Millions Die Amid Neocolonial Plunder

The Agony of the Congo

From A World to Win News Service

Revolution #012, August 21, 2005, posted at

June 27, 2005. A World to Win News Service. Amidst the hypocrisy about aiding Africa and granting debt relief by Tony Blair and other spokespeople for oppressor countries, the situation in most of the continent grows grimmer with each passing day. With their hue and cry the Western powers are once again trying to deflect their responsibility for their rape, plunder and war crimes, if not crimes against humanity, around the world and in Africa in particular. Nowhere in Africa is the killing and looting as horrific as in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

From 1998 up to Christmas 2004, 3.8 million people died in the mineral-rich eastern Congo, according to the International Rescue Committee. It has been pointed out that this death toll works out to almost the equivalent of the entire Asian tsunami death toll every six months--the largest war death toll anywhere on earth since World War 2. About 31,000 people continue to die every month with no end to this carnage in sight. Given the number of states involved and the huge numbers of people who have perished there, this surely would have been considered a world war had the death and destruction been in Europe or North America instead of Africa.

Since 1996, Congo has become a very complicated war zone, with "wars within wars" as Human Rights Watch put it in a 2002 report. There has been a combination of civil war and inter-state wars involving at least nine African states--armies from Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo and fostered local rebellions (of particular ethnic groups) on one hand, while Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Chad, and later Burundi and Libya, sent their armed forces to support Laurent Kabila's government on the other. There have also been cross-border insurgencies, notably from Uganda and Rwanda, and involvement by European mercenaries.

The Role of Multinational Mining Corporation

The world is led to believe that inter- ethnic conflicts or feuding "tribal" communities have been mainly responsible for the deaths from slaughter of civilians accompanying armed clashes between rival insurgent groups and the starvation and diseases that follow. Little has been revealed in the Western media about the culpability of the multinational mining corporations, mainly from North America and Europe, and the role of the globalized market economy in fuelling this mass murder of holocaust proportions.

Glossed over in today's Western press or mentioned only in passing are names such as the Arkansas- based America Mineral Fields, the Canadian-based Barrick Gold Corporation (on whose board of directors sits George H. Bush, a former U.S. president and the father of the current U.S. President), the U.S.-based OM Group, the Belgian Groupe George Forrest, the South African AngloGold Ashanti (part of an international mining conglomerate), the Anglo American company. These mineral extraction companies and others that trade on the natural resources of Congo, like Metalor Technologies, reap enormous profits out of the people's misery.

"If We Weren't So Rich."

It is quite common to hear Congolese people say, "If we weren't so rich, our lives would have been so much better." This is true for most mineral-rich and oil-producing African countries. Indeed, when European explorers set foot on this fabulously wealthy land in the heart of Africa in the 1440s, the scourge of slavery and the slave trade took on a completely different dimension, even though it had existed for a long time before. Marx pointed to the turning of Africa into a "warren for hunting Black skins" for the trans-Atlantic triangular trade route (Europeans seizing slaves in Africa, selling them in the Americas, and returning to Europe with cargo holds full of goods and stolen treasure). This went on for centuries, hand in hand with the rape and plunder of the colonies and the genocide of native Americans. All this, he said, ushered in the "rosy dawn of capitalism" and began the process through which a handful of countries have become wealthy at the expense of the world's peoples.

While Europe abolished the slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century, for the Congo, however, slavery did not end with its proclaimed abolition. From the end of the nineteenth century through the turn of the twentieth century, King Leopold II of Belgium ran the so-called Congo Free State as his private property, amassing an enormous fortune by turning most adult males into slaves to collect wild rubber and ivory from the jungle, while holding their womenfolk and even children as hostages. Their hands, noses and ears were often chopped off when their men were late in bringing the forest products or failed to return. Leopold's army made hundreds of thousands of his slaves toil till their death over a period of 23 years. There were some 20 slave uprisings, all put down with extreme bloodthirstiness. In 1903, a Belgian expedition found gold. In those mines, people were worked to death. Then, as now, starvation and disease claimed the lives of most survivors who fled and were hiding in the rain forests. It has been estimated that about 10 million people out of a population of 20 million had lost their lives under King Leopold's barbarous rule. With the formal acquisition of the Congo by the Belgium government in 1908, the killing continued, but gradually lessened. Forced labor, however, was still prevalent.

