Global Policy Forum

Vital Ore Funds Congo's War


By Karl Vick

Washington Post
March 19, 2001

The hillside bears a gouge like a wound, and as the sun slides behind it, the miners put down their shovels and climb up the crumbling walls of their trenches by the hundreds. The fortunate ones clutch tiny plastic bags of black sand, a pound of which counts as a windfall. Twice a week a man called Pierre will come with his soldiers and pay as much as $10 for it. No one working in the mine is quite sure why. "We don't know the importance of col-tan," said Martin Nkibatereza, leaning on his shovel. "I mean, how is it useful?"

Col-tan -- short for columbite-tantalite, an ore rich in the element tantalum -- is nothing less than the wonder mineral of the moment. In processed form, col-tan is vital to the manufacture of advanced mobile phones, jet engines, air bags, night vision goggles, fiber optics and, most of all, capacitors, the components that maintain an electric charge in a computer chip. Last Christmas, when shoppers fumed at the shortage of PlayStation 2 platforms on which to play make-believe war, the reason was a global shortage of the black sand that Nkibatereza leaves his hut at dawn to collect -- provided the shooting from a real war has not forced him once again to spend the night hiding in the bushes.

Col-tan is an ingredient in that war as well.The two wars that have ravaged Congo for four of the last five years have been funded by minerals, a substantial portion of which are siphoned off for leaders of the armies fighting them. And in Congo's eastern section, home to some of the richest col-tan ore deposits in the world, the mineral in recent months achieved a prominence commensurate with its value, which spiked spectacularly in the closing months of 2000.

The first time the world price doubled, Congolese peasants who had been mining gold were instructed to forsake it for col-tan. When the price doubled again -- and then again and again, to more than $200 a pound -- the rebel group that controls the area declared a monopoly on exports."I mean, we are at war," said Adolphe Onusumba, president of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), the rebel group sponsored by Rwanda, whose own war effort is also funded by col-tan. "We need to maintain the soldiers. We need to pay for services."

As much as any of Congo's fabled mineral riches -- and, lately, far more than most -- col-tan explains what all those armies are doing in Congo. Pursuit of any one commodity may not explain why six foreign countries, two rebel groups and assorted militias came here to fight. When the RCD rebels and their Rwandan backers started the current war in August 1998, Congo's wealth of gold, diamonds and copper was well known, but almost no one had heard of col-tan, then selling for less than $20 a pound.But with the price of a pound of col-tan sometimes exceeding $100 -- or $200,000 a ton, the unit by which it is exported by chartered cargo plane to Europe -- the trade goes a considerable way toward explaining why the belligerents have been so reluctant to depart. "At least around here, people look for col-tan more than for the gold and the diamonds," said Bizima Karaha, the RCD interior minister. "Everybody was saying, 'Col-tan this, columbo-tantalite that. Tantalum!' Before I saw it, I expected to see something extremely wonderful. "It is just mud," Karaha said. "I was sincerely not impressed."

Even a U.N. panel of experts assigned by the Security Council to bring coherence to allegations of plunder in Congo was surprised to learn the outsize position col-tan has come to occupy in the war.

On the Congolese government side, the granting of mineral concessions to military allies has been well documented: offshore oil wells to Angola, diamond and cobalt to Zimbabwe, a share of a diamond mine to Namibia. Among the rebels and foreign invaders who control the eastern half of Congo (and perhaps 20 percent of its resource wealth, according to the government minister for investments), the expropriation of diamonds, timber, coffee and gold is also taken for granted. Uganda, which supports the rebel group that occupies Congo's premier gold-mining region around Bunia, exported 10 times more gold ore after entering Congo than it did five years ago, according to official statistics.

But col-tan, once regarded as less desirable than the tin ore with which it usually is found, would outpace them all."We raise more or less $200,000 per month from diamonds," said RCD leader Onusumba, whose army also controls the regional diamond trading center of Kisangani and charges diamond dealers 10 percent of the cash they carry into the territory. "Col-tan gives us more: a million dollars a month."

The money pays the expenses of RCD's lightly trained rebel army of 40,000, Onusumba said, and supports the recruiting drive for additional troops, who will be expected to fill the gap as Rwandan forces pull back from front lines as part of a regional peace plan. That plan, rejuvenated since Joseph Kabila replaced his slain father, Laurent, as Congo's president in January, calls for U.N. peacekeepers to deploy, but merely as observers.

