Casualties in the Scramble for Congo’s Resources

Source: Friends of the Congo

Over the past few months a lot of ink has flowed in mainstream publications about the situation in the Congo. In almost all of the articles, the underlying reason for the crisis in the Congo – the scramble for Congo’s spectacular natural wealth- has been consistently omitted or underplayed. The front-page article in Thursday, December 13, 2007 New York Times entitled “After Clashes, Fear of War on Congo’s Edge” by Lydia Polgreen is no exception. Not only were there key omissions, but also, a glaring factual error said volumes about the manner in which mainstream media covers Congo.

The error claimed that the 2006 Congolese elections “produced Congo‘s first democratically chosen government.” Why is this inaccuracy so egregious even though to the casual reader it may seem like a minor oversight? Well, it obfuscates a narrative that is central in explaining why the crisis exists in the Congo and continues to date. Contrary to the New York Times front-page report, Congo‘s first democratic elections occurred in 1960 and led to the formation of the first post-independence government with Patrice Emery Lumumba as its prime minister. Within months of Lumumba’s ascendancy to power, the West, mainly Belgium and the United States, induced their Congolese puppets to assassinate Patrice Lumumba who believed that the vast mineral wealth of the Congo should be used to benefit the Congolese people.1 Belgium apologized in 2002 for the assassination of Congo’s first elected leader. However, it was not sufficient to assassinate Lumumba, the West then installed and sustained one of the main culprits in Lumumba’s assassination, the brutal dictator Joseph Desire Mobutu, whom the West maintained in power for over 30 years. Whenever the Congolese people rose up to overthrow him, the West led by the United States rushed in to crush the aspirations of the people.

The current crisis is the latest eruption of the West’s 120-year history of controlling Congo‘s enormous natural wealth at the expense of the Congolese people. Although there is a UN force in the Congo and the West spent $500 million to organize elections, they systematically sidelined the democratic forces in the country while providing Joseph Kabila with unconditional support.2 The pro-democracy forces called for national reconciliation and inclusion following the 1996 – 2002 war. They argued for a process that would lead to stability and justice for the people. However, it became quickly evident that the primary goal of the West who had never supported democracy in the Congo was to put in place a “reliable” person and a legal apparatus that would ratify the looting of the Congo by multi-national corporations. A 2007 ICG report states, “the U.S., Canada, South Africa and Belgium took the lead in seeking to control strategic reserves of copper, cobalt and other minerals and restrict China‘s access.” 3The same report goes on to say that the focus on economic interests by Western diplomatic corps who supposedly was in the Congo to shepherd a democratic process was revealed with ” the U.S. ambassador’s public celebration of Phelps-Dodge’s acquisition of the Tenke-Fungurume concessions in Katanga in August 2005 and the grandiose June 2006 ceremony in Kolwezi marking the reopening of the Kamoto mine, attended by Belgian, EU, Canadian, French, Angolan and even UN representatives.”4

The $500 million investment in assuring Kabila’s ascendancy to power was the beginning of the pay off for the West’s investment. It is for this reason that many Congolese surmised that Kabila was summoned to Washington in October 2007 because he may have strayed from the game plan when he signed a
$5 billion deal with China. Even as Kabila ventured to Washington, he first had to stop in Phoenix, Arizona to visit Tim Snider (recently replaced by Richard Adkerson,) CEO of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, formerly Phelps-Dodge, inheritors of what Global Witness called the world’s richest copper mine, Tenke Fungurume. Global Witness also goes on to note that the deal is so odious that it resulted in Congo owning only 17.5% of its own resources and being in such position that it may even not get any profits from the deal.5 Nonetheless, the United States government agency, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has provided risk insurance for a $1 billion investment project by Freeport-McMoRan.

If there were any questions as to where the United States government stood on the review of mining contracts undertaken by the Congolese government, the risk insurance provided to Freeport-McMoRan should put all speculation to rest. In part due to pressure from civil society and international human rights groups, the Congolese government began reluctantly, in early 2007, a review of the mining contracts. The review process is finished but the Congolese government has yet to publish the results. The world has already got a glimpse of the significance of decisions made by Congo‘s leaders regarding mining deals in their country. In early November, a Congolese newspaper published what it claims to be the findings of the report, which called for renegotiation of the majority of the contracts and an outright cancellation of others. The result was the decline, on Exchanges from London to Toronto, of the stock prices of mining companies with interests in the Congo. Billions of dollars have been raised on the world Stock Exchanges to invest in mining operations in the Congo.

As a result of the high stakes in Congo‘s resources, the Congolese people are fighting against enormous odds. The die is literally being set now for a continued impoverishment of Congolese for several generations. The odious contracts will be in place for 30 to 40 years and will be backed by international law. The World Bank established the Mining and Forestry guidelines in the Congo as early as 2002. These guidelines were fixed on a neo-liberal model, which calls for the selling off of the country’s wealth to private interests. Both codes facilitated and legalized the fleecing of the Congo. The World Bank has come under withering critique from groups like Greenpeace for allowing the Congo rainforest (known as the second lung of the earth) to be sold off to logging companies. Greenpeace International, Africa Forest Campaign Co-ordinator, Stephan van Praet said "These contracts are a shameful relic of colonial times. Millions of hectares of the Congo rainforest have been traded away by local communities to the logging industry for gifts like salt, machetes and crates of beer while logging companies and their taxes do next to nothing for local development."6

The Congolese landscape is replete with spectacular modern day heist backed by international institutions such as the World Bank and western governments, mainly the United States, England and Belgium, all at the expense of the tens of thousands of raped and brutalized Congolese women and millions of corpses.

