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Khadija Sharife looks at how commercial and political interests in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mineral and natural resources have shaped the country’s history, with devastating consequences for its people, wildlife and environment. Will a new concession with China enable the Congolese to ‘really feel what all that copper, cobalt and nickel is good for’, as President Joseph Kabila says, or will the country continue to be seen as ‘a resource-rich bargain bin, open for business’?

If the gorillas inhabiting the Kahuzi Biega National Park located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a World Heritage site and ecological sanctuary, could read, the bible may have come handy. Not the bible of God, mind you, but that of the free marketers religion: The Wall Street Journal.

Then, sitting among the rare and inimitable forested landscape, they might have come across an article detailing the efforts of multinational Bechtel, a company as infamous for its engineering and construction services as the intelligence they have supplied to the CIA and US government.[1] As reported by Robert Block (Wall Street Journal, October 1997), Bechtel has helped map – free of charge – ‘the most complete mineralogical and geographical data of the former Zaire ever assembled, information worth a fortune to any prospective mining or oil firm.’

This inventory not only ‘commissioned and paid for US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite studies of the country for infrared maps of its mineral potential,’ but also peeled back the skin of the forest and highlands to reveal its finite riches, chiefly coltan – the same magic dust used to develop the technologies underpinning the modernity of high-tech civilisation. Given that 80 per cent of the world’s coltan was located in Africa, and 82 per cent in the DRC, putting friends in high places remained a crucial tentacle of foreign policy.

In a report entitled, ‘’ in 2002. According to this UN report, ‘60-70 per cent of the coltan exported from eastern DRC was mined ‘under the direct surveillance’ of the Rwandan army,’ while more than 85 multinationals were involved.

‘Many international corporations, such as Banro-Resources Corporation, Geologistics Hannover, Rwasibo-Butera, Eagleswings, Veen, Soger, Afrimex, Cogecom, Ventro Star, Raremet, Finiming Ltd, Union Transport, Specialty Metal and Finconcorde, among others, have imported coltan from the DRC via Rwanda for use in Europe, Asia and the US,’ stated Dena Montague, a researcher with the World Policy Institute.

Though 80 per cent of the world’s coltan is located in Africa, with 82 per cent of this found in the DRC (specifically in the ‘red zone’ controlled by the Rwandan army or, alternately, Rwandan-backed militias), the fluidity informing the legal and illegal nature of coltan largely depends on whether or not the ‘magic mud’ – named so for its close proximity to the surface – is purchased via legal entities abroad, and often, through ‘legally licensed’ comptoirs based in the Kivus and Goma.

In the case of coltan, the tentacles interlocking multinationals which geostrategically control the resources extends to stages one (exploration), two (detection) and five (treatment and commercialisation). Rwandan brokers are largely responsible for overseeing stages three (extraction, overseeing the extraction of coltan) and four (transportation). Some mines, such as the Nairobi mine, clearly refer to destination, while the bulk of coltan is processed through Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, en route to the ports of Mombassa, Kenya, or Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Previously services such as SDV-Transitra, then, or Russian Antonovs, much later were used to ferry the goods to Kampala, Nairobi or Kigali.

According to the UN report, ‘In November 2000 in Kigali, the Panel was told that the illegal exploitation of resources and the financial gains of [the Rwandan Patriotic Army] RPA were justified as the repayment for the security that Rwanda provides...’ Halliburton subsidiary, Brown & Root, aided the process by building bases along the Congolese/Rwandan border where the Rwandan army trained.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) training, since the late 1970s, was provided by the US via Fort Kansas while Paul Kagame (the current President of Rwanda) and other elites constituted crucial elements of Uganda’s army (with Kagame becoming Director of the National Resistance Army (NRA) in the same year that Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni became president of the country). The International Court of Justice (ICJ) would later claim that Uganda’s damage to the Eastern DRC was the equivalent of US$6-10 billion. According to the UN report, ‘The illegal exploitation of natural resources is facilitated by the administrative structures established by Uganda and Rwanda. Those countries’ leaders directly and indirectly appointed regional governors or local authorities or, more commonly, appointed or confirmed Congolese in these positions. With minor exceptions, the objective of [its] military activity is to secure access to mining sites or ensure a supply of captive labour.’ Circuitous routes included Museveni’s brother who operated three services flying resources out of the DRC and into Rwanda and Belgium airline SABENA operating between Kigali and Amsterdam. SABENA suspended operations, revealed researcher John Katunga, following the release of the UN’s report, only to be replaced by Martinair. A previous UN report documented as many as 64 planes leaving mineral-rich regions in an ordinary day.

Multinationals like Nokia at the time proclaimed to receive no coltan from the region. Yet, according to a revealing statement made by Nokia’s Communications Manager in 2001, ‘All you can do is ask, and if they say no, we believe it.’ Not much has changed. However, the process of certifying and fingerprinting resources is only difficult because of the lack of genuine political will and the commercial interests involved.

The truth appears to be that entities like Cabot, the second largest processor of its type (guided by Sam Bodman, former Secretary of Energy under Bush), and HC Starck, producing 50 per cent of the world’s tantalum stocks in 2001, cannot be monitored due to regulatory vacuums undermining any plausible pretences of accountability and transparency. A Starck press release merely asserts: ‘These trading companies have confirmed that HC Starck is not being supplied with material from the crisis areas of central Africa.’

For the DRC, ‘controlled’ by a fragmented and incoherent state, politically and physically distant from exploited territories, the situation – described by the 2002 UN Report as ‘the systematic and systemic exploitation of the DRC done in the name of resources’ – implies that humans born ‘rich’ in the DRC, are fast becoming as much an endangered species as the gorillas, elephants and other magnificent creatures gunned. Outside and alongside the DRC, in the contiguous world inhabited by ‘everyone else,’ accessorising life with mobile phones and computers and Sony PlayStations, we have become unwitting players in the system; spectators to a nation devoured by the terribly respectable white collar criminals, and their minions, rendering the DRC a large prison without walls, and the ‘unregulated’ free market, a religion of economic mercenaries. After half a century of prayer, the DRC has made into the desired image – a resource-rich bargain bin, open for business.


* This article first appeared in The Thinker (Volume 12, 2010).
* Khadija Sharife is a journalist and a visiting scholar at the [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] There are myriad other examples related to Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iran, Syria and others. The revolving door has included people like Steven Bechtel (CIA liaison to the Business Council), George Schultz (former Bechtel President and Reagan’s Secretary of State), Richard Helm (former CIA Director under Nixon and later consultant to the company), and William Simon (Treasury Secretary under Nixon and consultant to Bechtel).