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FRFI 189 February / March 2006

Congo: Imperialists plunder gold

The subsoil of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) is so gorged with minerals that it is Africa’s richest country. DRC has the world’s largest deposits of copper, cobalt, coltan and cadmium, as well as chrome, timber, cassiterite, rubber, oil, uranium, germanium, diamonds and gold. Mongbwalu, capital of the north-eastern Ituri district, contains Africa’s largest gold seam. Control over these vast resources, not ‘ethnic rivalry’, is behind the civil war which started in 1998 soon after the US and British-backed dictator Mobutu died, and which has cost over 3.8 million lives, mostly from starvation and disease.

Looting the gold
Every month, hundreds of kilograms of gold are extracted from the mines around Mongbwalu, taken illegally to neighbouring Uganda and then flown to Europe, usually to Metalor Technologies in Switzerland, a leading European dealer in precious metals. (Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2005). DRC ministers are directly involved in the smuggling, with stolen wealth, worth millions of dollars, stored in offshore bank accounts. In 2003, although local Ugandan gold production was worth $23,000, gold exports were worth $45 billion. Gold is Uganda’s second biggest export after coffee.

The gold smuggling is controlled by the Ugandan-armed militia, the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), which takes a percentage and a dollar a day from the workers. FNI is responsible for some of the worst atrocities in DRC, including child abduction, rape and torture. In June 2005, Human Rights Watch revealed that the British company AngloGold Ashanti made payments to FNI, and gave it ‘meaningful financial and logistical support’. This gave AngloGold Ashanti access to the gold-mining concessions in the north-east. AngloGold Ashanti, the world’s second biggest gold producer, with sales of about $2 billion and profits of $10 million in 2004, is part of the international mining conglomerate Anglo American, controlled by the apartheid-supporting Oppenheimer ‘dynasty’.

Looting the coltan
Coltan (short for columbite-tantalum) is a rare precious ore found only in DRC and Australia, and is a key component in nuclear reactors and small electronic devices, such as mobile phones, pagers, laptop computers, etc. With US backing, Rwanda invaded DRC three times in 1996, 1998 and 2004, ostensibly to look for Interahamwe rebels responsible for the 1994 genocide. Once in eastern DRC they began looting diamonds and coltan instead. Tonnes of precious metals were flown to the capital, Kigali, each week and exported to Europe and China via routes in Mozambique, South Africa and Thailand. Rwanda made $20 million a month between 1999-2000 from coltan sales, despite having no coltan deposits.

Burundi and Uganda have also been behind the coltan and diamond plunder, using either their armies or trained militia, many of them children. After signing worthless peace agreements in 1999 and 2003, the invaders officially withdrew their armies, but left behind their militia to continue the pillaging. Rwandan and Ugandan troops and militia are responsible for killing, raping and torturing people in north and south Kivu and Maniema Provinces. In some places, the Rwandan army has actually formed alliances with the Interahamwe rebels in order to control the mines.

The role of the imperialists
Behind the pillage lie the arms, training and political support of Britain, Belgium, France and the US in particular. Soon after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it was revealed that France had armed and trained senior figures who directed some of the massacres. According to a UN Security Council report in October 2002, high level political, military and business networks were stealing DRC’s gold, timber, coltan and diamonds, and had transferred at least $5 billion of assets from the state mining sector to private western companies, including 18 British firms such as Anglo American, DeBeers and Barclays Bank, as well as US, Belgian, Canadian, Swiss and German firms (The Observer, 6 February 2005). A more critical report in 2003 was suppressed.

Both Rwanda and Uganda are heavily dependent on western ‘aid’; for example 52% of Uganda’s national budget comes from EU countries. Uganda is a useful proxy state for US imperialist interests in the resource-rich region. The US has a permanent military base in northern Uganda, from which it chases ‘Al Qaida terrorists’ and the Sudan-based, Christian fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), itself set up by the US. The LRA have now entered DRC to escape Ugandan forces in southern Sudan. Uganda and DRC have agreed joint operations against the LRA inside DRC, threatening a wider conflagration.

The illegal invasion of DRC by Uganda and Rwanda in 1998 had the backing and support of the US and Britain. Large quantities of arms were transferred to Rwanda via eastern Europe from Israel, Britain and the US. These arms ended up in the hands of ‘rebels’ in eastern DRC (The Guardian, 5 July 2005). Britain’s arms sales to Africa neared £1 billion in 2004.

A token UN observer mission, MONUC, set up in 1999, is confined to barracks and restricted to a few patrols. It ignores the gold smuggling and has admitted not knowing what is going on in the mines. Britain, France, Belgium and the US have blocked attempts to strengthen the 15,500 force (3,300 are civilians, observers or volunteers), insisting instead on targeted sanctions, useless arms embargoes and elections to legitimise the transition government of Joseph Kabila, which has western backing, having accepted IMF ‘reforms’.
Charles Chinweizu