Archive | September, 2012

Conflict Minerals Primer: The Reality of the Northeastern DR Congo

23 Sep

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a vast resource of minerals under its mountainous terrain that presently brings in large sums of money in the millions of dollars so much so that individuals, companies, and countries have risked everything to enter the DR Congo legally and illegally in order to mine out these materials and sell them on the world market.Vastfortunes can be made in a very short time if the labor is cheap, the mine is accessible, and the travel routes in and out have been secured. Precious materials such as Cassiterite, Wolframite, Coltan, and Gold, are all found within the ground in the northeastern section of the country. They are used in the manufacture of a variety of popular electronic devices that are highly sort after in the world markets such as I-Phones and Androids, laptops, and MP3 players

Kivu District of northeast DR Congo is also the region where open warfare between several factions is currently taking place leaving this region highly unstable and its residents tremendously vulnerable. The most brutal exploiter of the local population is the entire Congolese National Army from Generals to foot soldiers who operate hundreds of mines unchallenged in Kivu District alone and man them by forcing the local residents to work for them. They make up the largest number of illegal groups currently operating in the area and are known for their open exploitation of workers through their use of rape, torture, and murder to subdue their mine laborers. A recent study by IPIS indicates that armed groups are present at more than 50% of mining sites. At many sites, armed groups of soldiers illegally tax, extort, and coerce civilians to work for them. Miners, including children, work 48-hour shifts in dangerous conditions such as mudslides and tunnel collapses and thousands of workers have already died from what is referred to by the Congolese soldiers as “ mine incidents.”

Then there are the rebel groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). These are the Hutu extremists who led the Rwandan Genocide in 1984. They are still entrenched in the mountains of Kivu District and have even established a stronghold in The Virunga National Forest which they have occupied for some time now. It is time that they were hunted down and eradiated by the Congolese Government but they have managed to survive quite well and also use forced local labor to maintain their own mines and sell their ore through middle men located in Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Although the government likes to claim that they have seriously curtailed the FDLR’s mining operations, they still remain a formidable force in the area. Koni and his Liberation Army spend time in the region of the DRCongo too and while camped out there operate mines through enforced local labor and manage quite well on their profits. All of the rebel groups use their proceeds to replenish their weaponry and ammunition through black market arms dealers.

Rumors abound that both the countries of Rwanda and Uganda still operate private mines located throughout the foot hills of the Ruwenzoru Mountains, far away from prying eyes. The idea of stealing the DR Congo’s natural resources by other countries originated during the First and Second Wars in the Congo. The countries of  Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi invaded the DR Congo and while they were at it opened mining operations as well in remote areas on the eastern regions of the Congo that bordered their specific countries. The Congolese government had not the forces, the resources, or the time to stop them. They were finally embarrassed by the United Nations into claiming that they had stopped but local residents of Kivu district will swear to you that these mines still exist today and that their mining operations were never shut down. At one point near the end of the Second War in the Congo it was documented by MONUSCO, the UN mission in eastern DR Congo, that agents from Rwanda went as far as to sell mineral rights located in the DR Congo to private companies located in Europe. It is common knowledge throughout Kivu District that these three governments continue to smuggle resources out of the DR Congo to this day.

Before the reason for this crisis can be properly understood it is imperative that the reader have some idea of the vast size and geographic diversity within this country in order to understand the reasons for its almost non-existent infrastructure.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo covers roughly 905,063 square miles. That makes it about the same size in area as the United States of America from the Mississippi River to the East Coast and according to BBC News is the 12th largest country in the world. It contains many distinct regions, each with its own climate and geological formations. The central area if covered by tropical rain forests and rivers, surrounded by mountains in the west, that merge into savannahs and plains in the south and southwest , and grasslands in the north. On its northeastern and eastern border the Ruwenzoru Mountain Range stands majestic and tall. It contains the Albertine Rift Mountain Forest which is home to the last of the Mountain Gorilla and which still contains active volcanoes. It is the northeastern area where the majority of the mineral resources have been found.

The Equator plays a major role in its climate and dry versus wet months are all determined by a district’s position from this line. In regions that lie South of the Equator, the rainy season lasts from October to May but in places north of the Equator, from April to November, the exact opposite. On the Equator, rainfall occurs quite regularly throughout the 12 month year. It rains   a great deal in the central basin especially and  average rainfall for the entire country is about 42 inches per year.