Throughout the twentieth century the exploitation of minerals such as copper and gold became increasingly important for the Belgian ruling class. In the twentieth century, diamonds and uranium (for nuclear power), yielded much of the profits that flowed to Belgium and the metropolises of the West generally. It is no accident that Antwerp, Belgium is still the world's principal diamond cutting and trading center. In recent years, coltan has brought riches for some in the country and huge profits for Sony PlayStations, Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia, as well as for companies refining and processing coltan black mud into metallic tantalum powder out of which vital parts for laptops and cell phones are produced in America, Japan and Europe. All this has brought the immense majority of Congo's people is the devastation of the tropical rain forest and increased misery.

In 1960, the country gained formal independence from Belgium. The Congo's first elected prime minister, the popular nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba, emerged as one of Africa's, and indeed the Third World's, most vocal and articulate critics of colonialism and champions of the sovereignty of oppressed nations against colonizing powers, old and new. When independence was declared, Belgium's former colonial puppet army mutinied. The country's president, later revealed to be in the pay of the CIA, removed Lumumba from office. In the name of protecting the lives of its citizens, Belgium (aided by Britain and France) sent its armed forces to intervene. Their goal was to seize copper-rich southeastern Katanga Province (now called Shaba Province) and install Moise Tshombe as puppet prime minister of a separate country. Civil war ensued. The UN Security Council sent troops to trample on the national sovereignty of the Congo in the name of protecting it. The U.S., while utilizing the UN as a tool in its quest for global dominance then as now, was also very directly involved in the conspiracy against the new nation and its people. One reason it sought UN intervention was to block the advance of the European imperialist powers. The Soviet Union, where capitalism had been restored under Khrushchev and which was emerging as an imperialist contender with the U.S. for world domination, went along with the UN intervention in the name of supporting Lumumba. The UN troops supposedly sent to protect Lumumba instead kept him in confinement. Later the CIA had him tortured and murdered.

Joseph Mobutu, a colonel in Belgium's colonial army and the CIA's favorite, took over the whole country with the help of U.S.-supplied arms and money. Mobutu took an African name for himself (Mobutu Sese Seko) and changed the country's name to Zaire, but the only thing that changed was that instead of being an outright colony of Belgium, it became a U.S. neocolony, a legally independent state where no decisions could be taken that would harm American interests. U.S. companies began plundering the country's wealth anew (mostly copper, on which the country's earnings depended in the 1960s until the mid-1970s), while Mobutu enriched himself to the tune of U.S. $4 billion. The country became a mainstay of U.S. interests in the region, serving as a springboard for U.S.-backed military intervention against Soviet-backed Angola. Mobutu was declared a pillar of the "free world." The regime's security apparatus used torture and murder to crush attempts at building rebel movements among the people over almost four decades until he was overthrown in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, a former Lumumbist and guerrilla commander in the mid-1960s.

Kabila's rebel army, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), was aided by Rwanda's president Paul Kagame, who reinforced the AFDL with Rwandan Tutsi troops. Large numbers of Congolese Tutsi youth had by then also flocked to Kabila's forces. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. no longer had any reason to prefer Mobutu to Kabila. Mobutu fled the country, but the legacy of his rule remains. Once in power, Kabila's AFDL made deals with mining companies like AngloGold Ashanti and Barrick Gold. Other multinational corporations began flocking like vultures, contending for "rights" to prospect for and extract precious metals such as gold and cobalt, as well as copper, diamonds, and coltan. When Kabila was assassinated, his son Joseph Kabila took over and continued on the same path.

