Conflict Minerals and War in Eastern Congo

How demand for smartphones and computers fuel Africa’s “First World War.”

Consuming The Congo
“Consuming the Congo” book cover image. By Peter Eichstaedt.

Eastern Congo: Remote and lawless, and home to some of the world’s richest sources of gold, diamonds, timber, tin and cobalt. Bordered by Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and under the control of ethnic militias like the FDLR, CNDP, and Mai-Mai, violence has been an ongoing problem for the past 15 years, during which time the region has developed a reputation as the rape capital of the world.

In his new book “Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place” (Lawrence Hill), journalist Peter Eichstaedt reveals the challenges of stabilizing a country compromised by greed, corruption and ethnic rivalry. In the following interview, Eichstaedt explains how the demand for high-tech electronics fuels an ongoing war, and how a U.S. ban on conflict minerals impacts the region.

What trigged the violence in eastern Congo?
It coincided with two major events. One was the invasion by Rwanda and Uganda in 1996, which ultimately toppled Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime. The second [factor] was the explosion in cell phone and computer technology in the mid-1990s.

What do computers and cell phones have to do with the situation?
Cell phones, computers and many other products vital to today’s high-tech world use large amounts of tin and coltan—both abundant in eastern Congo. Ethnic militias have fought for control of the mines, hence the term “conflict minerals.” The militias also fight over gold, which is abundant as well.

Why can’t Kinshasa keep control in that part of the country?
Kinshasa [capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC] has never had control of eastern Congo. It is essentially another country, in all ways: distance, geography, ethnicity, language. But the biggest problem is corruption. Kinshasa has never looked at eastern Congo in terms of solving the problem. It only wants to exploit the situation, and exploitation is only possible by perpetuating the chaos.

Why have all the neighboring countries become involved in the conflict?
They have eagerly and rapaciously entered it because there was and is immense wealth in minerals to be gained. The DRC government, which is wholly corrupt and therefore powerless, only figured this out after they saw that Rwanda and Uganda were getting rich, and said, “Hey, this is our country.”

Eastern Congo is sometimes referred to as the rape capital of the world. How does rape contribute to undermining the region’s stability?
Rape has become a widespread tactic of war and is used by battling militias to punish and humiliate opposing ethnic groups. Now rape has permeated society—due to a lack of law and order and a corrupt police and court system—and is a huge problem in refugee camps. Women suffer twice in this situation because they have little recourse, and as victims, are shunned by family, friends and society.

Can certifying products as conflict-free help solve the problem?
The world’s major tin mining and processing companies recently instituted an ore tracking system, and initial tests have shown it to be 75 percent effective. But the system needs millions of dollars to implement and hundreds of people to monitor and manage it properly.

What about the U.S. ban on conflict minerals?
[The Congo Conflict Minerals Act] requires manufacturers to certify that their products do not contain conflict minerals from the eastern Congo. But eastern Congolese ore is a very small portion of the total world supply. And once the ore is blended with similar ores that come from South America and Asia, it is almost impossible to trace. Because of the U.S. government’s ban, mining companies are now withdrawing from the region, which means that the nearly two million people affected by mining there will soon be left without a way to survive. It also means that the armed groups that control the mines will turn to the black market to sell their ore.

What steps must be taken to bring order to eastern Congo?
The United Nations has had a peace keeping force in the region, but its effect is limited. The Congolese army is ineffective since most soldiers are not paid and extort money to survive. Ultimately, the Congolese government—one of the most corrupt in the world—must accept responsibility for the chaos. Recently, the government incorporated the militias into the national army, but these militias still control the mines and reap the profits.

The solution is for the international community—including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations (U.N.)—to insist that the Congolese government clean up the corruption in government and in the national army. A first step would be to arrest Bosco Ntaganda, a former militia leader who is now a high-ranking general in the army. He is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Ntaganda remains free and his forces still control major sources of gold and coltan.

The U.N., and possibly international military forces, must become more aggressive and active to ensure that fighting stops around the mines and that legitimate private and government entities control and regulate the mines and mining activities. 

What can individual Americans do to help?
Demand that a rational system to identify conflict minerals, such as the one developed by the International Tin Research Institute, be funded and implemented by the international community. Criticizing electronics companies is stupid. They are not the problem. A very small portion of the minerals used in global electronics comes from the eastern Congo. The corrupt Congolese government has been and will always be the problem. The U.N. and the international community need to holds the DRC government accountable for their failure—their unwillingness—to bring order and justice to eastern Congo. The international community, such as the IMF and the World Bank, supports that by giving the DRC “loans” to “develop the economy.” Almost all of that global money is stolen.

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