A group of fighters wearing the uniform of the Congolese national army have taken charge of the lucrative mines in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and are oppressing civilians, new research by Global Witness has found.
In recent investigations in the provinces of North and South Kivu, the campaign group discovered that former rebels from the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) who were integrated into the national army, are running violent extortion rackets which prey on the civilian population they are supposed to be protecting.
For more than a decade, the country’s mineral wealth has provided a cash base to fuel conflict and encouraged complicity from neighbouring countries and other key players.
Last year, the UN joined the Congolese national army in a concerted push against the notorious rebels of the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) who controlled the mines.
The joint offensives, which resulted in shockingly high civilian casualties, broke the FDLR’s stranglehold over many lucrative mining areas.
A predominantly Rwandan Hutu armed group, some of whose leaders allegedly participated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the FDLR has been committing atrocities against the civilians of the DRC for a decade.
It has waged a campaign of extreme sexual violence against women in eastern Congo, and is also guilty of murder, extortion, recruitment of child soldiers and employing forced labour.
Brigades largely made up of former CNDP fighters are also in charge of Bisie, the largest tin-ore mine in eastern Congo.Until recently it was held by another Congolese army brigade, also guilty of numerous abuses and violence against civilians.
Mineral exploitation and trade in the DRC has proven so lucrative that it has become almost an end in itself for all warring parties — from the official national army brigades to the numerous and shape-shifting rebel coalitions.
The UN Security Council recently passed a resolution allowing for asset freezes and travel bans to be imposed on companies and individuals that support armed groups in eastern Congo through the mineral trade.
Previous Global Witness and UN Group of Experts reports have named companies including the British-owned Amalgamated Metals Corporation (AMC) and Malaysian Smelting Corporation Berhad (MSC), the world’s fourth-largest tin smelter, as buying from middlemen who trade with armed groups.
Although AMC says it has now ceased buying from eastern Congo, Global Witness research shows that MSC continues to source from the country without carrying out investigations to ensure it is not providing funds to men with guns.
Governments such as the UK, US, France, Belgium, Malaysia and Thailand need to act on UN resolutions and impose sanctions on companies that continue to act with impunity.
Global Witness met mine workers and saw the faces of brutality in the mines have changed but the reality for civilians is no less harrowing.
At one mine in South Kivu under the control of an army brigade led by former CNDP commanders, diggers – many of them children — are forced to pay $10 to the military for permission just to work a night in the mineshafts. Failure to pay up leads to a whipping – and then the soldiers rob them anyway.
In some areas of North Kivu, former CNDP commanders are running a parallel administration, levying illegal taxes and stockpiling profits that they could use to buy more weapons.
This is more than isolated violence — it is a systematic extortion racket designed to maximise profit and consolidate power.
And given the CNDP’s history of reverting to violent rebellion when they don’t get what they want, the ability to build this cash base threatens hopes for peace.
The brutal violence and lawlessness of the eastern DRC may seem a long way from the polished electronic consumer products we see in shop windows and magazines.
But Congo’s minerals wouldn’t be attractive to those fighting if they didn’t have access to a ready international market.
Despite growing international pressure to clean up their act, multinational companies are still trading with middlemen who buy directly from militarised mines.
The raw materials found in abundance in the eastern DRC, such as cassiterite (tin ore), wolframite (the ore for tungsten) and coltan, end up in laptops and mobile phones all over the world.
Tungsten is the substance that makes our mobile phones vibrate. Coltan is a source of tantalum, used in the manufacture of capacitors, which regulate voltage and store energy in mobile phones.
The DRC supplies about five per cent of global production of tin ore, almost half of which will be used in the electronics industry.
Electronics companies profess helplessness in the face of complex local conditions and wave paperwork from suppliers as evidence of efforts to prove that their metal purchases are not funding armed groups. But such claims do not bear scrutiny.
The extortion rackets run by rebels, former rebels and national army soldiers are well-organised but are neither hidden nor complex.
Information on the origin of the minerals companies are buying — and what is being done to obtain them — is common knowledge in the eastern DRC and easily accessible to traders in neighbouring countries.
Electronics companies make millions of dollars selling products built from these minerals.
If they do not want to be complicit in sustaining the horrific conflict which has claimed so many lives and ruined others, they must get better at tracing and controlling their supply chains to ensure that they are not — wittingly or unwittingly — purchasing minerals that have benefited rebel groups and the army.
This means not just obtaining documentary evidence of mine of origin from suppliers but also conducting their own field investigations to verify who controls the mines and supply routes and whether illegal taxes have been imposed at any stage.
Independent auditors should be brought in to ensure the companies’ own checks are credible.
A corrupt and militarised mineral trade — facilitated from the top to the bottom of the supply chain by self-interest and a willingness to turn a blind eye — will continue to wreak havoc on innocent lives in eastern Congo and destabilise a country that is so desperately in need of peace.
But as the public and the international community wake up to the hidden cost of mobile phones, looking the other way will become harder.
The introduction of responsible sourcing practices would allow the global demand for mobiles to drive development and prosperity, rather than bankrolling destruction.
By holding the companies involved in this trade to account, we can transform resource wealth from a curse into a catalyst.