Half the world's supply of coltan comes from this eastern region of the Congo. Often its price per ounce rises to the level of the price of gold. According to Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold's Ghost:a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, the fighting between the rebel armies and government forces sometimes shifts location with the rise and fall of commodity prices. In 2000, the price of coltan increased tenfold on the world market. Indeed, in 2001, a UN report to the Security Council said, "because of its lucrative nature" the war "has created a `win-win' situation for all belligerents. Adversaries and enemies are at times partners in business, get weapons from the same dealers and use the same intermediaries. Business has superseded security concerns." Yet, it acknowledges that coltan perpetuates Congo's civil war, highlighting that the war "has become mainly about access, control and trade of minerals," with coltan the most coveted among them. The world price of coltan plummeted in the spring of 2001 owing to overproduction and slump in the demand for electronic goods, but Congo's national wealth, from natural resources as well as from human labor, continues to be drained away to distant shores even as people face death, terror, deprivation, and diseases in jungle refugee camps.

Most of the coltan is mined illegally in the eastern region, where gold is also mined, often in forest reserves or national parks. The work is extremely low-tech and backbreaking, most of it by very small- scale operators. Much of the mineral is flown out of the country by Sabina, the Belgian airline. At least 70 percent, if not more, of all the gold currently mined in the Congo is smuggled through Uganda and Rwanda, both of which had a large military presence in eastern Congo until recently. While Uganda does not have gold, plentiful supplies of this precious metal, undoubtedly brought there by smugglers, have been bought by the Swiss Metalor Technologies based in Uganda. Both Uganda and Rwanda have sponsored local armed militias, which like the pro-government militias have committed atrocities--forced evictions of villagers and, in the process, massacres, gang-rape on a mass scale, and torture.

The armed rebel group Front for the Liberation of the Congo (FLC), for example, is supported by the Ugandan army, but it supplements its activities through extortion of local coltan and gold diggers. Rival rebel groups like the Nationalist and Integrationist Front of Congo (FNI) and Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) are based on particular ethnic groups, in this case the Lendu and Hema communities respectively. There are also pro-government militias, such as one, for instance, based on the Mai Mai community. These rival groups have clashed frequently, and whole communities are pitted against one another, bringing terror and death. The fighting is about establishing dominance over access to the mines in concession areas and trade or smuggling routes, as well as control over the mine workers, their work camps, and the "right" to extort protection money from the workers and prostitutes based in and around the camps.

"The Curse of Gold"

"We are cursed because of our gold. All we do is suffer. There is no benefit to us."

A mineworker quoted by Human Rights Watch

International mining conglomerates have taken advantage of the instability and the extremely weak position of the state to greatly profit from their mining operations. So have refining companies, banks, finance houses, traders, profiteers, traffickers and a few local warlords and hoodlums. On June 2 this year, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled The Curse of Gold. It reveals that the multinational corporations mining for gold are deeply involved in financing rebel armies which use the money to purchase modern arms. For example, Human Rights Watch has exposed AngloGold Ashanti's complicity in financing the FNI, responsible for mass killings, rape and torture.

In the far northeastern district of Ituri, much of the fighting is over the control of access to gold mines, which are beginning to be operational after a lapse of some nine years, that is, since the campaign to oust Mobutu was stepped up in 1996. Here, anarchy and lawlessness reign supreme. The central "transitional" government is hardly in a position to exercise much control. The giant corporations with strong ties to imperialist states have gained leverage over local authorities. They squeeze extremely lucrative deals out of state-owned companies in charge of concession areas and have resumed prospecting and mining. AngloGold Ashanti, the world's second largest gold mining company, has secured a concession to a vast 10,000 square kilometers of potential gold fields from the transitional local government. Bush's Barrick Gold Corporation has won rights over another 80,000 square kilometers of gold-bearing land.

As far back as November 1996 and April 1997, the magazine Africa Confi-dential revealed that George H. Bush's former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense, Jim Woods, had set up a consultancy firm with the Angolan government which argued loudly that Mobutu's time was over and that the U.S. State Department should support Kabila. Barrick Gold gave Kabila's forces tax payments and royalties in return for concession rights.