Moving around from one place to another by land in the DR Congo has always been precarious at best. The mountains of the north and west as well as the dangerous terrain and wet climate found in Central Congo Basin has impeded the buildings of cross –country highways and railroad tracks. This country has yet to be unified through roadways in any way and to do so would take many years and billions of dollars to cover the existing area. For years the citizens of the Congo used their rivers to move from place to place and continue to use them to this day. Traditionally water transport is the dominant means of travel in the Congo for two-thirds of its population.  Due to the poor road conditions use of small transport planes referred to as “Bush Planes” fly men of means and status where they need to go in Central and East Africa. Travel by car and bus is discouraged by foreigners in the DR Congo and for good reason. Roads are not paved or only small sections of each road has been paved and are not subject to regular maintenance. Even then hundreds of large, deep holes which can ruin an automobile tire, cover individual roads making all cars travel at a snail’s pace. During the rainy season even adequate roads will deteriorate and sections crack open especially the pavement on bridges built over the rivers. The National Highway II which connects the city of Brazzaville to Pointe Noire is one of the country’s best functioning highways but still remains largely unpaved and sections of it are often impassable during the rainy season.

Unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel are frequently unavailable in the major cities and may be non-existent in the more rural regions of the country. There may be no predetermined price for gasoline with foreigners paying double, even triple the cost for which it’s sold to the residents of the area. There are few road signs directing the traveler in what direction to continue and either police or Congolese soldiers will conduct routine check-points along the way which they will extort money from both residents and non-residents alike before cars are allowed to pass by their gates.  Only four- wheel vehicles and trucks are recommended for use on these roads especially during the rainy season.

The Congolese government even if it was willing to regulate the mines in northeastern districts cannot supervisee what it cannot get to and so thousands of small mines dot the mountainous landscape from the northeast corner all the way down the eastern border of the DR Congo. But it is common knowledge that many members of the Congolese National Army instead of doing their assigned jobs help themselves to the mineral wealth found in the northeastern districts instead. And that this practice is so pervasive that no one in the Kabila government is aware of it or is disturbed by their actions in the slightest? If this is true, all of the forced regulations from the rest of the world will not change the present conditions until Kabila’s government in Kinshasa has effectively found a way to oversee the movements of his troops in the east.

The primitive conditions of Congolese roads keeps the rural towns and even the more populated cities isolated from one another and the feeling of being connected to the DR Congo as a citizen has not yet occurred. People tend to stay in the villages in which they were born or settle close to this area unless fate intervenes and forces them to move somewhere else. When asked who they are, villagers will begin by telling you the name of the tribe to which they belong, then the town or city in which they reside. They will not refer to themselves as Congolese citizens unless prompted by questions to respond and even then, many of them have no idea how to define themselves in a broader way.

In April 2009, Sam Brownback, a Republican Senator from Kansas introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 (S. 819). This act would require all electronics companies to verify and disclose their sources of Cassiterite, Wolframite, and Tantalum. His legislation died in committee but Brownback did not quit and added similar language as Section 1502 of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which eventually passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama on July 21, 2010.

“On August 22, 2012 The Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which will require companies to publicly disclose their use of conflict minerals that originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or an neighboring country.

The regulatory reform law has directed the Commission to issue rules requiring certain companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals that include tantalum, tin, gold, or tungsten if those minerals are “necessary to the functionality or production of a product” manufactured by those companies. Companies are required to provide this disclosure on a new form to be filed with the SEC called Form SD.”

California is the first state in the United States to pass its own Conflict Minerals legislation. Their legislation follows Section 1502 of the national legislation, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 and aims at regulating the problem of conflict minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and purchased by California- based companies especially those located in Silicon Valley.

The Dodd- Frank Act is not the first legislation to try and supervise the mining and export of conflict minerals in the northeastern DR Congo.  The government of the DR Congo has released its own mining regulations which are suppose to guard against illegal exploitation of all mineral resources and establish a certification program that would be regulated by the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).  There are also OECD, (European Union) and the UN sanctions in place against private and public companies that purchase conflict minerals or operate illegal mines in the Congo. MONUSCO working out of the city of Goma has begun to establishing plan for the construction of checking stations within the eastern districts to supervise the trading of these minerals.

This may sound like there are effective plans in place to stem this crisis but none of them will work successfully unless the fighting stops and the rebel groups in this region are removed.  The Congolese government has to find a way to monitor the movement of its troops in these districts, curtail their illegal mines and the enslavement of the local villagers. There must be plan to gain access to these mines in order to ensure that the operations are legal so new roads and trails will have to be cut through the mountainous terrain in order to gain quick access to the sites. And all government, United Nation agencies, and NGO’s will have to work closely together to protect those local people whose livelihoods will be affected by the closing of these mines.

