Imagine a country with enough wealth to pay off all U.S. creditors, and still have enough in the vault to fund their economy for an entire year. Picture such a nation sitting in the basement of the Failed States Index, and you’re picturing the Democratic Republic of Congo; a nation with enough of the world’s mineral wealth to satisfy the whole of its voracious appetite for electronic devices, for a very, very long time.
A great deal of the blame for Congo’s “Failed State” status can be attributed to corrupt leadership which have satisfied their own ravenous appetites, while shoving all governing accountability on foreign governments and organizations. Congo’s mineral wealth is unmatched by any other nation on the globe, with a vast store of diamonds, gold, cassiterite, copper, the world’s largest deposits of cobalt and coltan, and enough hydropower potential to power most of Africa. Yet its people live in poverty, and without electricity or potable water. Our country, with such capacity and promise, due to those who hold its reigns, is branded a “conflict nation” with “conflict minerals.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a nation of 70 million people; 70 million of the 7 billion on the planet; just 1% of the whole. And yet we know that one day, because of our heritage, we will be embraced. The concern is, by whom? And the greater concern is: who will represent us? The principled nations will bring their own dowry in trade, but the unprincipled may make an offer too good for our insatiable fathers to refuse, and may again sell their progeny’s birthright for a bowl of porridge for themselves.
We are holding out hope that the world will see this day coming, even if we do not, and take us under its wing, and begin to prepare us to meet that day, in our own right mind.
BACKGROUND: WHAT HAPPENED?There are a number of the world’s nations suffering a similar plight, and each have their own story. For brevity’s sake, we’ll set aside the fact that Congo was just liberated 52 years ago from what the oldest generation calls, “the whip and chain days of Belgian colonization.” It seems a good deal of the more recent blame for Congo’s failing condition, would be attributed to the seeds of corruption planted by former President Mobutu. He is remembered for, instead of paying his nation’s public servants a decent and timely wage, shaming them as ignorant of the privilege of power. He stuffed his own pockets with millions and advocated that his administrators follow his example. Of course, they only had one another to take from, so the takings were relatively small. But after 32 years of being encouraged to make a corrupt living off the people you are appointed to serve, that mind has grown deep generational roots.
The Congolese people, therefore, don’t really expect much from their authorities. As an example, it takes an average of 65 days to get a business license in DR Congo, compared to just 24 hours in neighboring Rwanda. I was at the end of the process and had been at the Registrar’s office for three days waiting for my final document to be printed and officially notarized. The problem was that the electricity had been off for those three days, so the notary couldn’t print the document. Obviously I wasn’t the only one waiting, and so when the mayor happened through the crowded office I confronted him, pleading with him on behalf of all to get the power back on. His reply? “It’s not just here; it’s all over town!”
TAUGHT TO LOOK ELSEWHERE FOR HELPThere’s no accountability, because that mentality comes from the top down. Whatever accountability there is in DR Congo is directed internationally. With average life expectancy being only 48 years, the World Health Organization and medical NGOs are looked to regarding the challenges to public health. For the most part, churches provide primary education.
The UN’s 20,000+ Monusco presence is supposed to look after the security sector. But it is terribly unpopular, particularly since it has proven incapable of protecting civilians in this vast, populous, war-torn, rape capital of the world, whose mass is as large as Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland, Armenia, Spain, Albania, and Italy combined.
The one brightening spot may be the police. Seems the top man there, General Bisengimana, is effecting positive changes throughout his troops nationwide. I think that fact, and the fact that his impact has been evidenced in such a short amount of time, suggests that Congo’s disease is less a contagion, as much as it is a “fostered” state of things.
Of course in the upper echelons of authority here, it is systemic. More than that, it is organized; it is organized crime, where absolute power has absolutely corrupted.
POOR NATION, RICH POTENTIALWhat is startling is to put these realities against statistics that, standing alone, would portend a different state of things.
African Business Magazine stated in 2009 that the mineral wealth of DRC is estimated at $24 trillion, pointing out its equivalence to the GDP of the United States and Europe combined; making DR Congo potentially the richest country in the world. It even overwhelms the eye-popping $18 trillion total value of Saudi Arabia`s oil reserves.
Congo has 30% of the planet’s diamond reserves. And speaking of potential, Congo has the capacity to produce 13% of the world’s hydropower. Its rivers could power much of Africa. And yet most of its citizens live without, or at best, enjoy the benefits of electricity only intermittently.
Congo’s unmatched mineral store contains over 80% of the world’s deposits of Coltan and 59% of “accessible” Cassiterite (tungsten), which are necessary elements for the untold number of devices in today’s electronic universe; most notably in the mobile phone industry.
Yet with all of this wealth, Congo is still strangely devoid of infrastructure; from roads to electricity to Internet to airports to potable water, and the list goes on.
INSTEAD OF HELP TO END CONFLICT IN EASTERN DRC, LABELED “CONFLICT NATION”The issue really is that up to now, the rest of the world has set this “1% nation” aside. Congo has been embroiled with military conflict since 1996, and much of that due to and in the regions of its vast mineral reserves. Millions have died, millions have been displaced, and at least hundreds of thousands have been and continue to be brutalized. It’s a horrific situation. And the whole world knows it’s all been about profit. Evidence abounds regarding minerals funneled by and through Rwanda and Uganda toward Multinational companies, recognizing them as being “the engine of the conflict in the DRC,” according to the UN.
