How Shall the Meek Inherit the Rare Earth?
THE British government has anninced it is suspending aid to Rwanda because of the African state's involvment in supporting M23 rebels in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, but critics are asking what took them so long to recognise what everyone knew, and whether this is too little too late.
Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, applied to join the British Commonwealth in 2008, and was admitted in 2010. President Paul Kagame's move was seen as a break out of the Francophone sphere, after blaming France for complicity in the 1994 genocide which ended when his rebel army took control of the country.
But it is Rwanda's interference in the Congo, and that of another Commonwealth country, Uganda, that has roused wider concern. They invaded twice, in 1996 and 1998, and in 2000 fought a "six day war"between them on Congolese soil, resulting in many civilian deaths, though the object was to lay hands on diamonds in Kisangani province, north-eastern Congo.
In late March this year a rebellion broke out among Rwandan troops in the Congolese army who complained that an agreement on March 23, 2009 to integrate them into the army had not been fully implemented. This was the start of the M23 force. A prominent figure in it is Bosco Ntaganda, a Tutsi Rwandan warlord turned Congolese army general, who just happens to be wanted on an International Criminal Court for war crimes.
(Liberation magazine, November 2012, article by Victoria Dove Dimandja)
There are rich prizes to be got in the poor and war-ravaged Congo - gold, diamonds, and oil, but above all, in eastern Congo, a less familiar explanation for war and rivalry - the rare eath metals. Not as esoteric as they sound, but essential to many of the hi-tech products that have become part of life today.
As a blogger calling themself "DINGO" put it dramatically two years ago:
DINGO on Thu Nov 18, 2010 "Could anyone imagine that cell phones are tainted with the blood of 3.2 million deaths since 1998? Also, that the same thing happens with some children's video games? And that mega-technologies contribute to forest depredation and spoliation of the rich natural resources of paradoxically impoverished peoples?
In the case of these new high techs, it is Coltan that is at stake --the minerals columbium and tantalite, or Coltan for short. Tantalite is a rare, hard and dense metal, very resistant to corrosion and high temperatures and is an excellent electricity and heat conductor. It is used in the microchips of cell phone batteries to prolong duration of the charge, making this business flourish. Provisions for 2004 foresee sales of 1,000 million units. To these properties are added that its extraction does not entail heavy costs --it is obtained by digging in the mud-- and that it is easily sold, enabling the companies involved in the business to obtain juicy dividends.
Even though Coltan is extracted in Brazil, Thailand and much of it from Australia --the prime producer of Coltan on a world level-- it is in Africa where 80% of the world reserves are to be found. Within this continent, the Democratic Republic of Congo concentrates over 80% of the deposits, where 10,000 miners toil daily in the province of Kivu (eastern Congo), a territory that has been occupied since 1998 by the armies of Rwanda and Uganda. A series of companies has been set up in the zone, associated to large transnational capital, local governments and military forces (both state and "guerrilla") in a dispute over the control of the region for the extraction of Coltan and other minerals. The United Nations has not hesitated to state that this strategic mineral is funding a war that the former United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright called "the first African world war" (and we understand by world wars, those in which the great powers share out the world), and is one of its causes.
In August 1998, the Congolese Union for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-RCD), launched a rebellion in the city of Goma, supported by the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA). Since then, in a struggle in which, behind the myth of ethnic rivalries, are hidden the old colonial powers that continue to ransack the wealth of post-Colonial Africa, the war has been rife between two, loosely defined parties. On the one hand the RDC and the Governments of Rwanda and Uganda, supported by the United States, relying on the military bases such as that built in Rwanda by the United States company Brown&Root, a branch of Halliburton, where Rwandese forces are trained and logistic support is provided to their troops in the DRC, together with United States combat helicopters and spy satellites. The other party is made up of the Democratic Republic of Congo (led by one of Kabila's sons, after his father was assassinated by the Rwandese), Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
However, behind these states are the companies sharing out the zone. Various joint companies have been set up for this purpose, the most important one being SOMIGL (the Great Lakes Mining Company), a joint company set up in November 2000, involving Africom, Premeco, Cogecom and Cogear, (the latter two are Belgium companies --it should be remembered that DRC, formerly the Belgium Congo, was a Belgium colony), Masingiro GmbH (a German company) and various other companies that ceased their activities in January 2002 for various reasons (a drop in Coltan prices, difficult working conditions, suspension of Coltan imports from DRC) and are waiting for better conditions: Sogem (a Belgian company), Cabot and Kemet (U.S.) the joint United States-German company Eagles Wings Resources (now with headquarters in Rwanda), among others.