In my next blog post I will talk about the choices the Congolese government must make and M23’s position in all of this. Please view this film clip if you want to get an idea of the brutal conditions the villagers face each and every day. This is an older film but one that tells and shows waht the workers face like no other film I’ve ever seen about illegal mining and forced labor.

This film gives you a thorough idea of what is happening.

Kat Nickerson                    Kingston, RI           USA


Do M23 Rebels March Towards Kinshasa? : Are They the Good Guys?

12 Sep

Sept. 11, 2012

A tentative ceasefire between M23 and the Congolese Army has existed for four weeks now but the fighting is not over. No agreement has been reached between Joseph Kabila’s government and the M23 rebels.

Yet contrary to what Kabila’s government predicted in May, 2012 the M23 troops have not been defeated. It has been four months of continuous skirmishes for theM23 rebels in North Kivu District and they have shown themselves to be brave warriors- proven themselves to be superior fighters much more so than the far more numerous and better equipped Congolese army. This July, their leader, Sultani Makenga vowed that they would slowly advance towards Kinshasa and topple Joseph Kabila’s government there within the next 60 days. By August M23 had taken over the Northern Kivu town of Rubare near Rutshuru, and had come within 30 miles of the city of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu where the United Nations Mission in North-eastern Congo is located. Accurate reports have surfaced that the M23 rebels control the main road and are extorting money out of all truck drivers bringing food into the city and that their outrageous taxes are being passed on to the consumers by the retailers in Goma making food a very expensive commodity to purchase in the city.

The Afro-America Network, a blog which discusses events in the Great Lakes District reported in July that the order to march on Kinshasa was given on June 30th in a meeting attended by M23 leaders, ex-CNDP Commander, Gen. Laurent Nkunda, and top military leaders from Rwanda. They have also stated that 3,000 more Rwandan troops have crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) bringing the total to 5,000 Rwandan troops ready to support the M23 forces as they move forward? Is this true?

But these newest accusations are highly unlikely and seem to be the government’s way of maligning  M23’s image. According to a report published this week, Sept. 11, 2012 by The Human Rights Watch ( HRW), M23 has been charged with taking part in war crimes in north-eastern Congo, such as executions and the whole scale rape of women. The report also charged that M23 had forcibly conscripted at least 137 youth and killed at least 33 young men and boys who tried to escape from their camps. War is a messy business at best and maybe there are individual soldiers in M23 who have taken it upon themselves to commit these horrendous acts but they were not ordered by their senior officers to do so. According to my sources around Goma the members of The Human Rights Watch who produced this report were deliberately misled by government- financed informants. The HRW were fed a pack of lies by people paid by the Congolese government to discredit M23. It makes me highly suspicious that after five months of waging one of the cleaner campaigns in the district compared to the whole-sale slaughter perpetrated by a host of Mai- Mai militias currently operating in the area and the remaining Hutu guerrillas (FDLR) entrenched in northeast DR Congo and responsible for the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda; the M23 forces would suddenly dismiss their ideals, change their operational policies, and become just like the soldiers in the Congolese Army they were fighting against. Now there is a group that could be charged with a long list of crimes against humanity any day of the week.

And just where was Human Rights Watch when reporters from the BBC traveled into the forced labor mines operated by soldiers in the Congolese army( See June 23 Blog, M23 Movement: Will Ntaganda Elude Punishment?) where the workers regularly die from the lack of safe conditions and proper sanitation while down in the mines digging up Coltran. How come there was no report written about that? And what about the return of the Mai- Mai militias especially the Raia Mutomboki which has reared its ugly head in Kivu District? Aren’t they responsible for committing war crimes as well? Why have the M23 rebels been singled out and labeled as monsters? And how can we be sure that these atrocities were not deliberately committed by Congolese soldiers posing as M23 troops in the first place?

I and several of my colleagues have reason to believe that this is another government ploy to discredit the M23 movement. President Kabila has not been able to subdue these men through combat so now has taken a different route and has chosen to malign their character around the world. He has even convinced a, not too savvy, Human Rights Group to help him in this endeavor. In a place as poor as Kivu district even one US dollar buys a lot of lies from a desperate person. The truth is a very selective thing in war-ravished areas and people will say whatever they must in order to survive.

Everyone in the area knows that Col. Sultani Makenga, the M23 leader runs a very tight unit and that his men have been hand-selected and are very committed to their cause. They fight for a reason known by all and he has strongly denied these allegations. Col. Vianney Kazarama, the M23 spokesman, was reached by Aljazeera the only news agency that actually visited the area in which the fighting took place and posted impartial reports of  M23’s position.  “We invite everyone to come investigate on the ground and see the truth. These are false accusations and we regret that Human Rights Watch publishes false reports.”

