The cursed relationship between Coltan and Congo

Coltan (columbite-tantalum) . Coltan, according to the Oxford dictionary, is a dull metallic ore from which mobium and tantalum are extracted. I view this as one of the most precious minerals in our generation, built on the fact that from it, telephones, laptops, cameras and cars are manufactured. Coltan embodies a remarkably high resistance power and a strong ability to hold electric charge.

Congo has been named one of the poorest countries in the world which pops out as an awe to anyone who posses an elemental knowledge about the country’s wealth in terms of resources. It is the largest producer of coltan generating 64% of the world’s product.

It is no stagger that more than 50% of the Congolese population do not own smartphones. It has been a ceaseless factor to state that African countries are poor yet endowed with resources, but as Philip Zimbardo once said, we must learn to balance the past, present and future perspectives in order to actualize stability. I place this thought on everything I deem substantial, family, work, friends, personal life and even the economic growth of a continent.

I have an incredibly dramatic story for every part of the world that I have been graced to make a visit and the one I like the most was my first time in Congo. This story begins in Kampala, Uganda, followed by a move to the rural side and that is how we found ourselves in Kisoro district, a location right at the boarder of Uganda and Congo. This was an area densely populated, surrounded by trees and vegetables, if not for the local people, I could have never acknowledged that a murram road a few meters from the rural house was a boarder between Congo and Uganda. No control, No fence, No post sign.

However, just a few days into our stay we noticed a lorry that often left Congo into Uganda late night or early morning stocked with enormous logs of wood, a common case of smuggling from the Congo rain forest. The myth with the African history is that, it is a repetitive film that switches characters film after film.

The first war in Congo was so big that it was later identified as Africa’s first world war, a war between the civilians and the military. Congo has always been a wealthy state which comes off as a curse as everyone perilously tries to cling on a strip of the country and call it their own.

The privatization of Congo began on 1885 when King Leopold 2 of Belgium expelled the Arabs using dictatorship on the Congolese civilians to mine gold hence selling it to Europe and the United States, this is recorded as the first encounter Congo had with being a private property. The story of Leopold is a disgust and an abomination that has continually been compared with the one of Hitler as millions were killed or maimed working in rubber plantations or military expeditions. A period of 23 years led to the deaths of more that 10 million people. However, it has been argued that this numbers also convoluted the number of people who died in the pandemics. Moreover, It continues to be no myth that millions were murdered during his reign.

In 1960, Congo gained its independence with Lumumba taking on the presidency. Lumumba was a patriotic African revolutionary, he is remembered in history as a man full of integrity with a high sense of nationalism. Mobutu who was then the head of staff in Lumumba’s Government organised a coup d’etat with a hand from Belgium and the United States, alleging that Lumumba’s Government was one based on Communism. Mobutu henceforth became the president for 32 years, an obstacle that Mighty Africa continues to face. Mobutu imposed a dictatorship for the years he was in power and this is how Zaire was born. Just like many other African countries under colonization at the time, he expelled the westerners leaving all the running industries primarily ran by the westerners to be ran by Mobutu’s friends and colleagues who were then oblivious of the entire operation. Mobutu pocketed International Aid, looted Congo’s diamond and copper, and told the soldiers (with a bad pay at the time) to Leave for Goma (a region endowed with minerals) and fend for themselves. This system ended up becoming a Congolese tradition.

For more than 20 years Congo was in a conflict. In April 2012, one of the armed rebel groups based in Eastern Congo began to gain territory. Mammadou Ngala ( National Army Commander of the 42nd Battalion Rapid Reaction Force) described the main causes of war as:

  1. Lack of patriotism
  2. No system of Governance
  3. The National Army is poorly paid

He led the group into the 2012 war in North Kivu, that was then an extension of the second Congo war in 2003 against a rebel group (M23) created by Makanga who was primarily a Colonel in the National Army. Congo won the war, and most of the rebels who remained alive surrendered. Mammadou’s success as a leader was absurd leading to his assassination, another controversy with African leadership.

Fast forward to present day Congo, there is no war for resources but the Country remains poverty-stricken.

The mines in Congo have been noted under the UN and other notable International Organisations to have more than 40,000 people working there with some being children 7-10 years. A big percentage of the Congolese men work here, it is termed as quick money that compensates the day to day living of many Congolese people living under the poverty line. The mining conditions are harsh and the children are treated miserably. Some of the people travel more than 7km with the poor road conditions and lack of proper transport. Some of the mines are more than 50 meters deep with no bearings for self-support when descending and ascending the mine holes. The people living around the mines have complained of various unseen before illnesses and body cancerous growths that come out as a result of the mines.

Cooperamma is the biggest mining company that extracts Coltan employing 3000 workers according to a DW documentary. The company is led by Robert Seninga, a millionaire who was once a rebel leader and is also a former Member of Parliament, which should already be illegal based on this background information. Inside the office there are posters and rules against children mining and also the persistence of the use of gloves, helmets and masks, but there is no evidence of this on site.

The Cooperamma building in Congo

1 killo goes for 45 dollars, and in just a small number of days, they can produce up to 40 tonnes worth of Coltan, which means that in a small number of days, this building uploaded in the photo above controls millions of euros meant for the people of Congo. A soldier confessed that due to the poor pay of 80 dollars a month, they get to sell this in black markets hence making 500-1000 dollars in just a single day. What does this mean:

  1. Taxes are not paid
  2. The tax revenue does not reach the Government
  3. They are probably selling this to foreigners in a quick and secretive way, hence losses are incurred
  4. The average congolese man, woman or child does not get to benefit from the taxes and wealth that could be built from this.
  5. At the end, the foreigner and his or her country wins.

Other individuals have also come out with confessions, that they have been involved in smuggling because this is the only way to raise their families. Traces of illegal Coltan, Coltan mined in situations that:

  1. Allow child labour
  2. Coltan that comes from a war zone area
  3. Coltan companies that do not support or adhere to the proper work conditions that have been set up
  4. Coltan mines that have been marked to be hazardous to the environment

have been found exported in some of the biggest phone companies in the world, but the companies continue to deny their involvement with the illegal mining in Congo e.g Glencore.

The mine workers are scheduled to get paid 5-8 dollars a day, not being in possesion of smart phones to really understand how much coltan and other minerals are worth to the world, not knowing what they risk for in their day to day lives, using their bear hands, uninformed that Coltan is being used in some of the biggest companies in the world and earning them billlions.

Sources

  1. Reybrouck, D. V (2014). The Epic History of a People (NY) Ecco.
  2. The life of the super-rich in Central Africa, DW Documentary
  3. United Nations Reports

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