The political economy of carnage in central Africa

May 12, 2023
9 mins read
Image credit: Julien Harneis(Wikicommons)

The region of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to the longest war in modern history, with nearly six million dead over two decades. This article takes a critical look at the incentives that keep this war ongoing, including the fight for minerals meant for the green transition. I want to show readers how our top-down ecological approach hurts people in the DRC, and that their migration to other places in Africa and beyond is seen as an infringement of European sensibilities. By following the supply chain we can parse out how Congolese people are mistreated both in their homes and then abroad when they try to escape the violence pushed on them

The European Union has been embroiled in a civil war of sorts over new emission standards for cars. The new initiative called Euro 7 would create EU-wide laws towards a reduction in air pollution for all types of combustion engines. The new Euro 7 emission standards are the latest laws attempting to clean up the pollution caused by the automobile industry. But Euro 7 goes further than any other plan. Unlike the previous standard, Euro 7 will now also account for particulate matter created by the tires and brakes of vehicles. This caused many within the EU to oppose the new initiative, the car industry worries that these laws with have a major impact on their bottom line. According to the Belgium Times:

“By 2035, new vehicles on the EU market will need to reduce their CO2 emissions by 100%. The car lobby has repeatedly pushed back against these plans, arguing that advancements in the accessibility of electric vehicles need to be made before such a ban can take place.”

The car industry, environmentalists, politicians and everyday people are very much set on the idea of a green transition to electric vehicles, trains, devices etc. The growing movement towards electrification is seen as an answer to pollution and climate change. Seen from this lens electrification is good for people and the planet, but very few take the time to consider how electrification is driving the War in the DRC.

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been ongoing since 1998 and has taken a devastating toll on the country and its citizens. The conflict is fuelled by a number of factors, including mineral resources, geopolitical interests, and ethnic divisions. It has resulted in an estimated 5.4 million deaths, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in modern history. The war has had far-reaching consequences for Africa as a whole. It has destabilized the region and caused immense suffering for innocent civilians caught up in the conflict. It is also seen as an example of how powerful nations can exploit weaker ones for their own gain, with mineral resources being at the heart of this exploitation. The green revolution has increased the focus on the DRC as a main supplier of the raw materials that go into our electric batteries. We use those batteries for electric cars, bicycles, phones etc. Cobalt is an essential mineral used in the production of electric batteries, and its extraction is becoming increasingly important. As demand for electric vehicles rises, so too does the need for cobalt. 

Extracting cobalt from these mineral deposits requires sophisticated technology and a deep understanding of the geological conditions of the area. This process has been dangerous and damaging to the environment. On top of that are all the human costs of war involved in the cobalt supply chain. To end the world’s deadliest conflict It is important that all stakeholders involved take responsible steps to ensure that cobalt extraction is done safely and sustainably. Yet the DRC continues to be a place that infringes on the human rights of those who live there. 

The history of carnage

Congo’s political and economic system has remained generally unchanged since its colonization by Belgium in the late 19th century. Like much of Africa, Europe exploited the land within the DRC to supply their growing capitalist economies with raw materials like gold, tin, rubber, and now cobalt. Control over resources meant military occupation of the land and the creation of a servile indigenous population. In this early era of imperialism, violence was direct as authorities in Belgium used violence and the threat of violence to wage war on the people within Congo. An infamous form of violence committed in this era was amputation. Colonial officials were known to cut off the limbs of any indigenous peoples who would not work in rubber plantations or did not work hard enough. 

Even after independence was achieved in 1960, rubber production continued to be a major source of conflict in the Congo, and as time went on new resources were added to the list of extractive economies in the DRC. The growth of exports in things like gold and cobalt shifted capitalists’ focus to the eastern part of Congo, especially the Katanga region. Bordered by Rwanda, this region lay on the periphery of the Rwandan pre-colonial state. In Rwanda, the colonial state found the Kingdom of Rwanda to have a political and economic system not unfamiliar to their own monarchy. Using the centralized monarchy as an arm of the state the colonial authorities began a process of tribalization, putting extra importance on ethnicity by formalizing identification among the three different Rwandan tribal identities. When Rwanda was granted independence the tribal animosity that was flamed by the colonial state grew and years of successive attacks culminated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, where up to 900,000 Rwandans were killed, most of them identified as Tutsi and a good number were also their Hutu allies. 

In an effort to bring perpetrators of the genocide to justice, RPF leader turned president of Rwanda Paul Kagame led successive campaigns into the Katanga and Kivu regions of eastern Congo. The nation has reportedly been aiding rebel groups to depose longtime Congolese strongman Mobutu in 1997. Massacres, skirmishes, cleanses and other atrocities continue to violate the rights of people in the region as different groups vie for control of the natural resources in the region.

Belgian Congo Katanga copper mine. Image source: Wikicommons

The supply chain of carnage

Today when Europeans or Americans ask for sustainability they are calling on the DRC to supply them with the resources to propel their green revolution. The process of extracting and exporting these resources is a carbon copy of the political-economic processes that drove carnage in the colonial period. While European powers could not inflict direct violence without repercussions, the supply chain from cobalt to Tesla is imbued with what Johan Galtung calls structural violence. In his work A Structural Theory of Imperialism Galtung defines structural violence as: “the way that social structures and social institutions may cause harm to individuals by depriving them of basic needs.”

The confluence of actors and incentives has kept the Congolese people in a perpetual cycle of violence as stakeholders try to ‘take the land but leave the people’. The supply chain created to mine cobalt is the social structure that imbues violence and deprives people of safety and opportunity.

