I’m a PC, I’m a Mac = Conflict Minerals in the Congo

The situation is dire in the Eastern Congo, said Prof Yaa-Lengi Ngemi, while appearing on AfrobeatRadio on WBAI on June 26, 2010. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of 17 countries in Africa celebrating 50 years of Independence from European colonial rule in 2010; He also stated, and rightly so, that “there is nothing to celebrate.”  In a Declaration issued in New York on June 29, 2010, by Professor Yaa-Lengi Ngemi, author of Genocide in the Congo-Zaire and French-to-English translator of Cheikh Anta Diop’s magnum opus, Civilization or Barbarism, declared that “The Congo-Zaire is not an Independent State nor a Sovereign Nation”. For much of well over a one hundred years, the DRC, as it is known for short, has been mired in war and violence of unimaginable proportions except for three periods of relative calm: the first six months of independence led by prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, some years of the 31 year dictatorial rule of Mobutu Sese Seko whose rule was itself a violent imposition, and perhaps for a short while during the reign of Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

This week, RAISE Hope for Congo, released a new video campaign that sends the message to technology companies that their consumers want them to make their products conflict-free. The “Hello, I’m a Mac, and I’m helping fuel the war in the Congo” campaign made by Brooke Smith, an actress, writer and director, and cinematographer Steven Lubensky, with actors Joshua Malina and John Lehr, both of whom featured in the original “Hello, I’m a Mac” Ads is intended as an alternate version that links our everyday technology accessories to the bloody war in the Eastern DR Congo has claimed  estimated 7 million lives since 1998 in the war. Yaa-Lengi, who co-founded the Congo Coalition, insists the figure is up to 10 million.

While not the only mineral fueling the war in the Congo, coltan (columbite–tantalite) is the mineral at the center of issues.  80% World’s known reserves are in Congo (DRC), mostly in the Eastern provinces of Kivus and Orientale. Tantalum from coltan is used in capacitors in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers, including iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, PCs, cell phones, digital cameras, etc.

In Nick Kristof’s Op’ed column in The New York Times this week, writes “Electronics manufacturers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gadget and think ‘sleek,’ not ‘blood.’” Be that as it may be, the violence committed by all manners of comers in the DRC (and Africa) is well documented and has inspired mountains of literature that includes the great, at once gloomy and elegantly written controversial novels “The Heart of Darkness” (1899) by Joseph Conrad;

    He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—”The horror! The horror!”

    – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

And, V. S. Naipul’s “A Bend In The River”. (1979)

    “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

In V.S.Naipul’s novel as in the DRC, “most of the characters are eaten by the voracious modern world.”

    “Nobody’s going anywhere,” the apparently successful local party boss tells Salim, “We’re all going to Hell and every man knows that in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning. That is why everyone is so frantic. Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad.” 

A popular history book by Adam Hochschild “King Leopold’s Ghost” (1998), explores the exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908, and also form the basis on which a documentary by the same name starring Don Cheadle, Alfre Woodard and  James Cromwell was recently made. It has also countless books, documentaries, articles, websites, movements and so on. In our series on the Congo, we interviewed author Dave Donelson on his more recent novel “Heart of Diamonds“.

                                                                                 Map of the Democratic Republic Congo.

                                                                                 Map of the Democratic Republic Congo.

At the heart of DR Congo’s misery is its bountiful resources that has inspired epic greed and theft of resources. The DRC is a large country with 2,345,408 square kilometres (905,567 sq miles) which make it slightly greater than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway.

The Congo is situated at the very heart of Africa, South of the Sahara; geo-politically central Africa. The DRC is bounded by (clockwise from the southwest) Angola, the South Atlantic Ocean, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, the Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania across Lake Tanganyika, and Zambia.

The DRC is extremely wealthy in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc, coltan, cassiterite, uranium, copper, tin, silver, cobalt, niobium, timber, hydro power, manganese and Petroleum. It is the world’s chief supplier of coltan used in mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, and cassiterite, used in food packaging.

The current ongoing war in the DRC has be described as Africa’s first World War because it has directly involved eight different African  countries at some time or another and in one form or another.  According to Anup Shah in his article The Democratic Republic of Congo on his Global Issues Journal Site:

There have been a number of complex reasons including conflicts over basic resources such as water, access and control over rich minerals and other resources as well as various political agendas. This has been fueled and supported by various national and international corporations and other regimes which have interest in the outcome of the conflict. They include Angola, Namibia, Chad, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Libya, Zimbabwe and Burundi. Arguably, their involvement is based on personal motivations for economic benefit for by many of the leaders of these countries, their cronies, their family members and friends who are vested in exploiting and expropriating Congo’s resources.

According to Friends of the Congo, The Friends of the Congo (FOTC), a not-for-profit human rights advocacy organization based in Washington, DC., established at the behest of Congolese human rights and grassroots institutions in the DR Congo:

Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and their proxy militias are the primary exploiters of coltan in the Congo. In an 18 month period Rwanda made $250 million as a result of exploitation of coltan in the Congo. Although Rwanda and Uganda possess little or no coltan, during the period of the war in the Congo, their exports escalated exponentially. For example, Rwanda’s coltan export went from less than 50 tons in 1995 to almost 250 tons in 1998. Zero cassiterite was transported from the Congo to Uganda in 1998, however by 2000 151 drums were transported.

