China’s Deal in the DR Congo: Rape or Revitalization?

10 Oct

Congo, Conkouati National Park, 2007
In the Cotovindou logging concession a Congolese worker for the Chinese timber company Sicofor saws down a 22-meter moabi tree that will be loaded the same day on a truck bound for Pointe Noire. From there it will be sent to China. It will probably end up as luxury furniture. Moabi takes about hundred years to reach maturity. In the Congo forest elephants and Moabi could disappear at the same time. Moabi has been included in the red list of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) in 2004.

According to the most current UNEP report, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) holds almost 24 trillion US dollars in the raw materials: copper, cobalt, and coltran as well as millions of dollars in gold underneath its land but was designated as the world’s poorest country by the International Monetary Fund ( IMF, 2012). “The Congo is the 5th leading producer of tungsten and 6th of tin, holds 5% of the world’s copper and 50% of cobalt. Moreover the Congo possesses an estimated 80% of all known coltan which, refined as tantalum, is a vital component in the phone and computer industry.” ( WPI, 2012) This country is also one of the largest and poorest countries in the world with a history of war, murder, and violence unsurpassed on the continent. One would think that this excess of valuable resources would be used to improve the lives of its 71 million people but that has not been the case beginning with Leopold, King of Belgium who managed to kill over ten million residents of his Congo State in thirteen years.

According to Nathan Myer of the World Policy Institute ( WPI.com), July 20, 2012 “the DR Congo ranks last on the UN’s human development index and Transparency International’s 2011 corruption perception index ranks Congo at 168, tied with Libya. Average life expectancy is less than 48 years. One in five children will die before five years of age. 60% of the country lives on less than $1.25 per day. More than 400,000 women a year are victims of rape. And most recently members of the pygmy tribes have been cooked and eaten by assorted militia groups as a way to assure success in battle.”

Many years ago when I first came to Kenya in June of 2005, I was formally introduced to an English doctor who had lived most of his life in East Africa helping the people in the slums by working in one of the many free clinics located within the slums of Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa. After we had gotten our initial greeting out of the way and were standing together on one of the many narrow pathways in Kibera, I went on to ask him what his take was on the most crucial problems facing East Africa in the next twenty years. He resolutely told me two things: One, that the people in these slums of East Africa were suppose to die of AIDS or we, the people of the west, would have already created a vaccine to cure them by now and Two: that China would eventually take over the continent of Africa and steal its raw materials from under the African people.

I must admit that I walked away from him thinking he was a bit daft in the head. I could understand the rationale behind his first statement but his second prediction was absurd. Well, I must say that seven years later and many more experiences in the countries of Uganda and Kenya have led me to believe that he was absolutely correct in his analysis of the two situations especially China’s secret occupation of Africa. His words have resonated in my head more than anyone else’s thoughts about the situation in Central and East Africa and if I ever meet him again, I owe him a sincere apology.

He knew way back then what I know now; that China’s ubiquitous presence can be found in every country in East and Central Africa especially in those countries like the DR Congo that have faced war or famine but still have a wealth of raw materials and natural resources in the land. But you won’t find these Chinese emissaries from China in the cities and villages unless you look long and very carefully. They do not live with the East African people but keep themselves locked away in hidden facilities surrounded by ten to twenty feet walls and security guards who patrol as if these were military facilities -which they very well may be. When the Chinese executives do go out in public they travel together in cars equipped with smoked windows accompanied by other cars containing armed security guards in front and back. They do not mingle with the African businessmen socially and do not frequent the African restaurants or shops around their settlements. They stay behind their high walls and live as if they still resided in China. I remember observing one of these settlements last year off of the national highway on the way from Kampala to Ginja, Uganda. It was a large settlement surrounded by twenty foot walls and topped by a sign written in Chinese letters. It might have been the friendliest place in the world but looked totally secretive and foreboding to me. These type of settlements do nothing to endear the Chinese who hide inside these walls to the Ugandan people.

And this makes it most difficult for the few Chinese shop keepers who live openly around East and Central Africa and try to earn a living each day in the local markets or who have established their own Chinese restaurants. It upsets Kenyan and Ugandan friends of mine who think it very rude of them to stay in another person’s country and not get to know him or her and they’re right. I only met Chinese business representatives of the Chinese government once and that was at an American Rotarian Party held on the Fourth of July, 2007 and they did not mingle with the rest of the guests, American, English, or African but stood off in a group by themselves over in one of the back corners of the banquet hall.

One of my Kenyan cab drivers confided in me one day while driving me to Nairobi that he did not like or trust the Chinese and that on the weekend he and his buddies would get drunk and  drive around to see if they could find some Chinese out on the streets of Nairobi.

“Why” I asked.

“Because we’d beat them up good if we found them.”

“But why would you do that?” I persisted trying to understand his motivation for harming them.