The transport companies belong to close family members of the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda. In these virtually military zones, private air companies bring in arms and take out minerals. Most of the Coltan extracted is later refined by a small number of companies in Germany, the United States, Kazakhstan and the Far East. The branch of Bayer, Starck produces 50% of powdered tantalite on a world level. Dozens of companies are linked to the traffic and elaboration of this product, with participation of the major monopolizing companies in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. As if this were not enough, the Trade, Development and Industry Bank, created in 1996 with headquarters in the capital city of Rwanda, Kigali, acts as correspondent for the CITIBANK in the zone, and handles large amounts of money from Coltan, gold and diamond operations. Thirty-four companies import Coltan from the Congo, among these, 27 are of western origin, mainly Belgium, Dutch and German.
A UN report on Rwandan invasion of the Congo, which was supposedly in pursuit of genocidaires, war criminals who had taken refuge in the Congo, found that the Rwandan troops had not headed for the areas where these gangs were hiding out, but for the mines. Far from clearing out the genocidaires the invaders had teamed up with them to exploit those Congolese whom they had not killed and who did not flee. They enslaved local people, often children, to dig at gunpoint for the valuable rare earths.
Others were coming into Congo to get in on the act, the UN report said, "armies of business, commanded by men who carefully planned the redrawing of the regional map to redistribute wealth".
While the UN report recommended further investigation of companies including Barclays and Standard Chartered Banks, Coltam was going up in price as it was used in playstations. Former Labour MP Oona King remarked:
"Kids in Congo were being sent into mines to die so that kids in Europe and Anerica could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms".
(Victoria Dove Dimandja, Liberation magazine, January 2011)
Some interesting recent exchanges took place in the House of Lords over Rwanda: For instance:
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Labour)
To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the report of the involvement of the Government of Rwanda in the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in particular of the involvement of General James Kabarebe, Minister of Defence of Rwanda.
Baroness Warsi (Conservative)We are aware that the embargoed report by the UN Group of Experts has been leaked. It is not government policy to comment on leaked documents. However, we have consistently made it clear to the Rwandan Government, at the most senior levels, that we find the existing body of evidence for Rwandan involvement with the M23 credible and compelling. And that all such support must stop.
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Lord Alton of Liverpool: Does the noble Baroness not recall that in September, in reply to a Written Question that I tabled, her noble friend Lady Northover confirmed that some £344 million is being provided in bilateral aid to Rwanda between 2011 and 2015? In that same reply, she said that Rwanda,
and that the Secretary of State was still considering whether those expectations were being met. Given what the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, just said about the fall of Goma-there are now 80,000 displaced people and refugees in that area-and what Ban Ki-Moon has said about using aid for leverage, will the Minister say whether we are reconsidering our decision to restore aid in that vast degree to Rwanda and who is arming and paying for the arms of the M23 rebels?
Baroness Warsi: I cannot comment on the last question that the noble Lord raised but, in relation to aid, in 2012-13 we have committed £75 million, of which £29 million is general budget support. The noble Lord will be aware that in July of this year, because of certain concerns that were raised, a £16 million tranche of general budget funding was not given over until September and, at that point, £8 million was given over as general budget support but £8 million was redirected to education and food. The next tranche is due in December and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development is looking at all these matters.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, does the Minister have a view on how the Security Council could accept yesterday that M23 is getting external support but then perversely claim that it lacks evidence? Does she agree that it need look no further than the new, well documented evidence provided by Human Rights Watch on Rwanda's provision of, for instance, logistical support and sophisticated weaponry to M23?
Baroness Warsi: We were heavily involved in that presidential statement at the United Nations Security Council yesterday. It was important that we raised our concerns, and we raised them. As the noble Baroness will note from that report, the support given to M23 is not entirely clear. Reference was made to it by the United Nations group of experts' report via a leaked report. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that leak, but these are matters that we continuously discuss with Rwanda.
Victoria Dove Dimandja is a Congolese woman living in London and active in the Congolese Women's Group and Campaign "It must stop". See: