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Last Updated: 08/23/2006
Save me! Save the Coltan you mean!
Simon Stander

In the last issue we carried an interview with the General Mujahid Alam who was responsible for overseeing fair elections in the Congo. He predicted a quiet time at the polling stations and he was right. Unfortunately when the first results were announced fighting broke out in the capital, Kinshasa. Seventeen thousand UN troops were on top alert and more were called for. Will the elections lead to a long lasting peace in a country that saw three millions die in a five year civil war?

In the last issue we led with an interview with General Mujahid Alam, Head of the Pretoria Liaison Office of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), who hoped for a peaceful election in the Congo. The polling went off quietly enough, but the first results led to several days of violence in Kinshasa, and calls for reinforcing the 17,000UN troops in the country.


The Congo goes a long way back in the European imagination, especially where it came to making money and never mind the risks. As Conrad wrote in The Heart of Darkness: “At this moment I heard Kurtz’s deep voice ‘Save me! – save the ivory, you mean.’”


The journey that led Marlowe to the very depth of the jungle was about exploitation. Individuals might have their own personal motivation, their strengths and their weaknesses and their propensities, but the system was about exploitation and with the prospects of massive wealth. Fifteen years before Conrad published his novella, King Leopold II of Belgium had acquired the Congo, not for his country but for himself.  And, Leopold and the Belgium Royal family stood at the head of the system of which took out ivory and wild rubber and gave Leopold the wealth that compensated for his lack of power as a constitutional monarch in his own country, 1/80th the size of the Congo. Leopold did in due course hand the Congo over to the Belgian Government for a huge fee (and after the death of maybe 8 million people), but little investment took place in the transport or social infrastructure for that matter. The process of economic exploitation, rebellion and fierce repression has left its legacy of entrenched violence, deceit, distrust and warlordism. While rubber and ivory came out, almost the only goods that went back in were guns and ammunition. By independence in 1960, greed for rubber and ivory had been replaced by eager desire for other resources such as copper, diamonds, oil, uranium, and now, above all else, coltan which remains a major source of violent conflict.


The Congo presented the UN with one of its earliest peacekeeping challenges as the political structure of the independent nation soon began to disintegrate. President Joseph Kasa Vubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba asked for UN intervention in July 12, 1960. Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the UN, became an international hero in attempting to bring peace between July 12, 1960 and September 18, 1961.  The causes of the plane crashed, which killed him during his fourth visit have always been shrouded in mystery, but violent deaths are all too common in the Congo.


More recently, the Congo has been at the centre of what has been described as Africa’s world war with intervention by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe supporting the government, and Uganda and Rwanda backing rebel forces. It is commonly and convincingly argued that the wars are fuelled by the rich resources in the Congo, especially coltan.


Coltan is the short hand form used to refer to columbite-tantalite a dull black metallic ore comprising niobium and tantalum. It is used primarily for the production of capacitors, which are vital components in electronic devices, ranging widely from cell phones to laptop computers. Though demand and prices for coltan may fluctuate the demand is unlikely to go away for a long time to come.


One source describes the situation of mining, exploitation and prices thus:

Coltan is mined by hand in the Congo by groups of men digging basins in streams by scraping off the surface mud. They then "slosh" the water around the crater, which causes the Coltan ore to settle to the bottom of the crater where it is retrieved by the miners. A team can "mine" one kilo of Coltan per day.

The tech boom caused the price of Coltan to rocket to as high as US$600 per kilogram at one point, compared to a previous value of US$65 per kilogram, although it has settled down to around US$100 per kilogram at the moment. A Coltan miner can earn as much as US$200 per month, compared to a typical salary of US$10 per month for the average Congolese worker.

80% of the world's known coltan supply is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which the UN says is subject to highly organized and systematic exploitation. (

No one thinks that the reasons for the violent conflict in the Congo is entirely a matter of the wealth of resources, and many motivations lie behind the deaths of 3 million men, women, and children in the five years of most recent civil war, but resources are as central as they were for Kurtz and King Leopold. The question now is will the former rebel leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, accept electoral defeat? Can Joseph Kabila bring peace and reconciliation to a country marked by poverty and early death (life expectation is around 44 years of age).

Hopefully the world’s peacemakers can spare some time from the Israel-Lebanon crisis to help prevent the darkness falling again on the heart of Africa.