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What’s Happening In The Democratic Republic Of The Congo, And How You Can Help

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Owing to its rich natural resources – 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt, an essential mineral for electronics, is sourced from its mines – the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is suffering the impact of rampant exploitation. Below, a breakdown of what is happening, why, and how you can help.

Who is in charge in DRC currently?

In December 2023, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi won re-election. He first came into power in 2019, following Joseph Kabila, who stepped down after 18 years in office. Kabila inherited the role when his father, the third President of Congo, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated during the Second Congo War.

Why is the population of DRC suffering?

Armed groups vie for control of Congolese mining zones. These rebel groups violently occupy parts of Congo, killing people with impunity, with women and girls subject to sexual violence and at risk of sexual slavery, and children taken from school and recruited as soldiers or to work in mines. Poverty caused by the instability leads others to resort to “artisanal” mining (i.e. mining independently and trading with companies directly) to make money, often earning below minimum wage. These miners – children as well as adults – are endangered by poor safety regulations. Mines can collapse, and children often dig by hand even though exposure to these minerals is linked to health issues that cause neurological, kidney and autoimmune impairment. The soil and water is also contaminated as a result of the mining. Some miners are enslaved when they fail to provide enough ore to middlemen and dealers, or forced into labour by armed militias. Nearly seven million people have been internally displaced. This insecurity has caused the largest hunger crisis in the world, affecting 26 million people.

Who is behind it?

Neighbouring countries, particularly Rwanda, according to the UN, are behind the violence. The biggest rebel group, M23, was created by Rwanda and Uganda, and is financed primarily by Rwanda. China and Western countries (particularly the US, Belgium, and France) are implicated by exploiting Congo’s resources, creating the conditions for its instability and, as Amnesty International reports, for failing to carry out due diligence to ensure that they are respecting international human rights in their global operations – including in their supply chains.

What is their vested interest?

For some neighbouring countries, it is in their interests to destabilise the region and control its mining zones. For China and the West, it is to maintain cheaper production prices for electronics. Congo is rich in natural resources: rubber, timber, oil, gas, gold, diamonds, copper, lithium, coltan and cobalt. Sixty three per cent of the world’s cobalt production comes from the DRC alone. The latter three minerals are essential to produce electronics. China and the West (with Canada, Australia, UK and US leading) are the biggest buyers of these minerals for electronics, with several mining companies in the country. China owns and controls around 70 to 80 per cent of the mines in the DRC. In December 2019, attorneys from a Washington, DC law firm sued Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla for their involvement in the injuries or deaths of child miners, in a landmark case.

What’s the context?

Francis Lomami, a human and civic rights advocate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lecturer in political science and international relations at the Université Libre de Kinshasa, and former expert in international cooperation at the Congolese Foreign Affairs Department, explains that the current conflict stems back to the first Congo War in 1996, dubbed the first African World War.

After the Rwandan genocide, the war between its Hutu and Tutsi tribes bled into the Congo border. When one million Hutus fled into Congo after the Tutsis took power, Rwanda invaded Congo, arguing they needed to destroy Hutu militias. In 1998, they invaded again and several countries with a mixture of vested interests – Uganda, Zimbabwe, Chad, Sudan and Namibia among them – came to fight in Congo. This resulted in the deaths of at least 250,000 people. To fund these wars, Congolese leaders sold mine sites to foreigners.

Since then, rebel groups created by Rwanda have backed major insurgencies, occupied large parts of Congo, and exploited its mineral wealth. “Rwanda is benefiting from the instability in the Congo, because they can then do business around its minerals. The genocide keeps on going due to economic interests in the region,” says Lomami. “When you analyse what’s happening underneath the conflict, it is just the illegal exploitation of mines.”

Resource-rich Congo has a long history of exploitation. Belgium and France played huge roles in destabilising the region. Colonised by Belgium from 1908, King Leopold II was “sole owner” of Congo and implemented a rule of terror for its rubber. He halved the population of Congo and made more than a billion dollars in today’s wealth.

After a rushed independence in 1960, Congo became a casualty of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and West vying for cobalt. The West installed a dictator, and kleptocratic Congolese elites ruled the mines. During the Rwandan genocide, it was France that armed the genocidiares that fled through Congo’s borders. Today, China is accused of neo-colonialism – taking advantage of corrupt governments for economic benefit – and creating conditions reminiscent of colonial times, with hazardous conditions and abused workers.

Further reading:

The Congo from Leopold to Kabila by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

  • Congolese academic Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja documents his country’s history since colonialism, narrating the population’s long fight back to free themselves from exploitation and establish democracy.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

  • A bestselling corrective history on the brutal holocaust that took place in Congo under King Leopold.

Conflict Minerals Inc: War, Profit and White Saviourism in Eastern Congo by Christoph Vogel

  • An award-winning investigator unpacks how the campaign against “conflict minerals” went wrong, and how a “white saviour” colonial framework has perpetuated violence and inequality.

Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by Gerard Prunier

  • A comprehensive document of the Congo wars, and how the Rwandan genocide swallowed the continent into conflict.

How to help:

Sign petitions calling on Parliament to address the conflict

In the UK, this is the active petition. It needs 10,000 signatures in total. Sign and share as widely as possible.

Support solutions that the Congolese people want

Lomami says that most Congolese people want sanctions against the Rwandan regime, and an effective international force in the Congo. “If you negotiate today with an armed group, another will come up. There will be no end to the cycle of violence,” he says. A supporting army has proven effective in the past, Lomami explains. In 2009, the UN created an international brigade to fight against M23 alongside the Congolese army. It led to three years of peace. “If M23 is defeated, then peace is given back to the region and the government can have time to focus on development.”

Donate

Make an informed decision on which charity is best. The Eastern Congo Initiative gives to effective Congolese community organisations, and helps to amplify their voices by advocating for their needs internationally. GiveDirectly gives money directly to impoverished families across the continent to enable them to make their own financial decisions.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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