“Because they just keep bowing and smiling at us but they won’t talk to us,” he responded.  “They look down on us and then think that they are better than we are. They want to make our country theirs.”

“Unfortunately,he blamed the poor Chinese shop keepers who are not responsible for any of this. They do mingle with the Kenyans and are not connected in any way to the corporations managed by the Chinese executives who represent the Chinese government. I have been told by many  friends in Kenya and Uganda about how the Chinese provide money and support for any projects that improve the infrastructure in East African countries like roads and wells but will not give money to help out the local people. They may build the hospitals but they will not staff them nor will they stock these medical facilities with the proper medicines or supplies.

So it will come as no surprise when I recount some of their other exploitations especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In 2008 China talked President Joseph Kabila president of the country and son of the man who took over the DR Congo from its previous dictator, to agree to exchange 9 billion US dollars worth of much needed infrastructure to connect the country by road and train for millions of tons of copper and cobalt ore through the establishment of a co-owned mining corporation between the DR Congo and China. Kabila was either desperate, greedy, or naïve enough to convince his government to sign this agreement even though the northeast region of his country in which these ores are found, is far from stable.

But it didn’t take long before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found the entire agreement objectionable and forced China to renegotiate the deal in May of 2009. China’s initial $9 billion investment was later amended by the IMF to $6 billion with half to the creation of the mine and half to infrastructure projects. The IMF was suspicious of China’s motives from the beginning and thought of the agreement as pure theft of the Congolese people’s raw materials under the guise of assistance.

The deal involved China’s  Eximbank, owned by the government of China. It would provide the 3 million dollars US necessary to establish the mine in Katanga province, DR Congo. Then it would invest another 6 billion US dollars in projects that would improve infrastructure of the DR Congo, the most important of which would be the creation of highways connecting the country from end to end and the repair and maintenance of existing roadways. The money lent to the DR Congo would be repaid to Eximbank from the profit earned by the SICO Mines co-owned by the China and the DR Congo as it extracted 10 million tons of copper and 600,000 tons of cobalt from its Katanga mine.

The DR Congo initially protested the IMF’s decision but is already in debt to the IMF for millions of dollars so in the end it consented to the change in the total amount from 9 to 6 million dollars US.

And China is no stranger to these type of negotiations. Their deal with the DRC is just more of the same. In 2004 China approved a $2 billion public investment package for Angola and in 2006 struck a $3 billion deal with Gabon that would be invested in infrastructure projects such as dams, railroads, and ports in return for their iron ore reserves. In 2009 it made similar deals with Guinea and Zimbabwe for $7 and $8 billion respectively by trading their mineral wealth for Chinese investment in their infrastructures. Sound familiar?

But in the end China’s deal with the DR Congo may totally backfire and they may get pushed out by some very nasty warlords before their new mine shows any real profits. North and South Kivu Districts located in the northeast region of the country are the areas in which the largest mineral and gold deposits have been found. And these regions are still violent, lawless places where might makes right and the man with the gun makes all the rules.  The causes of the First and Second Wars in the Congo have yet to be resolved and Uganda as well as Rwanda may just put a monkey-wrench in China’s investment plans. According to the United Nations Development Fund (UNDF, 2012) over 50% of the mines in these districts are controlled by armed forces, many of them members of the Congolese national army and people’s militias which employ extortion, forced labor, and murder to ensure removal and transport of the minerals. Does China really think that it is going to be allowed to establish its own operation there when such enormous sums of money are at stake??

A CNN expose on eastern Congo’s claimed that armed groups such as these enslave the residents of this area and generate some 180 million dollars through the illicit sale of tin, coltan, tungsten, and gold which are easily transported across the Ugandan and Rwandan borders then purchased by international dealers. The country of Uganda is currently credited with the highest sales of gold in all of Central Africa yet has no gold mines of its own? Surprising? This shows the rate of illegal trade connected to these mines. With this much money to be made no existing operations, illegal or not, are going to sit idly by and watch China move in to claim these minerals for themselves. The Chinese will have to fight long and hard to establish themselves in the Kivus and fight even harder to hold on to their mined ore as they try to ship it back to China.

Congo’s eastern frontier is still an ongoing battleground that has claimed over 500,000 lives per year and caused over 1.5 million people to uproot and move to refugees camps in Uganda and Rwanda in order to escape the slaughter. With the M3 rebellion in full swing and the tensions between Rwanda and the Congo over the existence of the Hutu extremists in the Congo rising, a Third Congo War could break out at any time. And what would happen to China’s good intentions and civic  projects then?  China needs to rethink its investment policies and its previous methods of absconding with the mineral wealth of certain African countries. Until then, it will continue to appear the bully bent on taking advantage of vulnerable third world countries in need of a friend.

Kat Nickerson                    Kingston, RI     USA  

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