Let’s secure our minerals before lenders find ways of taking them

Sunday May 26 2024

The new digital world and of robots, mobiles, electric vehicles and AI wouldn’t be arriving so fast were it not for the minerals in Mobutu’s and Leopold’s former estate. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG


When Mark Twain famously (and rightly) advised us to buy land because “they no longer make it,” he omitted to add that they keep discovering new wealth under it. So, while the first robber of Congo in entirety — King Leopold — was content with the territory, timber, rubber and chopping a million hands off living humans, he died without even knowing the minerals in his land.

King Leopold’s eventual successor called Mobutu also enjoyed the wealth in his land, which he even renamed Zaire, thinking that gold, diamonds and uranium were the deal. By the time he lost the land and his life, he hadn’t heard of the coltan underneath.

His Inga Falls could have supplied all Western Europe’s electricity needs, but with more diamond and gold than he needed for his pleasures, why bother to build a damned dam!

Discoveries under the re-re-named DR Congo continue, and even the two Kabilas — father and son — may not have fathomed the extent of their new treasures now so sorely needed by the rich nations for the energy transition.

The new digital world and of robots, mobiles, electric vehicles and AI wouldn’t be arriving so fast were it not for the minerals in Mobutu’s and Leopold’s former estate.

So, land may be finite from Mark Twain’s perspective, but what is beneath its surface may still surprise generations to come. For instance, the amount of energy under the earth’s crust is mind-boggling, much of it is superhot water, the other is what they call radiogenic heat generated by decaying radioactive elements.


No individual person or entity should own those to tap for private profit even if they lie under the area covered by their certificate of title. That is why it is important to enact laws, like Uganda recently did, to protect the public ownership of those treasures lying down there, known and not yet known.

Land disputes world over should remind Ugandans to be proud of their government for the law that protects the minerals from private ownership.

Take Uganda’s latest collapse of what was arguably the largest real estate company. Before you start imagining that the company built a thousand apartment blocks and processed a million condominium titles, please be informed that in Uganda we do things a bit differently.

Here a “big” real estate company usually acquires a few acres of land, half the time on credit from an ageing owner, and proceeds to chop them into 10 to 17 plots per acre using ruler and pen on paper without as much as checking the coordinates, even as GPS has been available for two decades. Aspiring home owners pay for the plots quickly then the long journey processing certificates of title starts.

But, due to corruption and weak systems, you could get a case where a “real estate developer” sold plots to dozens of people but still kept the mother title, using it to secure a loan, and defaulting, leaving plot buyers holding the empty can.

It was rumoured that “big” property developers, after playing so many games, prudently befriended police officers in their areas of operation, so, on Fridays (the day creditors enforce arrest orders so the debtor has to wait till Monday to apply for bail), a comfortably laid cell would be reserved just in case angry court brokers dragged in the valued citizen.

Anyway, with many land proprietorship certificates not worth the paper they are printed on, a valuable asset which, according to Mark Twain, is no longer being made, can easily be lost to unholy operators.

Imagine if it had a billion dollars-worth of minerals underneath!

With Africa’s current debt situation classified by the UN as a crisis, governments are now borrowing from commercial banks.

But commercial banks need real security, as enforcement of sovereign guarantee is not as easy as it sounds. Clever lenders with inside collaborators can easily stake an “enterprise” to be managed by a lender in case of default for a duration of time. Imagine if minerals under the staked entity’s land were to be managed by the moneylender!

So, for now, African countries have a window in which to benefit from the minerals needed for energy transition to power industries and transport, for a while.

Luckily for Uganda, President Museveni banned the export of raw minerals, a ban he firmly maintains, so even if a moneylender gets to control land with valuable minerals, he has to process and employ people.

Africans had better take charge of their energy transition minerals before moneylenders devise new tricks to take them away unprocessed.

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]