Material World: Congo – The mobile phone war
Although the peace accord of 2003 ended five years of war in other parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fighting has continued intermittently in the eastern Kivu region. The latest bout began on October 25, when the rebel forces of Laurent Nkunda resumed their offensive, accompanied by the usual atrocities against civilians, burning villages, and floods of starving refugees.
What is this war about?
Spillover from Rwanda?
At first sight, it looks like spillover from the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Rwanda. General Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and Christian fundamentalist, says he is protecting his people from the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that perpetrated the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and later fled over the border. He is backed by troops of the current Tutsi government of Rwanda, which the Interahamwe seeks to overthrow.
This version is a smokescreen. Nkunda has shown much less interest in pursuing the Interahamwe than in seizing control of Kivu’s rich mineral resources – partly on behalf of Rwandan business interests, partly perhaps for his own enrichment. He exploits the memory of genocide to mobilize the Tutsis in his support and win foreign sympathy, much as Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust for its purposes. Control over resources is also the main concern of the Congo government in Kinshasa and its armed forces.
The most valuable minerals in the Kivu region are two metallic ores called cassiterite and coltan. These contain substances whose special properties are ideally suited to various high-tech applications. Niobium alloys are used in jet and rocket engines because they remain stable at very high temperatures, while tantalum and tin oxide are used in making electronic circuitry for devices ranging from computers to DVD players and MRI scanners. In particular, the rapidly rising demand for mobile phones has pushed up the price of coltan, fuelling the fight to control and mine its deposits. So we could call the war in eastern Congo “the mobile phone war.”
On both sides, part of the proceeds from selling resources (through chains of middlemen) on the world market goes to finance military operations, which in turn secure access to the resources. This is an example of the “war as business” model (Material World, November 2008), which arises in this case from the weakness of state institutions in Central Africa.
A helpless giant
In the Congo it is especially difficult for the government to exercise sovereignty over “its” territory, which is roughly the area of Western Europe (2.34 million km2). The transportation and communications infrastructure is extremely underdeveloped; no road or rail link traverses the whole country from east to west. Under these conditions, it is quite impossible to defend borders with nine neighbours that stretch over 10,744 km.
Neighbouring states can therefore invade Congo territory whenever they like. No fewer than seven foreign armies fought in the “civil” war that began in 1998. In the background, the old colonial powers – France, Belgium and Britain – and two players newer to the region, the United States and China, jockey for position, assiduously promoting the interests of their corporations while carefully concealing how these corporations hire private armies and fuel the conflict. All these governments, armies and corporations are after the same things, the vast resources that lie on – and especially under – Congolese soil: various metals, diamonds, uranium, potash, timber, wildlife, oil and gas, etc.
Then there are the “peacekeeping” forces of the United Nations, even though there is no peace to keep. The real reason for their deployment is, in fact, to protect the interests of French and other foreign capital. It is this that explains the apparently odd fact that most of the “peacekeepers” are kept well away from the areas affected by the current fighting. Those who do enter the combat zone make no effort to assist relief work or protect civilians, who vent their anger by yelling and throwing stones at the UN vehicles.
Torn apart by rival predators, there is a striking parallel between today’s Congo and another “helpless giant” – China in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century.
A curse not a blessing
In a different system of society, many resources in central Africa could be utilized for the purpose of ecologically sustainable development for the benefit of local communities. The natural products of the rainforest could be preserved and harvested for dietary and medicinal use. There is a vast potential for hydroelectricity and, of course, solar power.
But in a capitalist world Congo’s resources have been a curse not a blessing for the overwhelming majority of its people, bringing them invasion, enslavement, starvation, war and upheaval. European capital first descended on the country in 1885 in the horrific form of the Congo Free State, a corporate state controlled personally by King Leopold II of Belgium, who made money from it by exporting rubber collected under compulsion by the indigenous people. Those who failed to meet their quotas were mutilated; those who refused to work for the conquerors were killed.
This reign of terror, which would have done the Nazis proud, led to a population loss of some ten million (see Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost). How many people must have wished that their country had no rubber!
In 1908 the Congo Free State gave way to the Belgian Congo, which gained formal independence in 1960. Mobutu’s kleptocracy followed in 1971 and lasted until 1997, when the recent period of upheaval began. Regimes come and go, but the ravenous extraction of resources by foreign corporations never stops.