The M23 rebellion began in April when these soldiers defected from the regular Congolese army at the same time General Bosco Ntaganda, the true criminal, left with his own men. Ntganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the Second War in DR Congo. Let it be understood again that the M23 movement has in no way aligned itself to General Bosco Ntaganda contrary to what the government in Kinshasa wants us to believe.

The M23 rebels do not fight for or with Bosco Ntaganda and the government knows this well because according to my sources, the government is hiding Bosco Ntaganda even though they have publically stated that that they intend to arrest him. They have claimed this for several months now and nothing has happened maybe because everyone knows that Ntaganda is hiding out at his farm waiting for orders from the President. And why hasn’t the Human Rights Watch filed a complaint about that with the United Nations?

It is a dangerous game that the government now plays and they know it. But what I don’t understand is how the UN officials in Goma can be so widely off the mark on just about everything that’s happening in North Kivu District. Why do they keep backing the wrong side?

Here is where the government has deliberately released confusing reports about the truth of the matter. What the government does not want brought to light is that the M23 rebels were all past members of the Tutsi army, The National Congress for the Defense of the People, (CNDP) of which Ntaganda was a military leader during the Second War in the Congo. As part of the conditions of the 2009 peace accord, these CNDP soldiers were brought into the Congolese army- no questions asked and Ntaganda, also a Tutsi was made a general.  These soldiers have  continued to identify with their Tutsi heritage and have dearly suffered for it. They have faced severe discrimination in their assignments as Congolese soldiers in northern Kivu district. They have been laughed at, even spit on by the villagers of other tribes when performing their duties and these same villagers refuse to carry out their orders. This hatred of Tutsis exists within the Congolese Army as well and has been condoned by the Kabila government in Kinshasa. Tutsi soldiers do not advance within the ranks as quickly as soldiers from other tribes. Tutsis face condemnation even death at the hands of vigilante mobs and Mai- Mai militia for no reason at all. Although many Tutsi are legal citizens of the Congo they are hated by the other tribes in the area and considered foreigners. Most Tutsi families live in fear that they will either be hunted down and killed by the Hutu Interharmwe (Hutu guerillas) hiding out in the Kivus or by their own neighbors who live right next door. This is one issue that M23 intends to rectify. They fight to call the government’s attention to the plight of the Tutsi all over the DR Congo but especially in north and south Kivu Districts.

At the beginning of August Joseph Kabila swore that there would be no negotiations with the M23 rebels and that they would be eradicated from Kivu District. But was that the case? At the  the end of August The Observer reported that a small group of M23 officers had been invited to Kampala, Uganda to enter into an important meeting with President Museveni and that the meeting had actually taken place. Although details of the meeting are still not known, Museveni was said to have called on the M23 leaders to agree to a ceasefire and enter into formal peace negotiations.

Then leaders from 11 nations in the Central and East Africa region, including the DR Congo and Rwanda  met in the Ugandan capital of Kampala on August 5th to discuss the formation of a neutral force composed of soldiers from several of those countries that would regulate the Great Lakes Region as well as establish an international committee of defense ministers whose charge would be to devise a solution to the escalating conflict in the north-eastern DR Congo, specifcally the Great Lakes District by the end of the week.

More than 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes by this ongoing conflict but most are Tutsi who have left their homes to avoid the local Mai-Mai miltia and FDLR ( Hutu guerillas ) in the north east- Kivu. UN refugee workers have interviewed Tutsi families staying in the camps in both Rwanda and Uganda and many have no intention of returning to their old villages because of the violence they have been subjected to by their neighbors. Now why doesn’t The Human Rights Watch report about that?

As I have warned before in several of my previous blogs postings, there has been a great deal of ethnic violence in this area for some time now, most of it against Tutsis, and it could escalate to genocide if the villagers are left alone. This is what the M23 has been fighting for: to find a way to stop the ethnic discrimination and protect the Tutsi communities in North Kivu. Hopefully this international committee of defense ministers will think of a way to bring together all of these warring tribes and stem the murders of innocent people. The M23 soldiers fight for this as well.

What is true and what is staged is hard to know for sure at this point in time but based on what I know is going on in this region at the moment it looks like the  M23 troops may just be the good guys in all of this tumoil and the only ones who are truly looking out for the people.

Kat Nickerson                 Kingston.          RI          USA