Supply chain networks

Today the cobalt supply chain goes through a more complex system of networks and stakeholders than during the colonial period. These middlemen are meant to distance companies like Samsung or Tesla from the violence inflicted to make their products. Each step brings new players that steal more value and dignity from the everyday citizens in the region. 

Land Grabbers: Fighting between the Congolese army and M23, a rebel group in eastern Congo, has flared up after a peace agreement was signed in 2013. As of Feb. 27, M23 rebels reportedly took control of the Rubaya mining town, located west of Sake and Goma. Reports by the DRC government and several UN officials link the Rwandan government to the rebel group and say the government is providing them with resources as the group marches towards the regional capital of Goma, seizing land connected to the profitable resource extraction industry. If M23 can control the lucrative area then the rebel group and its backers can get stinking rich. Groups like M23 and others kill indiscriminately and hire locals to join militias, including the use of child soldiers.

Artisanal miners: Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and at the Kennedy School, has been researching modern-day slavery, human trafficking and child labour for two decades. He says that although the DRC has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the planet combined, there’s no such thing as a “clean” supply chain of cobalt from the country. In his new book, Cobalt Red, Kara writes that much of the DRC’s cobalt is extracted by so-called “artisanal” miners — freelance workers who do extremely dangerous labour for the equivalent of just a few dollars a day. In regions like Katanga, there are very few opportunities and so people are forced into these horrible conditions for minuscule pay. Not only are the conditions dangerous, but workers must contend with mining in regions embroiled in war, poverty and environmental degradation.

Child labor and artisan mining in Kailo, Congo. Image credit: Julien Harneis (Wikicommons).

Traders: Artisanal miners have no option but to use middlemen in places like Rwanda and Burundi to sell their illegal minerals. A confidential report given to Reuters calls out the individual Rwandan traders for helping fuel the growth of illegal artisanal mining in eastern Congo. The report adds that while the DRC has put in place requirements to ensure conflict-free minerals, many minerals are smuggled into neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi. Currently, Rwanda does have a tagging system for minerals where all minerals must have an official tag, but the report confirms that tags are routinely sold in order to falsely certify their conflict-free origin. The legality of Rwanda’s mineral exports is in question even based on their own numbers. Citing Rwandan government data, found that from 2010 to 2011 Rwanda’s mineral exports jumped 62 percent compared with a 22 percent rise in domestic mining production. This is a lot for a country with little mineral wealth. Other UN reports also show criminal networks within the Congolese army are also involved in smuggling resources to illegal middlemen. 

Smelters: Chinese companies play a large role in the cobalt supply chain. These companies control 77% of the refining activities, giving them a massive monopoly over cobalt production. One of the largest companies at the centre of this trade is Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM). CDM is a 100% owned subsidiary of China-based Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company Ltd (Huayou Cobalt). According to Amnesty International CDM buys cobalt from traders, who buy directly from the miners. CDM then smelts the ore at its plant in the DRC before exporting it to China. There, Huayou Cobalt further smelts and sells the processed cobalt to battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. In turn, these companies sell to battery manufacturers, which then sell on to well-known consumer brands. Smelters are integral partners who tie the extraction of cobalt, to its manufacturing. Amnesty International and other organizations have found large instances of malpractice by these companies by failing to properly source their cobalt from legal and safe suppliers, instead, they take cobalt at the lowest price, often from rebel groups, criminal networks and other illegal suppliers.

Manufacturers: After smelting and transportation to China cobalt is then given to battery makers like Samsung and made into final products. On the most customer-facing side of the supply chain, groups like Tesla and Apple face much of scrutiny for the illegal cobalt trade and human rights abuses. A lawsuit against Apple, Google, Dell, Tesla and other major electronics manufacturers alleged these companies sourced their cobalt from companies that use child labour, including Huayou Cobalt. Working through suppliers allows companies to feign ignorance and pass the blame to downstream suppliers.

The confluence of government corruption, geopolitical tension, militia criminal networks and environmental collapse are leaving a country more war-torn than ever before, with little hope for change, especially as the demand for resources like cobalt only grows. The last time the DRC had a real political chance of improving their lot was at independence and the election of Patrice Lumumba, a well-loved figure in African history. Pledging to use the mineral wealth for the good of the people Lumumba was assassinated and made an example of with the help of the CIA. You see while Africans can play middlemen they are simply part of a system headed by power brokers.

In the 1960s it was European and American companies that used hard force in order to keep the profitability of resource extraction in the DRC. Today it is China that rules the electronic battery market. As the dominant manufacturer of electric vehicles and many more electric devices, China is the main driver of demand for cobalt in the DRC. About 70% of the refined cobalt market, and half of the battery market are owned by Chinese groups, and while they may not be plotting assassinations to get their way they are driving the carnage and poverty in the Congo as low-price buyers and human rights abusers. Even then western market players like Apple and Tesla are as important as nations in this supply chain. How these market monopolies act and whether they put serious investment into a healthy supply chain will define the war in Congo. As bad as it is now the demand for cobalt will only ensure this process gets worse. If we as a society are serious about upholding justice we need to act boldly to get the blood out of cobalt.

Likam Kyanzaire

Likam Kyanzaire is a writer and community advocate based in Canada. His work has been featured in several publications including the Stanford Social Innovation Review and Frame Media. His focus is on historical and political economy, especially in the developing world.

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