Global Policy Forum

The Resource Curse Revised: Conflict and Coltan in the Congo


By Nadira Lalji

Harvard International Review

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. There was no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine."
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Norton and Company, 1963, 35.

The Resource Curse and its Paradox

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), also known as "The Congo" and "Zaire," remains the "heart of darkness" depicted so scintillatingly by Conrad in his novella. A place of conflict, brutality, and exploitation, the Congo documented by Marlow, a Belgian traveler journeying up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, the infamous ivory station chief and Marlow's fellow colonist, is not that different from its present reality. The faces of DRC leaders may be different, the names of places may have changed, but the Congo's horror is unchanged. Ongoing armed conflict and strife between groups of varying nationalities, ethnicities, and ideologies overwhelm the lush land. Here, greed for political power and wealth fuels the exploitation of people, their resources, and their homeland. Lusting foreigners, rebels, and governments strip the land of its natural resources. It is widely acknowledged that greed exacerbates the negligence of an incompetent state and thereby leads to war. In the DRC, greed has precipitated a multinational war. Most recently, since 1998, the country has transformed into a battleground for what many observers have dubbed Africa's "First World War," a war that has cost over 3.8 million lives.

Both precedent and theory lend reason for the ongoing conflict in the Congo. From the diamond mines of South and West Africa to the oilfields of Iraq and the timber-rich forests of the Amazon, millions of people in these resource-rich countries have seen their lives devastated by the mishandling of vast revenues from natural resources. This pattern has reaffirmed the well-established resource curse: resource-rich countries are less wealthy and less competently governed than those lacking in natural resources. The resource curse gives reason for the empirical correlation between resource-rich countries and reduced investment in human capital, increased domestic political corruption, and perilous reductions in economic diversification. The ultimate result of these outcomes is the stunted long-term economic growth of an ostensibly fortunate nation.

Nowhere has the mismanagement of abundant resources manifested itself more visibly than in the DRC. DRC resources include copper, diamonds, cobalt, petroleum, gold, silver, zinc, and coltan. The exploitation of coltan, used in computer microchips, is relatively underexamined by the international community, yet it is highly demanded overseas. Greed for coltan haunts the DRC. Indeed, the country's complex, unstable history, the corruption and substandard performance of its leaders, the ethnic hostilities, and the international community's invasion of the DRC, compounded with its readily available natural wealth, have led to ongoing war. Today, this human disaster is regarded as the worst African emergency and the worst humanitarian calamity since World War II.

Political stability no longer looks impossible in the DRC following a power-sharing Global and All-Inclusive Agreement in South Africa in December 2003, from which a transitional government was formed and the country's first presidential elections were held in July 2006. However, even though the war is officially over, dozens of rebel armies remain fighting in the east, vying for products sold largely to the international community. Even though this vast country, which spans an area the size of Western Europe, or 2.34 million square kilometers, is being patrolled by the world's largest UN peacekeeping force (some 17,000 UN representatives are dispersed across the country), the Western media has significantly underplayed the war and its aftermath. The international public remains overwhelmingly oblivious to the ravaging of this country and to the complacency of many stakeholders. With rising demand for coltan, and a lack of attention from Western governments and NGOs, there is an urgent need to put forward the case study of the coltan trade, examine its implications, and evaluate measures that can be taken to prevent further corruption and conflict. But how does the exploitation of this relatively unknown mineral implicate the international community?

Coltan: The Unknown Commodity

Columbite-Tantalum is the formal name for coltan, a metal base, which is little known outside Silicon Valley and high-technology institutions. Its strength, high density, and chemical properties make it a valuable metal used in the manufacture of capacitators in high-tech and medical devices, including mobile phones and laptop computers. The US government extensively hoards stores of this mineral, and the US Department of Defense classifies coltan as a strategic mineral. Ironically, the methods for collecting coltan are relatively primitive; local miners cut down a patch of the rainforest, undercut the rooted vegetation, and remove all the unwanted dirt and rocks by washing their lootings in a river. Because the exploitation of this mineral requires no technology and minimal expertise, it has fast become prey to invading rebel groups.

