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Coltan and conflict in the DRC

A new alliance between the DRC and Rwanda against rebel groups brings new threats and opportunities for peace in the Great Lakes Region, while illegal coltan mining continues to fund conflict, Edoardo Totolo writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Edoardo Totolo for ISN Security Watch

The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is extremely rich in Coltan (Columbite-Tantalite), a rare metallic ore used for the production of electronic goods of mass consumption, such as mobile phones, laptops and videogame consoles, whose profits have fuelled the largest conflict in modern African history.

For over 10 years, companies in industrialized countries have purchased Coltan despite war and lawlessness in the DRC, and they became profitable sources of foreign currency for a multitude of state and non-state actors, including rebel forces, Rwandan and Ugandan governments (and their armies), licensed companies and poor communities with no employment opportunities.

The resulting power struggles over this valuable ore combined with the weakness of the Congolese state provoked conflict and political turmoil in the country. The war in the DRC has reached a level of complexity to the point that it has been renamed the "African World War," having involved eight African nations and 25 rebel groups and caused the highest death toll since World War II.

Even though Coltan is not the only cause of the Congolese war, it has been a core problem with neighboring countries, Rwanda in particular. It is also a major source of revenue for rebel groups such as the Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP - a Tutsi rebel group responsible for the North Kivu war in October 2008) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) - a Hutu rebel group also responsible for the Rwandan genocide in 1994).

The Congolese government backed the Hutu FDLR, while Rwanda backed the rebel group with a Tutsi ethnical origin - the CNDP: Needless to say that this situation provoked harsh hostilities between the two governments.

The situation took an odd turn on 20 January when the Rwandan government unexpectedly arrested its former ally, CNDP leader General Nkunda, and allied with the Congolese government against the FDLR.

This alliance comprises both great threats and opportunities for peace in the DRC and the Great Lakes region in general. In this new political scenario, the role of the international community has become extremely important.

Early tension: Playstation and 'Coltan Fever'

The demand for Coltan by western industries reached its peak at the end of 2000 when new technologies started being used for mobile phones and other electronic devices. According to Toward Freedom's John Lasker, high market prices were mainly related to the mass production of Sony Playstation II combined with a global shortage of supplies. Correspondingly, the price for Coltan rose dramatically: from US$30 per pound in 1999 to US$380 per pound in December 2000.

High market prices provoked the so-called Coltan Fever. Entire communities in the eastern DRC became involved in Coltan mining; students dropped out of schools; farmers and shepherds left their lands and livestock in favor of artisanal mining activities.

Easy profits also attracted the interests of a multitude of rebel groups, militia and armies, which started looting the area's mineral wealth. After backing Congolese President Joseph Kabila in the first Congo war (1996-1998), Ugandan and Rwandan militia and military forces refused to leave the country and started exploiting the vast natural resources and smuggling them to their own countries. The UN stated in 2001 that the DRC was suffering a "systemic and systematic" looting of natural resources by foreign armies.

The report also accused over 100 western corporations of financing rebel groups and militias and therefore fuelling conflict. NGOs and activist groups started campaigns against these companies and the news appeared in the media for the first time. As a result, many giant corporations such as Nokia, Samsung and Motorola published specific corporate policies against the use of Congolese Coltan and are today buying, at least officially, from other producers in Australia, Canada and few other countries.

However, not much seems to have changed in the DRC since 2001.

A UN report published in December 2008 brought evidence that countless tonnes of Coltan are still exported to Europe every month and that Rwanda played a direct role in supporting the CNDP. Moreover, illegal smuggling to Rwanda continues to be a common practice. Even though Rwanda possesses small reserves of Coltan within its own boundaries, in 2008 it earned US$19.2 million from Coltan sales, with an increase of profits of 72.1 percent compared to the previous year.

"In the past years there have been many 'cosmetic changes' in the Coltan trade, but fundamentally it is all the same," Marc-Oliver Herman, a Belgian activist and expert on the DRC, told ISN Security Watch.

"The trade has never stopped and it is still directly or indirectly linked to the financing of rebel groups. Even though corporations write in their websites that they do not buy Coltan in the DRC, these are only PR announcements that are impossible to implement."

From the moment it is extracted to the moment it is used in electronic devices, Coltan passes through numerous hands, some of which are legal, some illegal and some covered in blood. Coltan from different mining sites is initially collected by local traders (comptoirs), who often mix illegally and legally mined ores. Then the Coltan is shipped to Europe and Asia where few refiner companies transform the Coltan extracted in several countries into Tantalum, which is then used for microchips in electronic devices. In this chain, corporations do not have any effective policies for distinguishing "clean" and "dirty" Coltan, said Herman.

A new twist to the conflict

The arrest of general Nkunda by the Rwandan army might imply a new phase of the conflict. A question that remains unanswered is what prompted this sudden change.

According to regional expert Lisa Clark and Herman, the report published by the UN in 2008 played a crucial role in triggering the new phase of the conflict.

When the report was published on 12 December, it became apparent that Rwanda directly contributed to the perpetuation of the conflict in the DRC and to the looting of its natural resources. As a result, major donors such as the Netherlands and Sweden decided to freeze their aid to the Rwandan government. The fear of losing western support is the main reason behind the decision to capture Nkunda, Clark and Herman say.

Clark strongly condemns the new military alliance between Rwanda and the DRC against rebel groups because it is based on the use of weapons instead of diplomacy. However, she says, if Congolese and Rwandan leaders maintain the promises made in the past few weeks, a new and more peaceful phase could start in the war-torn countries of the Great Lakes Region.

The international community's role

As the new political scenario in the eastern DRC unfolds, it is difficult to design long-term strategies for the proper use of Coltan revenues. However, the international community can play a key role with policies that could promptly contribute to peace and to reduce illegal mining in the country, which has been the main source of funding for armed militias.

The first necessary task for the donor community is to design appropriate aid policies for the Central African region. According to Herman, for many years donors have been applying the same aid policies in conflict zones like the DRC and in more stable countries such as Tanzania or Mozambique, with an extremely negative impact on conflict.

Second, the international community must design strategies to stop the direct and indirect financing of rebel groups by western corporations. Even though the trade chain of Coltan is extremely complex, a proper certification scheme for "conflict-free" Coltan could promote its legal extraction while fighting its role in fuelling conflict.

Germany financed a pilot study for this project, and the Congolese finance minister announced that a "fingerprint" program for Congolese Coltan will be finalized in 2009. Even though this deadline seems particularly optimistic, there is hope that a new regulatory framework for the Coltan market will soon stop the financing of war.

It is well known that countries rich in natural resources are often characterized by bad governance and corruption. However, in the DRC this "resource curse" has reached an extreme level of brutality, as the conflict has killed over 5 million people in the past 10 years. Finding sustainable strategies for the use of natural resources is the most important task for promoting peace in the DRC.

A certification scheme for legally mined Coltan might be a first step for an effective contribution of the international community to a solution of the conflict. However, there is a risk that the international community will give the wrong incentives and that conflicting parties will make decisions only in order to please the western donors, without seeking long-term solutions for the regional hostilities.

Edoardo Totolo is a freelance writer and academic researcher based in Amsterdam. His fields of expertise are private sector development and the impact of informal economies on human security in Sub-Saharan Africa.