The Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu Province is renowned for its expansive equatorial rainforest, rich and virgin agricultural highlands, a web of fresh water rivers and immense mineral wealth. Most notably, the Region hosts the so-called conflict minerals namely Tin, Tantalum, Tungsten and Gold, also known as the 3TGs.
Embedded with a team of International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Regional Certification Mechanism, we set off from Goma, the main business and administrative centre of North Kivu to inspect one such source of conflict – a mining site deep in the jungles of Rubaya, a distance of over 120 Kilometres from Goma. This same jungle has been home to the perpetrators of the 1990 genocide in Rwanda as well as former M23 rebels and other militia groups.
Our heavily guarded convoy that included members of the Regional Mineral Audit Committee (one of the initiatives established under the Lusaka Declaration of 2010 by 10 Heads of State within the Great Lakes Region), the Secretary of the ICGLR as well as the DRC State Minister for Mines, snaked its way through the streets of Goma onto the dusty roads in the outskirts as we embarked on our painful journey to the ‘source of wealth and conflict’ in the Great Lakes Region.
After a 3 hours punishing drive from Goma to Rubaya, we arrived at the vast mine site, Sici`ete’ Miniere` de` Bisunzu (SMB). According to the mine site owners, this particular site accommodates over 3000 artisanal miners and is credited for the production of over 100 tonnes of coltan every month. As we listen to the production capacity of the mine and silently crunch the numbers in terms of revenues generated with such production, we can’t help but notice the contrasting malnourished children in tattered clothing following us, the sorry state of the miners themselves credited for producing such huge amounts worth of coltan, all which indicate that all is not well at this mine site.
It is obvious that there are tensions between the mine site owners and the leaders of COPPERAMA, a cooperative society responsible for organising, negotiating for and ensuring that welfare of the artisanal miners working on the SMB licence are taken care of. These simmering tensions go way back to the days of the M23 rebellion that was brought to a halt by a 2013 peace agreement signed between the government of Kabila and the M23 rebels in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. This fragile ceasefire has since created some relative peace and an opportunity for the leaders of the cooperative society the former rebel leaders, commonly referred to as negotiators or middlemen to make money at the expense of the illiterate and clueless artisanal miners. These middlemen are mostly former M23 fighters purporting to negotiate on behalf of artisanal miners and the owners of the Mineral Rights SMB. We learn that it is these same negotiators servicing the many foreign agents of the end consumers waiting for smuggled coltan in their stores in Goma revealing the invisible hands of foreign interests in this endless regional conflict mineral trade.
As we walk through the mine site, we are encountered with children dashing out of the unprotected mines as older boys attempt to hide and shield them from our inquisitive wondering eyes, highlighting the dangers of child labour in these conflict minerals. We are appalled by the lack of safety precautions and measures to protect artisanal miners, further evidence that their leaders care less about the welfare, health and safety of the miners. Indeed, about a week after our visit, over 100 artisanal miners were buried alive by a landslide at this very mine site, but these poor souls, wiped off the face the earth by corporate greed received no breaking news mention on CNN, Aljazeera, BBC or other international print media.
We discover from the mineral rights owner that he has no direct control over the artisanal miners neither does he have full knowledge of the amounts of coltan produced by these miners. He only relies on the waning ‘good will’ of middlemen controlling the Cooperative to control production. We also learn that several attempts to access the artisanal miners by the mineral rights owner in order to provide better working conditions and directly negotiate a better price for their minerals so as to promote transparency are always protested by the negotiators protecting their own selfish interests. It is also obvious that this particular mine site is prone to infiltration of conflict minerals from neighbouring mine sites more likely under the control of militia groups responsible for the endless conflicts and human suffering that have hounded this country since its colonial days.
Ironically, these same mountains, littered with mud and wattle houses covered by rusted corrugated iron sheets, are also the source of human civilisation in the developed world. It is baffling to believe that this area produces the equivalent of US$ 5m monthly most of which ends up in the hands of middlemen, politicians, militias, security personnel and of course global conglomerates in the developed North, West and Asia.
Since 1996, over 6 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo in order for the civilised world to sustain their privileged lifestyle and insatiable appetite for minerals. DRC is currently home to over 64% of the World’s coltan, a precious mineral that is central to modern communication and the production of modern day technology driven gadgets such as smart phones, tablets, video games, computers, printers, jet engines and others.
Goma and Gisenyi: Two sides of the same coin
To access the mineral heaven of DRC’s North, one must use the Goma route, Goma is the capital of the North Kivu Province and as such has enjoyed the bread crumbs from the mineral trade in the area for decades. This town, which seems to have recovered from the devastating 2002 volcanic eruption of Mountain Nyiragongo, has regained its status as the centre for all serious business and military activity (considering the heavy deployment of UN peacekeepers) in the Province. Gisenyi, its counterpart on the Rwanda side of the border is raking in profits as well.
Like many African border towns, torn apart by colonialists scrambling for the continent’s rich natural resources, the communities on both sides of the imaginary borderlines have a lot in common, similar cultures and a rich cosmopolitan French heritage inherited from their former colonial masters.
According to the Governor of North Kivu, over 20,000 people criss-cross the border between Rwanda and DRC on a daily basis. The cost of living on the two sides of the border is uncharacteristically high typical of any rich mineral dependent economy. The presence of a big contingent of UN peacekeepers as well as mine dealers and investors explains the use of U.S Dollars as an acceptable currency across the two border posts.
Gisenyi is a much quieter and welcoming town compared to Goma. One feels absolutely safe walking at night there and the night life is more descent and vibrant. It is common for both Congolese and Rwandese to spend their days making their money on the DRC side of the border and retire to Gisenyi to enjoy their bounty at night. That rich rumba and lingala Congolese music keeps the night revellers on their feet all night irrespective of where they are from or what their mission in Gisenyi is.
As I listen to a popular Congolese tune in one of the many nightclubs in Gisenyi, I find myself reflecting on the suffering of the majority of DRC’s 78 million people who are engaged in the artisanal mineral industry. Their plight seems to have been forgotten by the world.
Where is the voice of Apple, Boeing, Microsoft and other multinationals as well as the billions of clients whose expensive lifestyles are fed by minerals from this country? Where is the voice of global media, Reuters, CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, Dow Jones and many more others in support of the defenceless populations in DRC?
It is time for the citizens of the world to speak out against these multinationals and demand change in how they source their minerals from Africa so that their money does not fuel any more conflicts in a continent that has seen more than its fair share of war and bloodshed. More than ever, we need the consumers in the developed world, development partners, international civil society and responsbile business leaders of these multinationals to speak up as we enter into yet another phase of the scramble for the highly coveted DRC cobalt mineral commodity.
The author is a Great Lakes Regional Expert on