Mbuji Mayi: First Step in the DR Congo’s Diamond Trail

26 May
The City Imbuji  Mayi

Mbuji Mayi : The City of Diamonds

According to the United States Geological Survey the DR Congo has “around $24 trillion dollars US worth of untapped deposits of raw mineral ores, including the largest reserves of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s diamonds, gold and copper in the world.”

“The DR Congo was the second-largest producer of natural industrial diamonds in the world and accounted for about 5.5 percent of all gemstone production in 2012.  Last year, the country produced about 20 million carats, down from 29 million carats in 2006,” according to Central Bank. How can a country that holds most of the diamonds in the world underneath its surface and in its waterways continue to be the home of so many poor people? Read along with me as I retell the history of Mbuji Mayi.

Mbuji Mayi (pronounced “m’bu-jee, mee”) is a strange utilitarian settlement located on the Sanhuru River that’s sole purpose is to uncover and sell diamonds. It’s about as practical and unpretentious as its name which in the local Tshiluba language means “goat water” probably because prior to the discovery of diamonds there in 1907 there was not much else but herds of goats and the river. Currently it is the third largest city in the entire Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the capital of Kasai Oriental Province but still remains an isolated section of the country which had developed its own unique culture and political climate removed from modern-day Kinshasa and the rest of the provinces. Located in the southern region of the country and set squarely in the middle its terrain as well as its climate especially its torrential rains are harsh and has made it almost impossible to successfully build and maintain paved, passable roads connecting it to other parts of the country. The population ebbs and flows like the river based on the ever-changing business of diamonds but as of 2013 according to the city’s loose, unofficial census, it is somewhere between 1,500,000 and 4,000,000 people.

If Mbuji Mayi is composed of lack-luster houses and huge industrial complexes spread out in a haphazard, unstructured way it’s because it was never meant to be a large city in the first place. It was not established as a real city like Kinshasa or Kisangani and lacks the imposing European architecture and stately treed avenues established by the Belgians when the country was ruled by them as the Belgian Congo.  Originally called Bakwanga, this city was and would always be a mining camp controlled by the company in charge, who made and enforced the rules for everyone and everything in the area. The first mining operation was named the Societe Minere de Bakawanga (MIBA). This corporation built Mbuji Mayi and orchestrated every detail in how life in the mining camp would play out. There was no free movement within and around Mbuji Mayi and people not associated with the mine were openly discouraged from settling in the area and physically driven out by security teams. Its rigid policies created more of an enslaved labor camp than not even though its workers received salaries. In order to enter or leave the area all of the workers needed to be issued permits and there were monitored gates leading in and out of the area where everyone was required to register by signing their names in an official log book. Merchants who were not connected to the operation were not allowed not to conduct business in or around the camp and the company did not hire on site but sent out recruitment agents who filled its employment quotas from other provinces escorting the new workers and their families back with them. The mining authorities deliberately kept the total population “ manageable” and it was still only about 40,000 well into the 1950’s.  The entire operation was based on the Belgians’ “ New Social Experiments”. (Read my May 7, 2012 Blog for more information)

By the 1960’s Mbuji Mayi ( still called Bakwanga) began to grow rapidly after Congolese independence in the 1960’s  and people from other sections of the country were now free to immigrate into this area. For a short period of time, a Luba tribal chief, declared the Kasai region its own independent nation and naming himself emperor  began ruling the province but was arrested twice and finally imprisoned by the National Congolese Army ( ANC). By 1965 the president of the newly- formed Republic of the Congo ( Leopoldville) Mobutu Sese Seko continued to closely monitor the revenues earned from the government’s mine but took no active interest in its day to day operations. By 1971 the country’s name was changed to Zaire but there were no changes at the mine and it continued to operate as before.

And then in 1986 Jonas  Nzemba was appointed the Chief Operating Officer(CEO) of the Societe Minere de Bakawanga (MIBA) ultimately becoming  the most influential leader in the region. Along with running the  mine he began to provide for the region in ways that the government would not by paying soldiers’ back-wages, repairing roads, and trying to stabilize an extremely fragile infrastructure in order to supply electricity and fresh water to the entire population of the city. But to do so he had to take care of the current president of the country paying Mobuto upwards of two million US dollars per month to keep the dictator appeased and out of his way.

