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Samantha Corbett
 
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The Congo conflict crisis

04 December 2013, 17:55

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.” Mahatma Gandhi

As I’m doing the research for this article, this is the quote that keeps running through my mind. The villains always fall and goodness triumphs in the end. But in the case of the Congo, we have been waiting for the end of conflict and the triumph of the trampled upon for generations.

What is known as ‘Africa’s First World War’ started in 1994 and has claimed the lives of over 5.4 million people over the years, including millions of women and children.

The war has evolved: allegiances have been made and broken, leaders have risen and fallen, but mineral resources remain central to the ongoing battle for power and prosperity. While the game players battle for gold and glory, as always, it is the ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of a lifetime of war, poor governance, bad-pay, excessive violence and inhumane conditions.

While steps are being taken to combat conflict mining, one has to ask if enough is being done. Is our greed overcoming our desire for a Congo of peace, where children can finally go to school and put down the rifles weighing heavily on their backs? Where women are no longer raped and people have homes made from bricks rather than make-shift, temporary tents?

Organisations such as War Child report appalling statistics that should motivate us all into action. “2.7 million Children are dead. 1 in 5 children will die before they turn five. Over 200,000 women and girls have been raped or sexually abused. Over 1 million people have fled from their homes.”

We feel a temporary sickness deep in our guts and for a moment, we want to fight; to protest and protect. Then the moment passes, we feel helpless again and the statistics fade into numbers rather than people with faces and families. This is the world we live in. A world where the price of gold will always be higher than the price of human life. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

To understand the war is a complicated endeavour, with many players involved. At its heart, the war has always been about Congo’s phenomenal mineral wealth, with rich resources in gold, cobalt, copper, diamonds and zinc.

The country also boasts a vast supply of coltan, which is used in most electronic gadgets – take a look at your phone, tablet, etc. – do you know where the resources used to create these commodities came from? Before you point fingers, take a look at your own role in allowing the conflict to continue.

The ordinary people of the Congo have yet to benefit from their country’s mineral resources – the majority of citizens live in abject poverty and for most, education is but an impossible dream. Approximately a quarter of a million children are out of school because their families cannot afford to send them or because there is simply no school to go to.

The history of the Congo conflict, as adapted from the BBC News Report:

In the 20th Century, King Leopold and his Belgian forces arrived and raped the Congo of her mineral wealth via extreme violence, bloodshed and cruelty.  The 1960’s saw the independence struggle ensue and violence erupted, culminating with Joseph Mobuto establishing power and attempting to unite the troubled nation. Ultimately, Mobuto was beguiled by the promise of riches and he pillaged his country’s resources to retain his position of power for 32 years. He lost control of his country as the Rwandan genocide began.

This was to have disastrous consequences for Congo: the Hutu regime was conquered and over two million Hutus flooded into the DRC, including the militiamen accountable for the genocide. These people then formed allegiances with Mobutu’s government and turned on the DRC’s Tutsi’s, provoking a counter-attack from Rwanda’s Tutsi government, who stepped in to support rival militias.

With support from local Ugandan groups, the Tutsi militias conquered the Mobutu government and promoted Laurent Kabila to president. When Kabila lost favour, Rwanda sent troops to expel him. Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola stepped in to support Kabila and the fighting resumed, with all of the countries involved employing the war as a thin veil for exploiting Congo for her wealth.

Foreign troops and rebels claimed hundreds of mines and a bloody free-for-all ensued, with the rebels funding their violence with Congo’s plundered riches.

General Laurent Nkunda is an infamous Tutsi warlord (supposedly backed by Rwanda) who waged war against the Hutu rebels from the FDLR – Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. In 2008, Rwanda and the DRC temporarily united in their goal of fighting against the FDLR and expelling Gen Nkunda.

They successfully placed Nkunda under house arrest but the conflict continued, with the Congolese government and UN troops failing to conquer FDLR rebels. A group of Nkunda loyalists rose up, calling themselves the M23 and wreaking havoc in the country. The Congolese Government remains steadfast in its belief that this group is taking orders from Rwanda’s Minister of Defence. The UN has also put forward allegations that Uganda is additionally responsible for backing the rebel group.

In the early 2000’s foreign armies withdrew, leaving the country effectively in ruins – millions died, infrastructure crumbled and anarchy reigned.

Today, the violence in the Congo continues, led by the rebel groups, who are systematically looting the Congo of all of her mineral wealth whilst terrorising her citizens. But the rebels are not acting alone.

Many whisper of an international crime network backing the illicit groups, and spanning from Africa to Europe and America. There is also evidence that the Congolese government is colluding with the rebel leaders.

Global Witness conducted an investigation into the current conflict mining situation in eastern DRC: this is some of their findings:

·         In Eastern Congo, both rebels and high-ranking Congolese and Burundian state army members are benefiting from the tons of gold that is mined and sent via Burundi’s domestic gold sector to Dubai.

·         Currently, adequate checks are not being conducted to ensure that gold being purchased has not funded conflict or human rights abuses.

·         The National Army has forcefully controlled Eastern Congo’s tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold trade for close to fifteen years. The money accrued through this trade is used to purchase weaponry and to fund the fight.

·         In October 2012, the first international initiative to only source conflict-free tin from Congo was launched – it is gaining traction.

·         Section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act is a US Law that aims to prevent the region’s minerals trade from funding conflict. Companies are now required to publish whether or not the materials that they purchase (namely gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten) are funding armed groups in eastern DRC. March 2013 saw the European Union embark on a public consultation on conflict materials which will hopefully lead to a European due diligence regulation.

Although positive steps have been taken, and conflict-free mines are gradually being introduced, the majority of gold is still mined and exported out of the country without proper checks in place. According to Passblue.com, the Congolese government reported $5 million worth of exported gold in 2011, whereas the World Bank estimates the true amount to be closer to $1, 5 to $2 billion. Not enough regulations are enforced – it is simply too easy for smugglers to currently move gold out of the country.

The DRC has been the site of the UN’s biggest peacekeeping mission since 1999 – there are mixed reports regarding what the UN has achieved since its occupancy in the country. The UN is currently aiming to instigate a peace agreement signed by 11 countries in central Africa, including Congo, and is also proposing to establish a regional brigade to combat the multiple militias from seizing further territory.

Will this help? The problem is, of course, human greed. Certain people are currently resolving to uphold the various sanctions in place and to forego buying materials funding conflict, but the majority are not. This imbalance places greater expense on those buying conflict-free materials, which penalises them for doing the right thing. China and Zambia, Congo’s two biggest trading partners, are among those refusing to follow the current due-diligence guidelines.

Jeffrey Gettleman wrote an article titled ‘The Price of Precious’ for National Geographic. This first-hand account is the most poignant and heart-wrenching description I read of the current conflict mining situation in the Congo. It focuses on the plight of the child. The Enough Project estimates that currently, less than five percent of Congo’s gold miners are registered with the government and 40% of the miners are kids younger than fifteen.

I urge you to look through Marcus Bleasdale’s gallery illustrating ‘The Price of Precious.’ Please look into the faces of these young boys, who have grown up knowing only war, dressed in army uniforms with AK-47’s slung casually over their shoulders and then look at your phone, your laptop or the sparkling gold ring on your finger. Is it worth it?

To fix Congo, a change is needed. A change in what we fight for. In what we will sacrifice for good and the sanctity of human life. Will the villain fall in this story? It’s difficult as the villain in this tale and every other is human nature itself. To fix Congo, we need to shift our priorities and start to truly care again.

Whether you are providing the country with mining equipment, exporting gold or simply buying a laptop that you don’t know is conflict-free – think carefully about your role in the ongoing war. Currently, only ten percent of the mines in eastern Congo are conflict-free – it is only through collective action and the strict enforcing of sanctions and regulations that this will change. 

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