As humanitarian groups seek resources to care for the sexually violated and brutalized women and children of the Congo, they should start with those companies that are lined up to purloin billions from Congo‘s wealth while 80 percent of Congolese live on less than 30 cents per day. Coexisting with the orgy of rapes and killing is what one corporate magnate calls a party. Gerhard Kemp of the Rand Merchant Bank, of Johannesburg, SA is quoted saying "The Congo is so rich in mineral wealth, you can’t just ignore it. You don’t want to be the last guy at this party."7

We may look at what is taking place in the Congo and cringe or cover our eyes but the unsightly picture that is often left out or obfuscated, especially by the mainstream media, is the significant role of the corporations that provide us with our cell phones, game consoles, lap tops and other modern technological devices which benefit from Congo’s woes.

The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Ms. Magazine, Huffington Post, and Glamour Magazine, all have published reports of atrocities in the Congo in recent months but none get to the crux of the issue and almost all obfuscate the problem instead of adding clarity that may lead to prescriptions that will benefit the people of the Congo and result in a lasting resolution of the crisis. The central issue is only touched upon tangentially or in passing.

We cannot genuinely weep for the Congo or lament the rapes and killings, yet remain silent about those profiting from the atrocities. Corporate pilfering influences everything that happens in dramatic ways in the Congo. The conflict resulting in brutal rapes and ghastly killings are inextricably linked to the looting of the Congo. Noble laureate Wangari Maathai is instructive in this case when she says, “These wars when you look at them, they are all about resources and who is going to control them."8

In the end, not only will the Congolese people have to endure enormous suffering from the wounds of war and instability but when things finally settle down, they will come to realize that not only their women have been brutally violated due to a climate of impunity but the entire country would have been raped of its wealth.

By only telling the part of the tragedy and savagery in the Congo that is consistent with our preconceived notion of the “savage,” “depraved” African, the leading media institutions of the west are complicit in one of the most well documented resource heist of the 20th century and which persists at the dawn of the 21st century. We can hear the echoes of Joseph Conrad’s “oh the shame.”

A lot of the blame for the persistent climate of conflict is often laid on the Hutu militia who fled Rwanda in 1994 pursuant to the genocide in that country. In fact this is just a part of the story, which does not give a complete picture. It is instructive to note that, for all intents and purposes, Rwanda controlled the east of the Congo from 1996 – 2002, a period in which they claimed to be in hot pursuit of the Hutu genocidaires known as the Interhamwe. However during that period, Rwanda‘s most noted military clash was with Uganda inside the Congo. The source of the clash was over who would control vast diamond concessions in Kinsangi hundreds of miles away from where the dreaded Hutu genocidaires were situated. Hence, although the Hutu presence in the Congo is an issue, it falls far short of explaining the source of the violence and crimes in the Congo.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and his rebel forces, currently the source of the bulk of the unrest and suffering in the East of the country and who for all intents and purposes is a proxy of Rwanda, are using the Hutu argument as a justification for the havoc they are wreaking on the Congolese people. This argument was not sustainable when made by Rwanda itself and is even less convincing when made now by its proxy Nkunda. Instead of pledging military advisers to Kabila, the United States has a golden opportunity to play a constructive role, mainly by placing pressure on Rwanda to stop its support of Nkunda and disabuse itself of any notion of invading Congo for a third time. The whole idea of Rwanda “pledging restraint” is preposterous. The path to peace in the East of the Congo starts in Kigali.

Maurice Carney is the Executive Director of Friends of the Congo (FOTC). Carrie Crawford is Chair of FOTC. Contact: 

Key Sources of the Conflict:
1. Clients of the West such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who serve as lifelines for rebel groups in the Congo
2. Congolese elites who serve as sycophants for western interests while using militia to terrorize the Congolese people
3. Western Governments
4. Multilateral institutions such as the World Bank who set the legal framework for the looting of the Congo‘s wealth
5. Multi-national corporations who are to quick to super-exploit the Congo all in the name of business and at the expense of the people

Constructive International Engagement:
1. Pressure Rwanda to stop supporting its rebel proxies in the Congo
2. Encourage Rwanda to create democratic space for the Hutu to return
3. Promote reconciliation and justice in the Congo
4. Call for and support the genuine inclusion of the democratic forces in the Congo
5. Support a democratic process and not just power elites who are too quick to mortgage the country’s wealth and the future of the sons and daughters of the Congo to mining and forestry multi-nationals

Should the global community play a constructive role in the Congo, the Congolese people will take care of the rest and produce leaders who represent their interests by bringing reconciliation, justice and prosperity to this vital country in the heart of Africa.

1. Ludo De Witte’s The Assassination of Lumumba
2. International Crisis Group, Congo Consolidating the Peace, Africa Report No. 128, July 5, 2007
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Global Witness, "Digging in Corruption: Fraud, Abuse and Exploitation in Katanga‘s Copper and Cobalt Mines," July 2006, p. 36-37
7. Global Witness, "Digging in Corruption: Fraud, Abuse and Exploitation in Katanga‘s Copper and Cobalt Mines," July 2006, p. 34
Interview, Democracy Now with Amy Goodman