Wars in the Congo and physical resources

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) is the most war-torn country in Africa, and has been since Belgium relinquished its largest colony in 1960.  It is also Africa’s most mineral-rich country outside of the Republic of South Africa.  Most of its population, particularly outside of the major cities, has been repeatedly caught up in the most savage conflicts, which have left more than 2 million dead and far more displaced or reduced to conditions of bare survival.  From the civil war following the attempted secession of the most mineral-rich province of Katanga shortly after independence to the present, Congo peoples’ suffering has centred on various groups’ attempts to loot its mineral riches.  Despite the DRCs  strategic importance as a supplier of cobalt and tantalum, for which it is the world’s largest source, and its world-ranking production of copper and zinc, diamonds (up to one third of a ton annually, mainly of industrial quality), and gold (up to 6 tons annually), neither the UN nor those powers currently engaged in Iraq have made any determined effort to end the 40-year plight of its people.

Every geologist suspects that war in the Congo has a direct link to its mineral resources, but until recently its economic basis has remained carefully hidden by the various warring groups, and to some extent by the world mineral industry which ultimately benefits.  Ingrid Samset of the University of Bergen in Norway has reviewed the particular role of diamonds in the recent phases of conflict, that followed the fall of the reviled President Mobutu in May 1997 (Samset, I. 2002.  Conflict of interests or interests in conflict?  Diamonds and war in the DRC.  Review of African Political Economy, v. 93-94, p. 463-480).

Following the occupation of eastern DRC by armies from Rwanda and Uganda in collusion with the anti-Kabila RCD forces, and the sending of troops by Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe to assist the Kinshasa régime in mid 1998, official figures for production of and revenues from all physical resources fell far more dramatically than for other exportable commodities, such as coffee.  The largest falls involved diamonds and coltan (columbite-tantalite).  Both combine very high value relative to weight (coltan trades at up to US$400 per kilogram) with simple extraction technologies.  Both are mined extensively by artisanal groups, and so are attractive for quick, clandestine looting.  Tantalum is used in making capacitors, specifically for mobile phones, and the boom in the price of coltan followed the vast expansion of cellular phone networks world wide.   Zimbabwe, and to a lesser extent Angola and Namibia have won official concessions for diamond mining in exchange for their military involvement.  The embattled ZANU-PF régime in Harare is probably highly dependent on revenues from Congo diamonds.  In the case of Uganda and Rwanda’s involvement with opposition forces in eastern DRC, the economic aspects of their roles are more difficult to dig out.  Both countries lack diamond or coltan reserves, yet in the case of diamonds, their exports rose by 12 and 90 times, respectively, since the start of their involvement.  Comparing their export values with probable production in the area that they help control, there is a shortfall of about US$13.5 million.  Samset suggests that “missing” diamonds are being used directly as easily “laundered” barter goods in exchange for arms.  In the case of coltan, Rwanda is estimated to have benefited by US$250 million, at the time of the tantalum price peak in 1999-2000, from looting of eastern DRC.  Neither coltan nor diamonds carry signs of their origin (but see Forensic geochemistry to foil “fencing” of conflict diamonds in EPN, June 2002), so tracking looted goods and bringing those involved to account is no easy task.  The state of Israel is heavily involved in the gem diamond trade, as is the Republic of South Africa, and the USA accounted for more than 80% of all industrial diamond exports from the former Zaire.  One of the oddest coincidences was the sudden involvement in peace-making attempts during the Eritrea-Ethiopia war of 1998-2000 of the government of Rwanda, despite its geographic remoteness from that particular conflict and lack of diplomatic experience.

See also: http://www.american.edu/TED/ice/congo-coltan.htm for an analysis of the role of coltan in the DRC conflict.

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