AngloGold Ashanti is now a "landlord and tenant" as well in its concession territory, in the words of a representative of the Office des Mines d'Or de Kilo-Moto (Okimo), the state corporation with powers to sign concessions on behalf of the Kinshasa government. Under the terms of the agreement, Kinshasa receives no more than 13 percent of the production. Okimo itself had no say in the deal.

AngloGold denies that it is financing any armed militia. But given its exclusive rights to prospect and mine gold in the Ituri district, that is, complete control over the territory around its Kilo mine, it is difficult to see how this giant monopoly mining concern cannot be held responsible for financing and arming the militias that oversee the unhindered operations and shipments of the gold and the security of its mining personnel.

Pillage of National Assets

"We just watch our country's resources drain with no benefit to the Congolese people."

Congolese government official

In the meantime, the Congolese state treasury is being looted as well. Okimo failed to establish itself as the sole regulating authority over smaller mining concessions. A system of establishing an official trading house through which small-scale operators would be required to sell the gold also broke down. With the collapse of virtually all local authorities, most prospectors bypass the central state and bargain directly with private militias for a secure environment to begin mining operations, which frequently necessitate the eviction of local villagers from the gold-bearing land. All too often, this means they are massacred.

In 2002, a United Nations panel had reported that the DR Congo state had been stripped of assets valued more than U.S. $5 billion during the period since nine African countries, including Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and Zimbabwe, were drawn into the conflict in 1998. The report said that the armed forces of these African states had collaborated with the rebel forces and the Congolese government to participate in organized pillage to drain away billions of dollars worth of minerals, diamonds, gems, and other resources.

According to the report, while in recent years the conflict has "diminished in intensity" after a series of peace accords between the local warring parties and the states of Uganda and Rwanda following the withdrawal of the Zimbabwean, Namibian and Angolan armed forces from the DRC, local power "networks" have not relinquished control over mining operations and trade flows.

This problem is but the tip of the iceberg. A consortium of four Belgian diamond-mining companies, it was revealed in 2002, and Groupe George Forrest, in partnership with the U.S.-based OM Group, had shut the Congolese government out from receiving any revenue from the processing of 3,000 tons of germanium associated with a U.S. $2 billion stockpile of cobalt and copper tailings. Moreover, 85 multinational companies, based in the U.S., Europe and South Africa, have effectively cut out the Congolese state from benefiting from the proceeds of mining through "tax fraud" and "a system of embezzlement, extortion, the use of stock options and kickbacks," and also through "the diversion of state funds by groups that closely resemble criminal organizations."

While the looting and killing go on, there have been voices calling for UN intervention, as though the UN were not already there, serving as an instrument for armed military intervention by imperialist powers--as though the UN were not already overseeing the plunder and killing.

"The private sector is the engine for growth in Africa, Tony Blair declared on the eve of the Gleneagles G8 meeting. George Bush called "fostering vigorous private sector engagement" the key to Africa's future. Too many relief and humanitarian non-governmental organizations have gone along with this, insisting that "poor" countries such as Congo need "business investment" to provide jobs and help bring about development. It is true that mining minerals, pumping oil and other exploitation of raw materials is "legitimate" business. But as can be seen in Congo, legitimate business is the problem, not the solution. In an imperialist system where the whole world is dominated by a handful of monopoly capitalist countries and their companies, the normal workings of business mean robbing the people of their birthright, their livelihood, and their lives.

The Congolese people do not and cannot consume gold, diamonds, copper, or coltan. These items mostly end up in the banks, stockpiles, and factories of imperialist countries, enriching the already fabulously wealthy. Neither does Congo manufacture modern weapons, yet the country is awash with guns and ammunitions. Billions of dollars leave the country--and leave behind hundreds of thousands of dead bodies--every year. This, today, is the price of imperialist domination. As long as imperialist powers lord it over poor nations and peoples, their multinational corporations will continue to make a killing.