Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.
In Central Africa, two contrasting nations border each other. Like most of Africa, both countries have a grim history, but that’s where their similarities end.
One nation is the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC for short. The country is Africa’s second largest country and located at the center of the continent. It is also Africa’s most mineral-rich state, yet one of the poorest economically.
Bordering the Congo to the east is Rwanda, the fourth smallest nation in mainland Africa. The country is almost eclipsed by the Congo’s large size. In contrast to its neighbor, Rwanda is mineral poor. However, this fact, along with a strong leader, is what perhaps freed the country from what afflicts the rest of Africa; the resource curse. A curse that is symbolically, the strongest at the heart of the continent.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to 70% of the world’s cobalt mining which is the key ingredient to our smartphone batteries. It is also used for batteries in computers and even solar panels and electric cars. Technology and cobalt go together like T’s & C’s. The petroleum industry is not innocent either, since cobalt is also used as a catalyst in crude oil refineries to make that sweet petrol and diesel. It is also (in trace amounts) an essential vitamin for our health. This last point is of little significance to the article except in a symbolic sense since we don’t get our cobalt from mines but food. Cobalt is needed to make red blood cells. And just as cobalt is needed for blood, it is needed for the blood of technology.
It is ironic then that the blood of our modern society comes from one of the most economically and technologically impoverished places in the world.
If the Congo can be said to be the heart of Africa and of our technology industry, child labor can be said to be the heart cells.
Exploitation by tech companies is not new news and is not the main topic of this article, but it is a piece of the larger puzzle. The puzzle is of an entire world exploiting a country on it’s knees.
By now, tech companies have implemented measures to ensure they only use industrial mines instead of artisanal mines. In these mines, child labor is in appalling conditions akin to slave labor.
Even though it’s an old topic, it has still not been resolved. In 2019, Apple, Tesla, Microsoft, Google, and Dell were all named in a 2019 lawsuit regarding child labor deaths due to cobalt mining. Thanks to this negative publicity, the companies suddenly grew a heart and tried harder to switch to “industrial” alternatives. If moral ethics won’t convince a company to take action, a nice public image will.
But in 2021, the charges were dropped.
Problem solved, right? Wrong.
The informal mines didn’t go away. Someone is still buying. What even stops industrial mines from buying from the informal miners right next door? And when some mines had to close during the covid pandemic, Swiss human rights expert Baumann-Pauly, who personally visited the sites, noticed that informal miners moved into closed down industrial mines.
There were even reports by Siddharth Kara, another expert on the topic, NY Times bestseller and author of “Red cobalt,” that mines claiming to be “industrial” were actually using artisanal, that is, informal miners, all along (with video footage as proof).
Despite the outrage and political grandstanding about the pillaging of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s second largest rainforest, the Congo basin, receives little interest despite being destroyed by mining. Then there is the topic of what will happen as the EV industry continues to grow – and the cobalt demand with it.
Unfortunately, exploitation does not end at tech companies, but of course entire countries, including its African neighbors.
Congo can almost be said to be… Africa’s colony, or Africa’s Africa.
Due to the borders of the DRC being a colonial amalgamation that for all intents and purposes should not exist, it houses 250 different ethnic groups and 700 different languages and destroyed the natural borders of countless tribes and nations. This includes the Lunda empire, with an over 200-year history and many more groups of people. It should come to no one’s surprise then, that following independence, chaos erupted in the form of ethnic-political divisions resulting in secession groups. One of these groups wanted Katanga to secede, the very place that contains all the cobalt mines in Congo. This was supported by a Belgium mine and the Belgium government itself. Amidst this chaos, the president sought support from the only major party willing to provide aid at that time; the Soviet Union. Of course, this then prompted America to intervene with a CIA-backed coup to secure the Congo’s uranium mines for the cold war.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Next door to the DRC, the Rwandan genocide occurs. After the genocide, a president belonging to the very ethnic group that was targeted for extermination – the Tutsi – came into power; causing perpetrators of the genocide to flee into the east DRC. Claiming the DRC supported the extremists, Rwanda invaded, first supporting a proxy rebel group before outright invading along with several allies. Due to anything abbreviated as ANC (in this case the Armée Nationale Congolaise) inherently being useless, corrupt, inept, and generally overall a joke, Rwanda soon reached all the way to the capital of the DRC. The war concluded with a puppet of Rwanda, Joseph Kabila, being elected as president of the DRC.
Next came the kickbacks.
In comes a second mineral of importance: coltan. Coltan is used for capacitors that are essential for our cellphones and computers, similar to cobalt. But whereas cobalt is found in Katanga in the southern DRC, coltan is found in the east DRC region right next door to Rwanda. And Rwanda is the key player in the world’s smuggling of coltan out of the DRC, to the benefit of the companies buying it.
Rebranding Congolese coltan as Rwandan coltan avoids the bad publicity associated with it by avoiding “conflict mineral” status and allowing companies to claim their new device does not in fact financially fuel war or instability.
During what can essentially be called a colonial occupation by Rwanda, a UN report claimed that the Rwandan military not only looted resources from the DRC, along with its neighboring allies Uganda and Burundi, but also installed local authorities in the new Congolese government that systemically aided Rwanda and Uganda in extracting Congolese resources. Several African countries rejected this report, among them of course Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, as well as South Africa and Zimbabwe which were among several countries that provided support to Rwanda during the war. After Rwanda’s new puppet Kabila gained power in the DRC, the nephew of South Africa President Jacob Zuma was granted oil rights for several companies. No doubt a reward for South Africa’s support. This also raised the question, was the South African military in the DRC just for peacekeeping or to help secure the Zuma oil fields? As for Zimbabwe, of course they were also implicated in various dodgy deals in the Congo, something that they are no stranger to with Zimbabwe’s first lady being implicated this year in what should be a gold smuggling scandal in their own country, covered in the documentary “Gold Mafia.” Unfortunately, as things like this is the norm instead of the exception, it doesn’t make large waves on Zimbabwe’s Scandal-meter.
Viewed by his own people as a puppet, Kabila was pressured to eventually kick out Rwandan military and government officials to save face. This led to Rwanda’s proxy rebel groups reigniting unrest, giving Rwanda and its allies cause for a second invasion; the Second Congo War.
It can be said that Rwanda has been busy inside east Congo ever since the first Congo War in 1996; with coltan smuggling still an issue.
Even last year, a UN report found Rwanda involved in reigniting conflict yet again in the eastern Congo. Another report that same year by the NGO Global Witness showed that Rwanda’s coltan export rates still exceed what would be possible with its own scarce resources.
With a law declaring that imported minerals only need to be processed to be proclaimed as originating from the country, Rwanda is the kingpin of the coltan black market.
What is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo is just a small-scale case of what is happening in the rest of Africa. The cobalt and coltan trade is like the world’s open secret tha all the nations of the world silently partake in. All of that for our convenience and a lower price on the next latest gadget. But what can the average consumer do? With 70% of the world’s cobalt coming from the small pocket of the southern Congo, and 80% of the world’s coltan coming from the small pocket of the eastern Congo, there is no way to escape getting our resources from there. Plus, as long as the DRC remains an obscure Third World country, the world will continue trying to find loopholes to lie and extract the resources for the cheapest blood price, no matter what the PR tries to spin.
The two C’s, cobalt and coltan, can be said to be the Vibranium of Africa. But the closest thing to a Wakanda can then be said to be Rwanda. It is a dark twist then that one of Africa’s star childs of development is developing on a third C, the very thing that is Africa’s greatest curse word: colonialism.
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