The desirability of coltan only increased through the 1990s as international demand for electronic devices reached an all time high in 2000; the cost of coltan correspondingly rose US$365 per pound in eastern DRC, a rush that was called the "gold rush for coltan." There was a 38 percent increase in consumption of coltan in 2000 relative to 1999, further fueling this demand. Nonetheless, by 2001, the technology industry crashed. Despite the ensuing "coltan bust" and the overall slower growth of the economy, it is expected that demand for this mineral will continue to grow by 10 percent to 20 percent per annum. Even though Australia is at present the largest producer of coltan, it is thought that the DRC is home to the world's largest reserves. Africa houses 80 percent of the world's coltan, the vast majority of which is thought to be located in the eastern provinces of the DRC. Here, legitimate mining operations are frequently confused with illegal rebel operations, so the source of the coltan is usually uncertain. The coltan trading route from Central Africa to foreign markets includes many intermediaries along the way, and its exact route is often unknown.

What cannot be denied is the link between the Central African wars and the mineral which continues to provide the resources to sustain the militias. The war which started in 1998 officially ended in 2003, killing an estimated 3.8 million people. Although the war is formally over, outbreaks of violence continue today and spiked in 2005 with a brief rise in consumer demand for coltan. With the 2001 technology bust and with the newly-elected Alliance for the Presidential Majority (AMP) government, coltan has initiated fewer battles. Many electronics companies reject coltan from anywhere in Central Africa, instead using "legitimate resources" from Australia. Other companies, including American-based Kemet, the world's largest maker of tantalum capacitors, have specifically requested certification that the coltan they purchase is not from the Congo or bordering countries. Much of the coltan illegally stolen from the DRC, however, is already in electronics all over the world, and the host of rebel groups in the eastern DRC remain a lasting presence.

Corruption and Coltan in the Congo

When the Second Congo War broke out in 1998, eight African nations (DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Chad) as well as an additional 25 rebel armies were engaged in the largest interstate war in modern African history, "Africa's World War." Abundant resources alone did not lead to war. The eastern provinces of the Kivus and Ituri are populated by high concentrations of diverse ethnic groups, many of which have a long history of hostility, dating back to the days of King Leopold's constructed ethnic rivalries. Ethnic tensions heightened following the 1994 Rwandan genocide and associated hostilities in Burundi. As Hutus fled into eastern areas of the Congo, refugee camps were penetrated by Interahamwe Hutu militants that carried out the mass-murder of Tutsis.

The second crucial factor in initiating the ethnic faction-alization was the joining of rebel armies; the installation of a new rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, was the outcome of the union of rebel groups in eastern Congo. These rebel groups were backed by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and successfully captured Kinshasa, the country's capital. They overthrew the weakened then-President Joseph Mobutu in 1997. During Kabila's regime, peace in the DRC was unattainable. Government militias from Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda proved disloyal to Kabila, backing rebel movements independently in the east and bringing their armed forces to the region. The region was further destabilized with the entry of the so-called peacekeeping forces from Chad, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia. With no order in this area, the region's abundant natural resources were squandered.

The fortuitous discovery of coltan in the DRC, which occurred alongside the technological boom in the 1990s, meant that the rebel armies of the east had more than enough funding to support their armies. In order to understand the role of coltan in this "African World War," one must first understand how the local-global supply chain originating with the activities of rebel forces underpins the trade of coltan in the Congo. The warring factions in the DRC are currently tribes and small rebel forces in the east. In the past, however, many governments were involved, and it was widely agreed that the Rwandan Government's Rwandan Patriotic Army together with its allies, the rebel group Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie based in Goma, ravaged the Kivus provinces for coltan. In a similar vein, the Ugandan government's Ugandan People's Defensive Force and its allies looted minerals in the province of Ituri.

The looting of eastern Congo by the governments of neighboring countries has in recent years come to a halt. In December 2002, the Pretoria Agreement made between Rwanda and the DRC asked for the withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the DRC in exchange for international commitment towards the disarmament of the Interahamwe Hutus. Less than a month later, the Ugandan government's presence in the Congo came to end with the the signing of the the Gbadolite Agreement which brought about a ceasefire between three rebel groups backed by the Ugandan government. However, approximately 18,000 armed rebels remain in the North and South Kivus states, precisely where the majority of coltan in the Congo is mined.

