The Looting of the Congo: Colette Braekman

The Looting of the Congo: Colette Braekman

Article on the cause and human costs of the second Congo War (1998-2003) a civil war that involved multiple armed groups, most backed by large mining concerns and foreign powers and was fought over access rights to the DRCs vast mineral deposits. Declared the bloodiest conflict in modern African history.

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 sifted.

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 abandoned.'

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 ransom.

It will take years before the effects of war in this brutalized country are healed.

by Colette Braekman

New Internationalist magazine, May 2004