Rwanda has been the primary military force in Congo since starting the war, but how the tiny, impoverished country financed its campaign -- especially the military air transports needed to maintain a 1,000-mile front line -- has frustrated diplomats and World Bank officials examining an official defense budget barely large enough to feed its army.Informed that Rwandan President Paul Kagame had quietly told diplomats the RCD covered such costs, Onusumba nodded."That is why I can't show you our bill," he said, referring to the bank statement the RCD finance minister had just placed in front of him."There is cooperation, but Rwanda is not charging us the fees like Zimbabwe charges Kabila," Onusumba said. "It is a brotherhood. . . . If the Rwandans come and they get col-tan from Punia or Walikale, it's up to them."

In Walikale, said to have the highest quality col-tan ore in North Kivu province, farmers were even flown in from Rwanda to work in the mines, according to Eugene Ngayabaseka, North Kivu's provincial governor, who complained of being deprived of export tax revenue from col-tan mined at the site.

The tax, which runs $10,000 a ton, is collected by SOMIGL, the company established in November to monopolize exports. To manage the firm, the RCD chose Aziza Kulsum. Kulsum is a legendary figure in Africa's Great Lakes region, where she is known as Madame Gulimali and is reputed to be the region's premier smuggler. But her past ties to Hutu militias in her native Burundi make her a puzzling ally for rebels backed by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government.

"I have no relation with them now," Kulsum said of the Burundian Hutus, while drumming her fingertips on the edge of her desk and grinning toward the ceiling. "I did in the past."Kulsum also denied her reputation for smuggling, but Onusumba said her notoriety was what attracted the RCD to her."When the price went sky-high on this col-tan thing, we were trying to see a way of making money -- clean, proper money," Onusumba said. "I know she was involved in smuggling -- cigarettes, gold. She was approached. . . . Isn't it better to have her on your side, then she will help you? She knows every channel that things go out."

At the time the monopoly was formed, the RCD estimated that territory under its control was producing between 100 and 200 tons of col-tan a month and that SOMIGL would collect at least $1 million a month.In the first month, it did. Official exports for December were 123 tons, and the RCD was able to pay civil servants and teachers, many of whom had not been paid in years.But January exports fell to 96 tons. And February plummeted to 17 tons. "The price came down on the international market," Kulsum explained. "And also, there was a lot of smuggling."

Col-tan prices did fall steeply after the new year, to about $100 today. As for the smuggling, competing col-tan dealers say SOMIGL's artificially low asking prices gave them no choice but to take advantage of Congo's notoriously porous borders.Bukavu businessman Ramnik Kotecha said he ships up to 25 tons of Congolese col-tan a month, but from across the border in Rwanda. "The suppliers get it over there," Kotecha said. "Still, we are making $200,000 to $300,000 a month . . . but not like we were making it here [before the RCD imposed its monopoly]. Here, we were making $700,000 to $800,000 a month," with profits above 50 cents on the dollar.

Even at half the peak price, the economics of col-tan remain lucrative.With shovels they buy themselves, the miners work eight-hour shifts in mines that belong to no one and can be wildly hazardous. Last weekend, a collapsing hillside buried at least 50 workers at a mine 30 miles northwest of Goma. The mine that Pierre Hitiman visits twice a week lies in the mountains above Lake Kivu. He drives part of the way in his Toyota pickup -- with four soldiers, since being hijacked six months ago and losing an entire ton of col-tan -- and walks the last hour, along footpaths that hug hills so steep the potato and corn fields seem almost vertical.The ore the miners carry in sacks on their heads to the car is "good," said Hitiman's employer, a Congolese who declined to give his name. The spectrometer at his Goma warehouse finds 25 percent tantalum in the samples, which are ground, washed and poured into 55-gallon drums for export.

Where they go next, businessmen have grown wary of saying. Through the rebel-sanctioned SOMIGL monopoly or through smuggling channels, the col-tan makes its way to Kigali, Rwanda's capital. From there, the Belgian airline Sabena flies twice a week to Europe, where a pool of buyers sets prices in London. Roughly half ends up being turned to powder by H.C. Starck, a subsidiary of Germany's Bayer Corp. "It is capitalism in its purest form," said Robert L. Raun, president of Eagles Wings Resources, an Ohio company that began buying Congolese col-tan two years ago."Let me put it in a positive way," Raun said of the experience. "A good civics lesson on how you pay for governance, and the elements of governance, would be useful in the region."Back in Mumba, the miners leave for home well before dark. The ethnic Hutu militias that Rwanda was trying to eliminate when it first invaded Congo in 1996 continue to hold sway in the hills."We could be rich, but there is still the problem of insecurity," said Alex Kabongo, who, like most of the miners in Mumba, turned to digging only after the Hutu militias stole his cattle. He pointed toward the darkening hills."They are coming in the night," he said.

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