The Rwandan government and its
military have largely been suspected by a UN Panel of Experts, human
rights organizations and independent journalists, of
financially supporting a number of violent militias that have
destabilized the eastern Congo region to illegally traffic
millions-of-dollars worth of minerals such as coltan, gold, and
cassiterite. These minerals are then brought from neighboring Congo
into Rwanda for eventual sale on the international market.
2000, Rwanda, an African ally of Washington, produced 83 tons of coltan
from its own mines but found a way to export a total of 603 tons that
year, as discovered by Danish journalist Bjorn Willum, after he
requested the figures from the National Bank of Rwanda. Willum also
found the Rwandan army, which at the time was receiving funding and
training from the US military, made $250 million that year by selling
stolen Congolese minerals, most likely purchased from their shadow
Roughly ten years later, a UN Panel of Expert's report titled The 2009 Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo states
that the illegal traffic of Congolese minerals still flows into Rwanda
mostly from these violent militias that continue to profit greatly,
presumably passing earnings onto their Rwandan backers. The report also
implicated a number of Western-based mining companies and metal brokers
of indirectly financing the resource war as their buyers simply waited
in Rwanda for the minerals to make their way across the border.
more, this is not the first UN Panel of Expert's report on the
exploitation of Congolese resources; similar findings were also
publicized in 2001 and 2003. While a consensus can not be reached among
government agencies and human rights groups, the International Rescue
Committee believes the resource war which started in the mid-1990s has
taken the lives of 4 to 5 million people, most of whom are Congolese.
the implication of such violence and illegal trade, one would expect US
embassy officials in Rwanda to have an opinion on the subject. Sasha
Lezhnev is the director of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a
nonprofit that aids former child soldiers. Of late, he's spent time in
the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In
2008 Lezhner spoke to the outgoing US ambassador to Rwanda about the
resource conflicts in the region.
asked the ambassador," says Lezhnev, "'What are your feelings about
Rwanda's influence in the eastern Congo?'" The ambassador immediately
responded: "I don't know what you're talking about."
was shocked at what he believes is simply the former ambassador’s
ignorance of Rwanda’s influence. "We have to open our eyes to what's
going on," he says.
Yet after years of apparent indifference to the eastern Congo resource wars, it appears the US is finally starting to take measures to help end the conflict; the U.S. Senate is pushing forward the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009.
The bill calls for, among other things, a system of oversight to keep
watch on all US-based industries that utilize Congolese coltan,
cassiterite, wolframite and gold, and make sure the minerals were not
extracted from conflict mines controlled by illegal armed groups.
the bill makes no mention of the Paul Kagame regime, which has led
Rwanda since the genocide of 1994, or his administration’s influence in
eastern Congo. Kagame has said any strategic maneuvers on Rwanda's part
in the eastern Congo, which also includes the deployment of regular
Rwandan troops, is so to keep the pressure on those groups that took
part in the 1994 massacre.
according to Professor Yaa-Lengi, who runs the New York-based Coalition
for Peace, Justice and Democracy in the Congo, millions of Congolese –
a number corroborated by several American-based human-rights
organizations interviewed for this article – believe Kagame's claims
are a ruse, a smoke-screen to loot Congolese minerals. He says it is
part of an elaborate plan that many Congolese believe was initiated by
the US; and thus Rwanda is an American proxy with a mission to keep
Congolese minerals moving cheaply to Western-based mining companies.
says these theories, deemed far-fetched by many experts, don't end
there. "Bill Clinton was behind the (1994) genocide,” he stated.
“Millions of Congolese believe this."
and representatives of other human rights groups working in the eastern
Congo scoff at Yaa-Lengi and the charges he levels against the Clinton
administration. But they agree the Congolese have plenty of reasons to
be skeptical of the US and their regional interests.
For instance, David Sullivan of the Enough Project
says during the Bush administration, the White House had a public
relations official working in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. When
Bush's term ended in 2008, he says the official quickly took a job with
the mining company Freeport-McMoRan and its operations in the country,
which mainly extracts copper and cobalt.
"There are some really dangerous arguments about this [US interests in the Congo]," says Sullivan. "There are a lot of conspiracy theories. And many people overstate the influence of the US in Rwanda and the region."
those conspiracy theories in part is President Kagame, who gained power
immediately following the 1994 genocide. Kagame went through a U.S.
military training program on American soil during the years leading up
to the massacre. There’s also historical evidence that points to how
important Congolese minerals are to the US; the US military acquired
uranium from a mine in the DRC town of Skinkolobwe to build the atomic
bombs dropped on Japan. The U.S. continues to maintain strong ties with
Rwanda: US assistance to the country "has increased four-fold over the
past four years," according to the US State Department.
"We have a lot of leverage with Kagame and we have to use that."
