Following the Mineral Trail: Congo Resource Wars and Rwanda

The Rwandan government and its military have largely been suspected by a UN Panel of Experts, human rights organizations and independent journalists, of financially supporting a number of violent militias that have destabilized the eastern Congo region to illegally traffic millions-of-dollars worth of minerals such as coltan, gold, and cassiterite. These minerals are then brought from neighboring Congo into Rwanda for eventual sale on the international market.

In 2000, Rwanda, an African ally of Washington, produced 83 tons of coltan from its own mines but found a way to export a total of 603 tons that year, as discovered by Danish journalist Bjorn Willum, after he requested the figures from the National Bank of Rwanda. Willum also found the Rwandan army, which at the time was receiving funding and training from the US military, made $250 million that year by selling stolen Congolese minerals, most likely purchased from their shadow militias. 

Roughly ten years later, a UN Panel of Expert’s report titled The 2009 Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo states that the illegal traffic of Congolese minerals still flows into Rwanda mostly from these violent militias that continue to profit greatly, presumably passing earnings onto their Rwandan backers. The report also implicated a number of Western-based mining companies and metal brokers of indirectly financing the resource war as their buyers simply waited in Rwanda for the minerals to make their way across the border.

What’s more, this is not the first UN Panel of Expert’s report on the exploitation of Congolese resources; similar findings were also publicized in 2001 and 2003. While a consensus can not be reached among government agencies and human rights groups, the International Rescue Committee believes the resource war which started in the mid-1990s has taken the lives of 4 to 5 million people, most of whom are Congolese.

Given the implication of such violence and illegal trade, one would expect US embassy officials in Rwanda to have an opinion on the subject. Sasha Lezhnev is the director of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a nonprofit that aids former child soldiers. Of late, he’s spent time in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In 2008 Lezhner spoke to the outgoing US ambassador to Rwanda about the resource conflicts in the region.  

"I asked the ambassador," says Lezhnev, "’What are your feelings about Rwanda’s influence in the eastern Congo?’" The ambassador immediately responded: "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

Lezhnev was shocked at what he believes is simply the former ambassador’s ignorance of Rwanda’s influence. "We have to open our eyes to what’s going on," he says.  

Yet after years of apparent indifference to the eastern Congo resource wars, it appears the US is finally starting to take measures to help end the conflict; the U.S. Senate is pushing forward the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009. The bill calls for, among other things, a system of oversight to keep watch on all US-based industries that utilize Congolese coltan, cassiterite, wolframite and gold, and make sure the minerals were not extracted from conflict mines controlled by illegal armed groups.

However, the bill makes no mention of the Paul Kagame regime, which has led Rwanda since the genocide of 1994, or his administration’s influence in eastern Congo. Kagame has said any strategic maneuvers on Rwanda’s part in the eastern Congo, which also includes the deployment of regular Rwandan troops, is so to keep the pressure on those groups that took part in the 1994 massacre. 

But according to Professor Yaa-Lengi, who runs the New York-based Coalition for Peace, Justice and Democracy in the Congo, millions of Congolese – a number corroborated by several American-based human-rights organizations interviewed for this article – believe Kagame’s claims are a ruse, a smoke-screen to loot Congolese minerals. He says it is part of an elaborate plan that many Congolese believe was initiated by the US; and thus Rwanda is an American proxy with a mission to keep Congolese minerals moving cheaply to Western-based mining companies.

Yaa-Lengi says these theories, deemed far-fetched by many experts, don’t end there. "Bill Clinton was behind the (1994) genocide,” he stated. “Millions of Congolese believe this."  

Lezhnev and representatives of other human rights groups working in the eastern Congo scoff at Yaa-Lengi and the charges he levels against the Clinton administration. But they agree the Congolese have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the US and their regional interests.

For instance, David Sullivan of the Enough Project says during the Bush administration, the White House had a public relations official working in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. When Bush’s term ended in 2008, he says the official quickly took a job with the mining company Freeport-McMoRan and its operations in the country, which mainly extracts copper and cobalt.  

"There are some really dangerous arguments about this [Rwanda’s interests in the Congo]," says Sullivan. "There are a lot of conspiracy theories. And many people overstate the influence of the US in Rwanda and the region."

Fueling those conspiracy theories in part is President Kagame, who gained power immediately following the 1994 genocide. Kagame went through a U.S. military training program on American soil during the years leading up to the massacre. There’s also historical evidence that points to how important Congolese minerals are to the US; the US military acquired uranium from a mine in the DRC town of Skinkolobwe to build the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The U.S. continues to maintain strong ties with Rwanda: US assistance to the country "has increased four-fold over the past four years," according to the US State Department.  

Lezhnev says, "We have a lot of leverage with Kagame and we have to use that." Meaning that the US needs to pressure the Rwandan government into ending its destabilizing role in the eastern Congo.

Yet what specific influences the US ultimately has over Rwanda remains a mystery. One element that contradicts the conspiracy theories offered by Yaa-Lengi, however, is the new Senate bill. Sullivan says it could end the resource war in eastern Congo. But he acknowledges the bill is no panacea.  