Nzemba was an effective leader with a heart who stood by the Congolese people in the newly- named city of  Mbuji Mayi when other corrupt government officials looked out only for themselves. He survived as the government changed hands between two wars and three presidents into becoming one of the most respected men in the region. By the time he had left his position he had formed an economic development group to guide growth in the area and helped establish the University of Kasai. Nzemba became such an influential and highly respected politician that he ran for president against Joseph Kabila during the 2006 presidential elections. He lost that election but in his province of Kasai he is still remains their –“main man.”

But Nzemba and MIBA could not keep an entire city running efficiently by themselves and the Congolese government although it continued to take millions out of the mine in revenues each month put almost nothing back into the city’s coffers. The government that had taken  millions in revenues out of the mine refused to invest anything back into the city’s infrastructure and the lack of maintenance became so bad that the state-run power plant was permanently out of commission by 1990, leaving the only source of power, the small hydroelectric plant run by MIBA. The poorly maintained roads also eroded way under the torrential rains until in 1991 there was only about 19.7 kilometers of paved roads inside the city. The university buildings were in ill-repair and people reverted back to the “old” methods in order to light and heat their homes such as candles, kerosene lamps, and charcoal stoves.

In time the MIBA was given a new title Societe Congolaise d’Investissement Minier Sprl ( SCIM) but that did not increase their profits. By January 2007 a report issued by the mine itself claimed that their export totals had fallen by 80% making it impossible for them to pay their miners and their suppliers. And a host of other bogus mining companies many from India absconded with their mining profits without paying taxes leaving the people of Mbuji Mayi doubly bereft.  SCIM stated that they exported only 545,000 diamonds from June to December 2006 as compared to 2.5 million diamonds in June to December 2005. The injustice of it all caused the angry, unpaid miners to riot and destroy some of the more expensive machinery the mine had just invested heavily in to help turn things around. Then a miners’ strike shut operations down completely until the company paid its workers months of back wages using an $11 million loan to do so. By the time the mine began producing again they had only managed to collect 100,000 carats per month and so by 2008 the MIBA/SCIM, of which 20% was currently owned by the London-based firm Mwana – Africa, closed its doors $7.7 million US dollars in debt. In 2011 the company’s representatives visited Cape Town, South Africa looking for between 150-200 million in investment capital in order to renew it mining operations once more.

But in order to reach its full production potential, MIBA/ SCIM had to first solve its chronic energy problems and in order to succeed it needed vast amounts of electricity with which to power its advanced machinery. In the past it had been using diesel generators to power these machines which did not produce the voltage needed to run the newer models of diggers and their fuel was subject to sudden price increases.

Only new hydroelectric plants would generate the power to run the machinery that would clear the diamonds from the ground.  The power plants currently operating at Mbuji Mayi run at only 25% capacity and the electrical current is undependable under optimal conditions. It would cost millions to bring the city and the mine into the twentieth, let alone the twenty-first century.

But maybe things are not as grim as they seem. According to Bloomberg, in the spring of this year a joint venture between the Chinese Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group and the government of the DR Congo could save the DR Congo industrial diamond industry producing upwards of 6 million carats a year by 2016.  Anhui has agreed to pay $4.2 million then a signing bonus of $61 million, and what’s more has committed to investing at least $100 million in the city’s infrastructure especially in the development of electrical power plants.

The mine will be called the Societe Anhui- Congo d’Investissement Minier Sprl( SACIM) and will eventually be listed on one of the world’s stock exchangesThe mine has been granted two exploration permits located about 30 miles outside of Mbuji Mayi. The company has already determined that there is a large diamond reserve of about 158 million carats in this area. And Anhui has agreed to construct a 4.6- megawatt hydropower plant next to the mine as well as help the DR Congo secure a loan from the Chinese government to build another 15-megawatt hydroelectric plant and a new road leading into to Mbuji Mayi.

This may not seem like a big deal to the rest of us but between the infusion of paying jobs, the increase in the flow of a stable electricity, and dependable roads in the area this new mining venture could just be what the residents of Mbuji Mayi need to increase their quality of life one hundred fold- literally bringing them out of the “dark” ages and into the light. And maybe this time around the government- operated mine will use its profits for more than lining the pockets of the  politicians in Kinshasa?

Kat Nickerson    Kingston, RI     USA

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