The world’s reaction so far has been to step up and name Eastern DRC as a conflict zone, and minerals that come from there as “conflict minerals.” The UN Security Council has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on companies that support armed groups dealing with illegal minerals sourced from eastern Congo.
The US Senate passed a bill in 2009 that obliges US companies to declare the origin of their ores. An EU special representative has also been appointed to review the trade.
COLTAN: THE JEWEL IN CONGO’S MINERAL CROWNAnd as one reporter put it, a jewel in the Congolese crown of minerals is “the ore, Colombo-tantalite, which is more commonly called coltan. It is a black tar-like mineral, which, when crushed, becomes a heat-resistant powder capable of holding very high levels of electric charge. Given these properties, it is an excellent heat resistor and is used in the power-storing capacities of many electronic devices, including mobile phones, laptops, spacecraft and thousands more. Its use has made possible the reduction in size of many electronic devices as well as today`s advanced wireless technology.”
Obviously, then, “coltan is vital to the function of modem society,” as says Andrew Campbell, a professor of mineralogy at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMIMT). “It is an incredibly precious mineral.”
But due to the continual conflicts in the mining areas, and measures taken by the UN Security Council, the U.S. Senate, and other nations and authorities who have followed their lead, only 10% of the world’s annual need for coltan has come out of Congo.
WHY CONGO’S COLTAN?It’s true; Congo is not the only place where coltan can be found. There are untapped reserves in Canada, Brazil, and Australia. The problem with those reserves, says Campbell, is that the coltan isn`t nearly as easy to mine as it is in Congo.
In 2008, the Australian mine was shut down. The head of Australias mining operation, Peter Robinson, said his mine just couldnt compete with the low price of Congo`s coltan.
“When you dig, the metal youre looking for will always be a small percentage of what you dig up,” says NMIMT’s Campbell. “In a copper mine, for example, youd be lucky if three-tenths of 1 percent of the rocks you dig up are copper. In a gold mine, it`s way lower than that. And with coltan, the percentage is probably even lower.”
Thats why the abundant, highly concentrated coltan in Congo is so tantalizing to technology companies. “Coltan would be so much more expensive to mine in other countries,” says Keith Harmon Snow, an investigator for the United Nations. “Youd have a lot more rock to sort through…”
And that’s why 10% of the annual coltan mined still comes out of Congo, even illicitly, though global authorities have fervently sought to discourage purchasing minerals sourced from this conflict zone.
What does this mean to the rest of the world? The semiconductor industry (computer chips) is a 300 billion dollar a year industry, and drives the generation of 1.2 trillion dollars in electronic systems business and 5 trillion dollars in services, representing close to 10% of the world’s GDP.
And “at a time of economic uncertainty, the semiconductor industry continues to be a bright spot in the U.S. economy. Now more than ever, it’s clear that the only way to spur lasting economic growth is to empower the private sector to do what they do best—innovate, compete and grow,” said Brian Toohey, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association. “These (growth number) projections are simply estimates; it’s important to remember that U.S. policy can positively or negatively affect these growth numbers. This is why we are urging the Congress and Administration to move now to enact pro-business, pro-growth policies that will lead to a rebirth of the innovation economy.”
According to SIA, the Semi Conductor Industry Association, “Double digit growth continues in the Sensor and Micro I/Cs categories, …in part driven by the rapid increase in the tablet segment, as well as increased smartphone usage, especially in China, India and other emerging markets.”
It’s a 6.5 trillion dollar global business, in part driven by the rapidly increasing tablet and smartphone segments of the electronics industry; segments known to require the precious coltan.
*CONGO’S DAY IS COMING: WILL SHE BE READY?At some point in time, this basement nation, this 1% of the big picture, with its 80% global store of what’s powering the industry that’s making the world go round, is going to have to play a role. And whom, on the Congolese side, is the world going to sit down and negotiate with? With all the rebel factions that are controlling illicit mining operations? With the Minister of Minerals? With the President of DR Congo?
There are other dynamics in play globally, and so now it’s not only how things are approached in Congo, and when, but by whom. The “who” – just “who” this player is that intelligently and artfully invests in Congo’s future – this “who” stands to win big.
The point is that there is a time coming, in probably the not too distant future, when this lowly “1% nation” is going to be seriously courted. Some nation, or some group of nations, is going to realize the extreme importance and potential in this woefully anemic nation. And they are going to begin to sow into her, for her good and their own good, and perhaps for the good of the other 99%. At least, that’s the hope.
There is clearly another option, which has been employed up to now by the less scrupulous. There are those who play a different sort of game; forming alliances with those whose appetites only serve themselves, at the expense of everyone else. These come and give Esau his bowl full of porridge, in trade for the nation’s inheritance.
But we pray for serious courters to come courting, who are thinking of our nation’s good, as well as their own. And what sort of dowry are we hoping they bring? We are praying they are peacemakers, whose intention is people investment, infrastructure investment, education investment, and social and health services investment. We pray they are looking for long-term commitment, to build up and raise up this basement nation, for the good of the whole.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignments: Feature Stories