. This time their purpose was to
overthrow the non-compliant Kabila and replace him with a 'reliable'
power that would be submissive to their financial interests. But
due to the unforeseen resistance of Kabila and, above all, the
military intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe who backed him, their
attempt to remove him failed. Once again, the country's resources
financed the war and became the real stake. The east of the country
was ransacked and pillaged by Rwandan and Ugandan forces.
Between September 1998 and ~ August 1999,
according to UN experts: 'The occupied zones of the DR Congo have
been plundered of all their stocks: stocks of minerals, of forest
and agricultural products, of livestock... Troops from Burundi,
Uganda, Rwanda and soldiers of the RCD Goma commanded by an officer,
visited farms, factories and banks... Orders were given to soldiers
to load up products and goods on their armed vehicles.
In the vicinity of Kamituga, Rwandan forces
and their allies organized the removal of thousands of tonnes
of coltan and cassiterite and its transportation back to the Rwandan
capital, Kigali. Ugandan militia confiscated Kisangani's entire
stock of wood. Their ally Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the second
largest rebel force, the anti-government Congolese Liberation
Movement, seized the entire stock of available coffee. It took
two months to transport these enormous stocks to Uganda. Ugandan
generals close to their President, Museveni, set up companies
and generously supplied arms to various ethnic militias who are
still fighting each other in Ituri.
Banks were raided, stocks were plundered,
vehicles were spirited away by aeroplane, ordinary citizens were
robbed: eastern Congo was pillaged by greed, looting and bloodshed.
A price paid in human lives All over the
country exploitation has been the consequence of war. Eighteen
armed groups have emerged, including Hutu militias from Rwanda
and Burundi, soldiers from both these countries and groups of
Congolese 'Mai Mai' fighting against foreign occupation. All live
by exploiting local inhabitants through civilian massacres, the
recruitment of child soldiers and the systematic rape of women
from little girls to grandmothers.
At Bunyakiri in the heart of the Kivu
rainforest, where Mai Mai combatants and RCD soldiers confront
each other, market trader Mathilde is fatalistic: 'When we pass
through the soldiers' barricades, whether or not we agree to be
paid, we will be raped by one lot or another... It's because of
this that we don't dare go to the fields, that our pastures are
In order to escape the massacres and the
burning villages, where soldiers gather to get their hands on
coltan stocks, hundreds of thousands of Congolese have taken refuge
in the forest where they have become prey to wild animals, hunger,
and disease. It is estimated that over 3.5 million people have
died, directly or indirectly, as a result of five years of war.
There are areas, like Kalemie by Lake Tanganyika, where three-quarters
of all children under five have disappeared. If a census takes
place on the eve of the elections predicted for 2005, the blood-soaked
picture of a population ravaged by rape and massacres and the
spread of HIV/ AIDS will appear in full.
For years, preoccupied with hounding Kabila
from power, the international community has looked the other way
while rebel groups, created and manipulated by Rwanda and Uganda,
were treated as 'freedom fighters'. It took the assassination
of Kabila in January 2001 for the situation to change.
His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him
and implemented a new policy of 'openness'. He accepted the deployment
of a UN force, authorized a free press and promised free and fair
elections within a reasonable time-frame. And most importantly,
he opened markets to foreign interests and investors, increased
mining and logging concessions and reconciled the Congo with the
international financial institutions.
A strange peace
In 2002, South Africa, supported by the
international community, brokered a peace deal in Sun City. The
result of this interCongolese dialogue was a strange accord. Described
as 'global and inclusive', it brought all the warring parties,
the parties of the former opposition and civil society together
in power. That is, it includes belligerents, plunderers, collaborators
from foreign armies, those responsible for massive violations
of human rights (including cases of cannibalism in the region
of Ituri), and the inheritors of Mobutu-ism and its corrupt practices
- who now find themselves associates in government.
The main advantages of this deal, which
consecrates impunity and rewards the men of arms while neutralizing
them, is that it has allowed the reunification of the country
and opens the door to the re-establishment of central power and
reconstruction, including a general election.
Above all, Congo is finally back in the
fold. A draconian economic austerity programme imposed on a people
already impoverished by the Mobutu regime and two successive wars
has allowed the regime to reconcile itself with the global financial
institutions which have promised loans worth $3,900 million. A
new mining code highly beneficial to foreign investors has been
proposed. South African companies, outposts of multinational capital,
are expecting rich pickings.
President Mbeki on a recent visit to Kinshasa
to sign various deals - including an eight million-dollar gold-mining
agreement for a South African company - emphasized how key the
Congo was to the success of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's
Development), a programme which will smooth the progress of Western
investment in Africa and, more than ever, assigns to the continent
the role of provider of raw materials. Every day, new deals are
being made in the salon of Kinshasa's Hotel Memling by developers
from all over the world jostling to offer projects and grab contracts.
Meanwhile, the ever-patient Congolese
continue to subsist d on salaries of ten dollars a month, walk
two or three hours a day to get work and never know in the morning
whether they will eat at night. And in the eastern provinces of
Ituri and Kivu, despite the presence of UN forces, tens of thousands
of armed men continue to live by holding local populations to
It will take years before the effects
of war in this brutalized country are healed.