As I sit down to write this article on my MacBook Pro, in my warm and safe home, I occasionally check my Sony smartphone to get the latest news or use it for researching stories. Some people say that before we have finished breakfast we have relied on half of the world for such luxuries and in doing so, sadly associate ourselves with mineral conflict in Africa.
The Democratic Republic Of Congo (DRC), for example, is flush of mineral riches. These include copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, coltan as well as some oil reserves and wild rubber. Many of these natural resources are used for making the very laptops and smartphones we use today in Ireland, every day in work and at home. Other developing countries are also using such devices more and more. In 2017 I remember sitting on a crammed bus in a dusty, hot Nanyuki, three hours north of Nairobi and being surprised at the rural community and the access to modern technologies. Anybody around me had access to smartphones, laptops and digital camera. To my ignorance, this technology is almost everywhere nowadays.
However, here in Ireland we could not be afforded such luxuries without these minerals. It is sad to look at a country like the the DRC being accustomed to such poverty, conflict and potential. Yet it is cursed with such mineral riches as will be discussed.
Ireland is most definitely a major tech hub in Europe. Huge American companies have brought thousands of jobs to the country. These companies rely on the minerals found in the Congo. Irish citizens enjoy a vast access and ownership of numerous digital devices from smartphones to laptops to which exploded in the last 20 years or more, we need to ask are the general population complicit in Congo’s poverty or simply enjoying free market capitalism at its very best (or worst)? Congo has a history of being pillaged by greater powers and economic environments which enable them to do so.
Brief History of the DRC
As a former colony of Belgium the Democratic Republic of Congo as we know it today (formerly Zaire and before that The Congo free State) has been a victim of mass corruption and foreign interference. Neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda have been supporting groups and warlords in the region for political gain.
King Leopold of Belgium wanted to establish a colony of his own because he felt that “Belgium needs a colony.” At the time colonies were the norm and much of the world was either under control of the British, the Dutch, Germany or France; or they were competing for new land. Leopold look at Taiwan and Guatemala as a potential base but then decided on the centre of Africa and upon creating the CONGO Free State 1885 Leopold had, unbeknownst to himself, took ownership an array of mineral riches.
Once King Leopold had foundered his ownership and relationship with the colonial power in Europe the Congo would return to orthodox colonial rule. Belgium decided to divide the country into different chiefdoms throughout the 20th century but in order to develop the vast mineral wealth the powers in Brussels needed workers on the ground. Many Rwandan communities in the neighbouring country would be moved forcefully into eastern Congo to work in mines or mineral production – this move would prove to be one of major influence as it resulted in the serious backlash of Hutu against Tutsi in the 1994 genocide. It is reported that many Hutu Rwandans felt that the Tutsi had to pay for the forced labour across the border and close dealing with European and other major powers including the United States.
Furthermore, neo-colonialism continued under the rule of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. As president, Mobutu took power in 1965 and began giving many of his cronies influence and financial support while they prospered from Congo’s mineral wealth he changed the countries name to Zaire in 1971. His leadership ultimately brought little no development for his citizens and newly named country.
As Rwanda had political interest in the Congo it backed the ADFL to assist with the ousting of Mobutu. One Laurent Kabila of the ADFL took control of the mineral rich province of Katanga and in doing so, assumed power forcing Mobutu to flee to Morocco.