"We would like to see a provision in the bill that makes [all metal brokers who sell minerals acquired from the eastern Congo] disclose the minerals exact origin, the exact mine it came from," he says. "If they say they are getting the minerals from Malawi, then they have to have an independent verification saying so." When selling their minerals onto the international market, metal traders have faked records saying the minerals were actually from countries other than the Congo.

Essentially, what Sullivan and the Enough Project are calling for is an independent auditing effort based in the eastern Congo. This could be expensive, but if established, could lead to new successes in the fight against the looting. For example, say a metal broker is caught selling minerals from a mine that is a source of conflict and controlled by a violent militia – a reality for many eastern Congolese mines. In this case "[the metal broker] will lose access to international markets," says Sullivan.  

Some experts on the eastern Congo say the bill is flawed and if passed, won’t have the muscle to end the resource war.

"Given the many links in the supply chain [of eastern Congo minerals], any of them can simply claim they don’t know where the minerals are coming from and it is currently difficult to prove them wrong," says David Barouski, a student from the University of Wisconsin, who has documented first-hand the resource war in the eastern Congo. "The U.S. claims it wants to help implement ways to certify this chain, but how are they going to do it for every mine in a conflict zone? Certification at the mines would require agents to go on site, but with such poor infrastructure it would be years before this is feasible and there would need to be peace to rebuild the infrastructure."  

Besides the U.S., the Congolese people don’t trust the UN either, says Yaa-Lengi. Throwing fuel on their UN speculation, he says, is the 2009 UN Panel of Experts’ report on the eastern Congo, The Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At first the report was leaked, angering members of the Security Council. Then its official release was delayed.

"The UN delayed publishing it because it points a finger back to the UN and the Security Council," says Yaa-Lengi. "This is because they are allowing the Congolese to die and be raped. The UN knows it, but they are allowing it. All members of the Security Council are benefiting from the resources of the Congo. The UN does only what the Security Council wants and by that we mean what the super powers want."   

The U.N. Security Council is comprised of the U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia and China as permanent members and two other rotating member nations. Companies in every one of these nations, claims Yaa-Lengi, have benefitted in some way from the cheap minerals taken from eastern Congo, one of poorest nations on the planet. But according to the African Business Magazine, the DRC currently has an estimated total mineral wealth of $24 trillion, equivalent to the GDP of Europe and the US combined.

Sullivan of the Enough Project agrees the Congolese are suspect of the UN, as they are of the US. Yet, he says to "keep in mind the [UN] Panel of Experts is independent of the Security Council.” For the most part, this UN Panel of Experts is made up of regional experts of the eastern Congo, its culture, government and society, he says, adding "The new report has pretty much been ignored by the Security Council.” 

Indeed, past UN Panel of Experts’ reports on the eastern Congo, published in 2001 and 2003, were also mostly ignored by members of the Security Council. Even though the UN Panel of Experts had evidence piled high implicating scores of Western-based mining companies and metal brokers of buying looted minerals from conflict mines of the eastern Congo.

Take, for example, the story of Robert Raun, a former metal broker who worked just across the eastern Congolese border in Rwanda. He was the beneficiary of a strange response on the part of the UN in 2004, a response that sends mixed messages about the West and their intentions for the eastern Congo resource war.  

Raun and his mining company, Trinitech of Cleveland, Ohio, which processed and traded coltan, had been implicated in the UN’s 2001 report, The Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This report essentially accused Trinitech and over 100 other Western-based mining companies of looting minerals from the eastern Congo. The minerals included coltan, a black metal ore that is needed to meet the West’s insatiable thirst for personal technology. It is a key ingredient in the manufacture of cell phones, lap tops and video-game consoles. (Also see Inside Africa’s PlayStation War in Toward Freedom.)

When Raun stepped onto the 20th floor of the Secretariat Tower of the United Nations in 2004 to respond to their charges, the "power of accusation" from the UN, he says, had already ruined Trinitech. The UN also accused Raun of aligning with "elite networks" of Rwandan government officials and high-ranking military officers. The elite networks were apparently forcing Congolese children and captives to mine for coltan.  

"The allegations we were using child labor was a fabrication," insists Raun, a devout Christian. "[But] accusation is a powerful thing. It ruined us. Nobody wants to buy from the company that’s wearing the Scarlet Letter. We’re just a shell of what we used to be. But we’re standing, by the power of God, we’re standing."

Nevertheless, on that day in New York City in 2004, the UN would surprisingly drop its charges against Trinitech. Indeed, at that time, the UN was giving a lot of Western-based mining companies and metal brokers working in eastern Congo a pass. Out of the 100 or so mining companies accused of looting minerals, the UN dropped the charges against each one, infuriating mining watchdog efforts such as MiningWatch Canada 

Raun only answers to the child labor charges, however. When asked who Trinitech was buying its coltan from, and whether it came from conflict-ridden mines in the eastern Congo, he responds, "No comment".

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio. 

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