Meaning that the US needs to pressure the Rwandan government into
ending its destabilizing role in the eastern Congo.
what specific influences the US ultimately has over Rwanda remains a
mystery. One element that contradicts the conspiracy theories offered
by Yaa-Lengi, however, is the new Senate bill. Sullivan says it could
end the resource war in eastern Congo. But he acknowledges the bill is no panacea.
would like to see a provision in the bill that makes [all metal brokers
who sell minerals acquired from the eastern Congo] disclose the
minerals exact origin, the exact mine it came from," he says. "If they
say they are getting the minerals from Malawi, then they have to have
an independent verification saying so." When selling their minerals
onto the international market, metal traders have faked records saying
the minerals were actually from countries other than the Congo.
what Sullivan and the Enough Project are calling for is an independent
auditing effort based in the eastern Congo. This could be expensive,
but if established, could lead to new successes in the fight against
the looting. For example, say a metal broker is caught selling minerals
from a mine that is a source of conflict and controlled by a violent
militia – a reality for many eastern Congolese mines. In this case
"[the metal broker] will lose access to international markets," says
Some experts on the eastern Congo say the bill is flawed and if passed, won't have the muscle to end the resource war.
the many links in the supply chain [of eastern Congo minerals], any of
them can simply claim they don't know where the minerals are coming
from and it is currently difficult to prove them wrong," says David
Barouski, a student from the University of Wisconsin, who has
documented first-hand the resource war in the eastern Congo. "The U.S.
claims it wants to help implement ways to certify this chain, but how
are they going to do it for every mine in a conflict zone?
Certification at the mines would require agents to go on site, but with
such poor infrastructure it would be years before this is feasible and
there would need to be peace to rebuild the infrastructure."
the U.S., the Congolese people don't trust the UN either, says
Yaa-Lengi. Throwing fuel on their UN speculation, he says, is the 2009
UN Panel of Experts’ report on the eastern Congo, The Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At first the report was leaked, angering members of the Security Council. Then its official release was delayed.
UN delayed publishing it because it points a finger back to the UN and
the Security Council," says Yaa-Lengi. "This is because they are
allowing the Congolese to die and be raped. The UN knows it, but they
are allowing it. All members of the Security Council are benefiting
from the resources of the Congo. The UN does only what the Security
Council wants and by that we mean what the super powers want."
U.N. Security Council is comprised of the U.S., Great Britain, France,
Russia and China as permanent members and two other rotating member
nations. Companies in every one of these
nations, claims Yaa-Lengi, have benefitted in some way from the cheap
minerals taken from eastern Congo, one of poorest nations on the
planet. But according to the African Business Magazine, the DRC
currently has an estimated total mineral wealth of $24 trillion,
equivalent to the GDP of Europe and the US combined.
of the Enough Project agrees the Congolese are suspect of the UN, as
they are of the US. Yet, he says to "keep in mind the [UN] Panel of
Experts is independent of the Security Council.” For the most part,
this UN Panel of Experts is made up of regional experts of the eastern
Congo, its culture, government and society, he says, adding "The new
report has pretty much been ignored by the Security Council.”
past UN Panel of Experts’ reports on the eastern Congo, published in
2001 and 2003, were also mostly ignored by members of the Security
Council. Even though the UN Panel of Experts had evidence piled high
implicating scores of Western-based mining companies and metal brokers
of buying looted minerals from conflict mines of the eastern Congo.
for example, the story of Robert Raun, a former metal broker who worked
just across the eastern Congolese border in Rwanda. He was the
beneficiary of a strange response on the part of the UN in 2004, a
response that sends mixed messages about the West and their intentions
for the eastern Congo resource war.
and his mining company, Trinitech of Cleveland, Ohio, which processed
and traded coltan, had been implicated in the UN’s 2001 report, The
Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and
other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This report essentially accused Trinitech and over 100 other
Western-based mining companies of looting minerals from the eastern
The minerals included coltan, a black metal ore that is needed to meet
the West’s insatiable thirst for personal technology. It is a key
ingredient in the manufacture of cell phones, lap tops and video-game
(Also see Inside Africa's PlayStation War in Toward Freedom.)
Raun stepped onto the 20th floor of the Secretariat Tower of the United
Nations in 2004 to respond to their charges, the "power of accusation"
from the UN, he says, had already ruined Trinitech. The UN also accused
Raun of aligning with "elite networks" of Rwandan government officials
and high-ranking military officers. The elite networks were apparently
forcing Congolese children and captives to mine for coltan.
allegations we were using child labor was a fabrication," insists Raun,
a devout Christian. "[But] accusation is a powerful thing. It ruined
us. Nobody wants to buy from the company that’s wearing the Scarlet
Letter. We’re just a shell of what we used to be. But we’re standing,
by the power of God, we’re standing."
Nevertheless, on that day in New York City in 2004,
the UN would surprisingly drop its charges against Trinitech. Indeed,
at that time, the UN was giving a lot of Western-based mining companies
and metal brokers working in eastern Congo a pass. Out of the 100 or so
mining companies accused of looting minerals, the UN dropped the
charges against each one, infuriating mining watchdog efforts such as MiningWatch Canada.
only answers to the child labor charges, however. When asked who
Trinitech was buying its coltan from, and whether it came from
conflict-ridden mines in the eastern Congo, he responds, "No comment".
John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.