by Joseph Sannicandro

As entertainment obessed consumers, we rarely ever think about where things come from, let alone the hidden costs of production.  How is it that ethnic violence in central Africa has anything to do, causally, with my owning an iPhone or playing videogames?


The ravages of ethnic violence in the Congo, and in virtually any post-colonial region, did not originate internally, at least not wholly, but were the results of outside intervention(s). The area surrounding the Congo River was the last region of the African continent to be explored by Europeans and subsequently colonized. First explored in 1867 by Henry Morton Stanley, the history of Congo’s exploitation only grows with time. Stanley, (whose lines after finding Dr. Livingstone, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” became world famous, and a relationship which gave rise to the Marlow and Kurtz characters in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), left from Zanzibar, a British colony at the time, found the Dr., and then sailed over 1,000 miles down the Lualaba.

By 1885, the year of the Berlin Convention and the “carving up of Africa” that you may recall from high school history class, thousands had been killed and many thousands sold into slavery via the markets of Zanzibar, and the area of Congo remained the “Congo Free State,” the personal property of Belgian King Leopold II.  Leopold was the sole shareholder and manager of the property, administrating it through a shell-NGO (in order to keep it in his private control) and exploiting it for its rubber, copper, and other resources, eventually gaining widespread infamy for its brutal treatment of the local people despite the declared intentions of development and “lifting up” the people. (Echoes with modern development rhetoric shouldn’t have to be pointed out.)

The Belgian government annexed the territory in 1908 making it the Belgian Congo. Of course colonialism didn’t resolve the problems, as European settlement brought with it arbitrary borders and a disregard for preexisting social structures and ethnic difference. The colonial period improved on the conditions of producing rubber that had provoked outrage, but conditions were still largely exploitative and forced labor continued. Congolese men also fought in both world wars against other European, German, and Italian colonial armies in East Africa. Though colonial education systems taught regional languages in primary school (such as Swahili, and important lingua franca in Africa’s south-eastern coastal countries), French quickly became the dominant language.

In 1960, independence from Belgium was achieved. Political conflict early on resulted in the United States and other foreign powers choosing sides, supporting the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, leader of the party that helped earned independence. The US and other western powers economically backed the army mutiny and military coup of Mobutu Sese Seku, who eventually renamed the country Zaire in 1971. Seku was supported by the US because of his staunch anti-communist beliefs, but for this reason his incredible human rights abuses, dictatorial one-party authoritarian state, and widespread and rampant corruption were ignored. Of course, Mobutu also allowed access to the coveted copper and diamond minds. Decades of corruption resulted in Mobuto controlling a private fortune roughly equal to the national debt.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the US no longer felt a need to supportMobuto. Following the genocide in eastern neighbour Rwanda, as well as an influx of refugees from the Great Lakes crisis, Rwandan Hutu militias- those who had carried out the genocide- fled to Eastern Congo, emboldening ethnically Hutu Congolese to war with Congolese Tutsis, eventually leading to a bloody war. Mobutu fled Zaire in ’97, yet the two wars from 1996-1998 and 1998-2003 (and still ongoing) would go on to become the bloodiest conflict since World War II, including six foreign nations allied with the government that replaced Mobuto fighting against rebels in the east and invasions by Rwanda and Uganda. These two wars, to topple Mobuto’s government and the subsequent fighting afterwards, are often referred to as the African World War.

These conflicts also have another name. The Coltan War. Coltan is a mineral that is necessary for electronic devices such as cellphones and PlayStations, as it is capable of reaching high temperatures while remaining effective. An estimated 80% of the worlds coltan is found in central Africa. By the ’90s, the demand for this mineral had peaked, causing profits to skyrocket. Therefore control of the coltan mines was lucrative, and sales of coltan directly funded the wars that raged throughout the Congo. Many of the foreign nations that came to Congo’s aid were involved because of their own stakes in the Congolese mining, and many other conflicts, such as the Angolan Civil War, were funded by mining. In fact, despite the peace treaty that allegedly ended the fighting in 2003, militias, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda who control an estimated 20% of the mines. In addition to this are unofficial “taxes” or bribes paid by official mining operations. By purchasing minerals from them, and arguably the products made from them, we are in effect aiding a terrorist organization, and helping one of the groups that carried out the Rwandan genocide attain wealth to relocate. They’ve also continued to systematically rape women for the purpose of intimidation and public humiliation, so that the Eastern Congo now has the highest occurrence of rape in the world. That is, all of us who have purchased a cell phone or many other electronic devices have contributed to financing this war and to the group that carried out the terrible atrocities in Rwanda. More recently mobile telephony has aided many in sub-Saharan Africa in many ways, yet the origin and conflicts over this mineral should not be forgotten, nor the ravages it continues to exert on the nation of DR Congo.

“Congo’s war is often linked, in vague terms, to the mineral trade, but here in Luntukulu, it is easy to see exactly how it works: the industry is essentially unregulated, smuggling is simple to do and rife, and no one has any incentive to try to drive the armed militias out of the business. “The armed groups are all involved in mining – even our Congolese armed forces,” sighed Juvenal Nyamugusha, who heads the provincial mining ministry.” (Globe & Mail)

Further, the links to foreign mining companies and the products they make is also not so ambiguous.

The coltan makes its way out of the mines to “trading posts” which are taxed or controlled by the rebels. Foreign traders then buy the mineral and ship it abroad, mostly through Rwanda. “All of it winds up bought by just three companies – Cabot Inc. of the United States, Germany’s HC Starc and China’s Nigncxia – the only firms with processing plants to turn coltan into the coveted tantalum powder. The “magic powder” is then sold to Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Ericsson and Sony for use in a wide assortment of everyday products.” (Seeing Is Believing)

See my interview over at SSG Music with Nickie Shapira, CEO of AKONic Productions, about her show Vodacom Superstar, essentially a Congolese version of x-Factor.  I explain the connections between mobile telephony, mining, and the Western entertainment industry’s cultural imperialism, as well as the potential for art to form cultural bonds and establish a national identity.  I also make some recommendations for good Congolese music, such as the Congotronics series on the Crammed label.

Most importantly, we need to realize that this sort of exploitation is not accidental, but a deeply ingrained part of how capitalism has always functioned.  Art should never be allowed to become a distraction.

Further Reading:

Prevalence of Rape in E. Congo Described as Worst in World By Stephanie McCrummen

Where repairing rape damage is an expertise by Stephanie Nolen

Anti-rape funds in Congo wasted: critics by GEOFFREY YORK

Every hour, 48 women raped in Congo, study finds by RUKMINI CALLIMACHI

“Rape again rampant in Congo.” Globe & Mail (Toronto) by STEPHANIE NOLEN

Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN

Congo Study Sets Estimate for Rapes Much Higher By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN

How rebels profit from blood and soil by STEPHANIE NOLEN

Hazardous trucking in DR Congo  Risking it All, al Jazeera

Some ways you can help:

Heal Africa


Women for women international


One response to “Congo, Coltan, and Colonialism”

  1. […] a long and complicated history, and I encourage you to read more yourself. Here is a more detailed version of the above history, and see links go recent news coverage at the end […]

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