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From Blood Diamonds to Batteries: The Battle for Resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Updated: Mar 5

Deep Dive Article

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“You can find it on almost any tree … it was literally raining rubber juice. Our clothes were full of it. The Congo has so many tributaries that a well-organized company can easily extract a few tons of rubber per year here.”

These are the words uttered by Henry M Stanley, a Welsh American explorer, when recounting his travels to the Congo in the 19th century. Few quotes can better explain the interest in the region than this.

For centuries, the Congo has been manipulated and looted by powerful nations and corporations alike. This continued exploitation of the Congo has existed from its time as a Belgian colony, to its modern form as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (hereafter “Congo). The reasons for this are simple. The Congo is home to an estimated $24 trillion of untouched natural resources, such as tin, magnanese, tungsten, gold and of increasing importance, cobalt – which is used to make batteries.

The Congo was a personal playground for Belgian King, Leopold II, before it became a Belgian colony, and it only achieved independence in 1960. The brutality of Belgian rule, and the subsequent draining of natural resources was a key cause for the issues the Congo now faces at present. However, the story of the Congo is one which, as of yet, does not have a ‘happy’ ending. The exploitation continues, and the Congo has been plagued with ongoing conflict for the past three decades.

What is the situation today?

The Congo has been at the centre of constant conflict for years. It has seen over 6 million people killed, and almost 5 million displaced, making it the largest conflict since WWII. The armed forces of the Congo, nominally named ‘FARDC’ has been fighting M23 rebels in the east of the country. The fighting has been intense, and it was announced this week that Kenyan soldiers would be sent into the region, as part of an East African Community peacekeeping force. The Kenyan soldiers will be joining a battalion of troops from Burundi, and soldiers from Uganda and South Sudan, all in an effort to quell the violence.

It's estimated that 1,000 Kenyan soldiers will be deployed, and will focus on the North Kivu province, one of the most troubled provinces in the region. South Kivu and Ituri provinces will also be host to peacekeeping forces, to combat M23 rebels. Tensions have been flaring, as Congolese officials have accused Rwanda of giving support to M23, to destabilise the country. Relations continue to sour, and in October the Congolese President, Félix Tshisekedi, expelled the Rwandan Ambassador and banned Rwandair, Rwanda’s national airline, from operating in Congolese airspace. Rwanda’s government has vehemently opposed the allegations, but the Congo is steadfast in its accusations.

The rebel group, M23 emerged after the Second Congo War, and is made up of mostly ethnic Tutsis. They posed a considerable threat after their formation in 2012, and even occupied Goma, a city in North Kivu with over 700,000 inhabitants. However, they were swiftly eradicated following a string of defeats against the Congolese government in 2013. Now, after years of hibernation, the group is active once more, and Rwanda is being accused of enabling them. Rwanda is ruled by a Tutsi dominated party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which came to power after the Rwandan Civil War, in 1994.

Rwanda decries such accusations, and condemns the rebel activity, but Congolese public and military alike believe M23 to be Kigali’s proxy army. Colonel Guillaume Ndjike Kaiko, a spokesman for FARDC explained why he believed this to be true. “These are not just rebels … these are nations that are coming together to wage a purely economic war on the Democratic Republic of Congo” he says. Whether these claims are accurate or not is unclear, but the Colonel’s citation of ‘economic war’ stems from a recent history of exploitation, which the Congo seemingly can’t solve.

The Immeasurable Congolese Wealth

As of November, there are an estimated 120 rebel groups operating in the Eastern Congo. Each of them with their own motives, causes, and most importantly, funding. The question of where these rebel groups get their funding from is one which remains unanswered. However, the most common source of funding is through the illicit smuggling of natural resources, of which the Congo has plenty.

The Congo sits upon a literal, untapped gold mine. In 2016, it was estimated by Global Witness that there was $28 billion worth of gold under the soil of the eastern Congo. Likewise, the Congo is estimated to sit on 51% of the world’s known reserves of cobalt, a key component for the battery industry. The country is also home to trillions of dollars’ worth of tin, copper, timber, coffee, diamonds, and oil. Additionally, it has over 70 million hectares of untapped arable land. Yet, despite this enormous wealth, and a population of 92 million people, the Congo is one of the world’s poorest countries, with over 73% of the country living on less than $1.90 a day.

The reasons for the dire economic condition of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are varied. A key factor is the systemic corruption in the Congo. The former President, Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his father, and ruled for 18 years, was accused of embezzling $138 million, by a court in November 2021. The investigation is ongoing, but it is one of hundreds of incidents of corruption that occurred under Kabila’s rule. The key cause of the disastrous economy, however, is the ongoing conflicts across the Eastern Congo. Lt. General Johnny Luboya Nkashama, who is Governor of the Ituri province, argued that the current conflict is a “war over resources”.

The Congolese government accuses the rebel groups, and neighbouring countries, of purposefully destabilising the region, to access the resources of the country. These claims are not unfounded. The US Treasury has said that “the gold trade is a major driver of conflict” in the Congo. They also said that around 90 per cent of DRC gold is smuggled” to states like Rwanda and Uganda, who sell it onto countries across the globe, with one of the biggest customers being the United Arab Emirates. The UN also believes that several gold mines in Ituri are entirely controlled, and operated by rebel groups, who smuggle almost all of the region’s gold out of the country.

A War of Words

Many in the Congo feel ignored by the international community, and see their country being torn apart without any actual aid. Aside from the exploitation, and dire economic condition the country finds itself in, the conflicts in the Congo have caused one of the largest migration crises in recent times. In 2022 alone, over 355,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the Congo, making it the largest humanitarian crisis in Africa.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, says “support to the country is inadequate, and the situation has become a textbook example of neglect”. With the worlds’ eyes fixed on Ukraine, many see the situation as hopeless, and Congolese activists are trying to remedy the crisis in any way they can. Most recently, this has involved protests against Uganda, and a call for the Congo to cut all diplomatic ties with the country. This stems from the belief that Uganda is also funding the M23 rebel group, and is reaping the benefits of a destabilised, war-ridden Congo.

The Ugandan State Minister for International Relations, Henry Oryem Okello, dismissed these claims as “hogwash, rubbish” and without evidence. “There is no iota of evidence… those (accusers) are attention seekers” he added. Whether or not the claims are substantiated is unclear, but the rumours are enough to stir the pot and increase tension. With M23 rebels advancing in the east, and almost doubling their captured territory in the last month, many in the Congo simply want peace.

The East African Community peacekeeping force, which will continue to be deployed throughout November, should help alleviate the situation somewhat, and a counter-offensive is expected to happen soon. Yet any visions of peace seem far away. Angola and Kenya have been mediating peace talks, with the former president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta spearheading this drive for peace. Similarly, in September, Emmanuel Macron of France even reached out to Tshisekedi, and Rwandan President Kagame, to discuss how best to eradicate M23 from occupied areas. Yet tensions remain.

The government of the Congo has been engaged in a war of words with Rwanda, with both sides employing a fierce rhetoric. Now, it seems Uganda is being dragged into the fold. As millions continue to suffer, and thousands perish in unnecessary bloodshed, many Congolese believe the world is too fixated on the war in Ukraine, and the Ethiopian Civil War. The political posturing, and rhetoric between African nations will most likely continue and the EAC will be left to deal with this situation, without much support from the international community.

The conflict in the Congo continues to have enormous ramifications for neighbouring countries, and the mass migration crisis in East Africa will only worsen if the fighting continues. Political leaders in Africa, and around the world claim to be watching. Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State, says he is “very concerned” by the events in the Congo. But whether words will turn into action remains to be seen.


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