Coltan is short for Columbite-tantalite – a black tar-like mineral found in major quantities in the Congo. The Congo possesses 80 percent of the world’s coltan. When coltan is refined it becomes a heat resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge. The properties of refined coltan is a vital element in creating devices that store energy or capacitors, which are used in a vast array of small electronic devices, especially in mobile phones, laptop computers, pagers, and other electronic devices.

The international community has not been left out of the DR Congo crimes either, starting with the United Nation’s Peace Operations  to the Congo known by its acronym MONUC, and along with International Development and non governmental AID organizations have all been implicated in all manners of scandals and profits seeking motives. The UN for instance has been described as a business party whose presence in the DC guarantees international funding for itself and also for providing support for international organizations operating in the Congo, and and sometimes collaborating with militias directly responsible for much of the mayhem. Also, UN personnel have also been implicated in prostitution.

The United Nations in its 2001 report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources in the Congo that “The consequences of illegal exploitation has been twofold and we are seeing same pattern in Afghanistan under US occupation:

  1. Massive availability of financial resources for the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and the individual enrichment of top Ugandan military commanders and civilians.
  2. The emergence of of illegal networks headed by either top military officers or businessmen.

Although the countries mentioned above directly exploit coltan, foreign multi-national corporations have also been deeply involved in the exploitation of coltan in the Congo. The coltan mined by rebels and foreign forces is sold to foreign corporations often through specialized smuggling rings. Although, the United Nations in its reports on the Congo do not directly blame the multi-national corporations for the conflict in the Congo, the United Nations does say that these companies serve as “the engine of the conflict in the DRC.”

Major United States players include:

Cabot Corporation, Boston, MA
OM Group, Cleveland, Ohio
AVX, Myrtle Beach, SC
Eagle Wings Resources International, Ohio
Trinitech International, Ohio
Kemet Electronics Corporation, Greenville, SC
Vishay Sprague. Malvern, PA

Corporations from other countries have been also a part of the coltan exploitation chain; These companies include but are not limited to Germany’s HC Starc and EPCOS, China’s Nigncxia, and Belgium’s George Forrest International.

Once the coltan is processed and converted to capacitors, it is then sold to companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard , IBM, Lucent, Ericsson and Sony for use in a wide assortment of everyday products ranging from cell phones to computer chips and game consoles.

Some of the uses of coltan in modern society:
    Laptop computers, Cellular phones
    Jet engines, Rockets
    Cutting tools, Camera lenses
    X-ray film, Ink jet printers
    Hearing aids, Pacemakers
    Airbag protection systems, Ignition and motor control modules,
    GPS, ABS systems in automobiles
    Game consoles such as Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo
    Video cameras, Digital still cameras
    Sputtering targets, Chemical process equipment
    Cathodic protection systems for steel structures such as bridges, water tanks
    Prosthetic devices for humans – hips, plates in the skull, also mesh to repair bone removed after damage by cancer
    Suture clips
    Corrosion resistant fasteners, screws, nuts, bolts
    High temperature furnace parts
    High temperature alloys for air and land based turbines

Joseph Kabila was elected President in 2006. He appointed Antoine Gizenga as Prime Minister. The parliament is made up of a National Assembly and a Senate. The National Assembly has 500 members. It is led by Vital Kamerhe. The Senate has108 members and is led by Kengo Wa Dondo. Presidential and legislative elections take place every five years.As for the people of the DR Congo.

Since the outbreak of fighting in August 1998:

  •     Some 5.4 million people have died
  •     It has been the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II
  •     The vast majority have actually died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition—all typically preventable in normal circumstances, but have come about because of the conflict
  •     Although 19% of the population, children account for 47% of the deaths
  •     Although many have returned home as violence has slightly decreased, there are still some 1.5 million internally displaced or refugees Some 45,000 continue to die each month 

These shocking figures would usually be more than enough to get media attention the world over, especially if it were to threaten influential nations in some way. Yet, perhaps as a cruel irony, influential nations in the world benefit from the vast resources coming from the DRC for which people are dying over.

The story of the DRC cannot be told in one single loop of an article. And so, we have chosen to tell it through the eyes, the voices, the bodies and the pain of those whose experience it is. At AfrobeatRadio, we began to examine various aspects of the crisis immediately the program debut on WBAI 99.5 FM PACIFICA Radio, NY in the Spring of 2009. 

We now bring you that Series of interviews in the coming weeks. They include conversations with 

  1. Professor emeritus of African Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja.
  2. Professor Richard Hull, professor of African History at New York University.  
  3. Keith Harmon Snow,  award-winning independent war correspondent, photographer, and human rights investigator.
  4. Dave Donelson, Journalist and author of Heart of Diamonds.
  5. Professor George White, Assistant Professor of History at York College, CUNY. 6, Congolese Activist, Joseph Mbangu.
  6. Congolese Photographer, Misengabo Kapuadi.
  7. Congolese businessman, Kulia Nzogu.
  8. The conversations culminated in a radio Panel on  AfrobeatRadio on WBAI.

We hope you enjoy the interview but more than that, we hope that the voices we bring to you on the Congo crisis will move you to act. The Congo Series was produced with the help of the Friends of the Congo.

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