For these 18,000 rebels, war-like conditions continue. Just as the UN reported in 2003, at the end of the war, the rebels' primary motive is to "extract the maximum commercial and material benefits" from the area, an unmonitored practice that has resulted in systemic, rather than systematic, resource exploitation. The UN report described the actions of rebel forces in the region as acts of "plundering, racketeering and criminal cartels with worldwide connections that have become commonplace." To date, strategies employed by the DRC government in North and South Ituri have been restricted by rebel groups in the region. Overcoming rebel forces is often impossible, as guerrilla tactics allow rebel groups to establish strongholds and destabilize resource-rich areas. It was therefore unsurprising when the Security Council renewed the mandate of the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in May 2007. Most disturbingly, since January 2007, the primarily Tutsi Congolese army and the Rwandan Hutu rebels have continued to kill and rape civilians, thus displacing more than 120,000 people in the process. Rebel fighting currently represents the most serious security problem in the region. The destructive presence of coltan in Ituri and the Kivus, as well as other natural resources in the DRC, must be addressed.

Stronger State, Stronger Awareness

Building an accountable, uncorrupt government and allowing for legitimate mineral extraction in the future requires the cooperation and efforts of numerous players, including the present DRC National Unity government, the international community, international financial institutions, and the UN Security Council. For solid reforms, an international diplomatic effort must accompany unbiased monitoring of trade activities in the region. As France's ambassador to the United Nations, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, told reporters, "the solution cannot be solely military ... a global strategy using political actions and diplomatic actions is needed." Given that natural resource extraction is crucial to economic growth and the post-war rebuilding of the DRC, international financial institutions and businesses, as well as diplomats, must carefully monitor the situation.

A firm commitment must be made to ensure transparency and accountability in the government and key businesses in the region. Relations between the DRC and the international community should be bolstered and international institutions strengthened to regulate domestic and regional conditions. But such change cannot occur before domestic reform. To yield visible short- and long-term results, the DRC government must remain committed to a zero-tolerance policy on corruption. One way toward such a change would be to require all members working with the AMP government to declare their assets and business interests upon entering and leaving office. Additionally, to avoid the widespread sale of illegal resources, trade and smuggling along international borders with neighboring countries should be heavily controlled. To aid with such monitoring, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and the African Union, both of which have extended membership to the DRC, can suggest strategies and provide the infrastructure to monitor the trafficking of illegal coltan and other smuggled natural resources. With the technology boom of the 1990s well in the past, democracy taking hold in the DRC in July 2006, and the withdrawal of neighboring countries' militias in the region, it is tempting for spectators to turn a blind eye to rebel activity in the east. However, if this rebel activity continues, terror and corruption will only embed themselves deeper in the region.


Whether the mineral in international demand is coltan or timber, gold or alluvial diamonds, the AMP government, and future governments, must be prepared to deal with the corruption and violence that surrounds its vast natural wealth. Even if government militias have withdrawn from the region, the Ituri and Kivus provinces are plagued by greedy settlers. If the government uses international support, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, in conjunction with regional groups, including the African Union, the DRC government can take on the 18,000 rebels remaining on their territory. Complacency and corruption are now the government's only potential banes.

Perhaps the chief contradiction of Heart of Darkness is that the enlivened force of evil is indescribable: Kurtz as the embodiment of evil is, in the end, nothing more than a vacuous void. For Marlow, the wilderness "echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core." Today, perhaps this nothingness, the missing presence of a unified, competent authority, signals the timeless need for citizen involvement in the DRC government. Plagued by kleptocracy, with only a short respite from authoritarianism 40 years ago, the political climate of the DRC has had no lulls for rejuvenation and redevelopment. Now, however, provided that the Congolese people do not settle for governmental concessions and instead demand complete transparency about its involvement in mining activities, they can push for change. With democratic foundations now in place, the future can be in the hands of the people. And if the people of the DRC so desire, natural resources can, for the first time in the country's history, constitute a great blessing, rather than an age-old curse.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Minerals in Conflict
More Information on The Dark Side of Natural Resources


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