Laurent Kabila worked very closely with foreign companies looking to extract some profit from the onslaught and conflict in the Congo. It has also been reported that an American Fields Executive allowed Congolese rebels to use a private aeroplane in return for a $1 billion mining deal. This highlights some of the more recent examples in modern history of western pillaging of the mineral rich country. According to Rory Carrol of the Guardian some foreign companies who have got involved in the natural resources in the Congo include:
- Afrimex Exports coltan, an ore essential for making most electronic goods, such as mobile phones;
- A. Knight International Ltd, Based in Merseyside, weighs, tests and examines metals, a process known as assaying;
- A & M Minerals and Metals Ltd Based in London, trades metallurgical raw materials worldwide. Ships non-ferrous scrap and residues;
- Alex Stewart Ltd Specialist in assaying;
- Amalgamated Metal Corp Holding company of AMC Group, operates in 15 nations. Supplies raw materials, steel, chemicals and coltan. Total sales of £1.5bn in 1998/99;
- American Mines Fields, a mining firm based in Hope, Arkansas;
- Anglo American Plc Mining and natural resources conglomerate, owned by the Oppenheimers, formed in 1998 when Anglo American Corp merged with Minorco, moving from Johannesburg to London. Beyond the precious minerals market, company interests include construction (LTA), financial services (FirstRand), explosives (AECI), wine (Vergelegen) and forestry (Mondi). Also holds a 45% share in De Beers;
- Arctic Investment Investment firm in Europe and Africa;
- Barclays Bank Active in Africa for over a century, with offices across Africa, but not in Congo. Declares mission to become Africa’s leading bank. Donates millions to community projects but image tarnished by apartheid boycott in the 1980s. Lawsuit filed from former employee claiming it exploited black workers in South Africa;
- Das Air Airline’s motto: we deliver. Operates at Gatwick, serves Africa, Middle East, US and India. Named best cargo operator 1999 by Nigerian federal airport authority. Has interline services with Air Gabon, Scibe, Monarch, and Air Yemenia;
- Euromet Trades in coltan in the Great Lakes region. Was named in International Peace Information Service report into coltan exports from Congo;
- Mineral Afrika Ltd Mine.
In more recent years some companies have been left red-faced in search for a better deal in the Congo but which were declined included:
- Glencore (GLEN.L), s a British multinational commodity trading and mining company with headquarters in Baar, Switzerland;
- Randgold RRS.L, is a gold mining business operating mainly in Mali;
- Ivanhoe (IVN.TO), is a Canadian mining company.
It is clear that Governments, corporations and rebels alike are looking for a bargain in Congo’s mineral business. The case could be made that even with the under-development of the DRC and pillage of its resources that such technologies are making life easier for people who now have a better access to education, healthcare and communications. For example, the future of seeing a doctor through new means could save time, energy and environmental impact of fuel consumption which is something very much being developed today. Instead of having to wait for long periods of time in waiting rooms where sick normally gather they could be on hold in the comfort of their own room with family members.
The jury is out on whether or not this would be possible without the development of the DRC’s mines or mineral deposits but it does need to be given considered thought when exploring and analysing the moral aspect of the business. However, the system could easily be regulated to guarantee sourcing of such minerals are more fair to producers and labourers on the ground working in these sites.
A Shift In Thought?
These companies are responsible for development of such mines and are directly complicit in the production of smart devices such as phones, laptops and other digital devices. In the last 15 years the World Bank has promoted Western investment in these mines however, they list consistently mark the Congo as an unwise business partner ; ranked lowest in the world. The Congolese people have suffered because they are cursed with such riches. As a result conflict has continued and foreign countries, corporations and rebels want to gain from the wealth available. Unfortunately International institutions do not seem to care.
If the powers such as the World Bank and IMF are showing little to no consideration for laws and fair-trade for the poorest people in the world which are being taken advantage of, then it is down to the general population here in Ireland to make a stand against government, corporations and global policies which exploit the poorest in the world. We should also consider our own consumption of such devices.
Should the demand for cobalt, copper and other minerals continue in the developed world, which no doubt it will, as the world is continuously developing at a rapid pace then we should at least contribute fairly to the under-developed nations which make it possible to live with such luxuries that make life much easier. If we rely on half of the world before our breakfast then we should be willing to make some changes at home in our daily lives.
According to one BBC article from 2013 which sums up the political weight such mineral riches carries is sad but not all surprising – “The West tolerated him (Mobutu) as long as the minerals flowed and the Congo was kept out of the Soviet orbit.” To the general population of the developed world, we cannot be so tolerant of such policy and ignorant of what happens in the world any longer.
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