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Coltan – Conflict Minerals & The Congo

By on 28/04/2012

Did you know the contents of your pockets is fueling a war that has lead to the death of over 5 million people?

On my way home from an open bar party last December I tipsily stumbled down the escalator of Oxford Circus tube and witnessed a train full of Congolese protesters who were trying to get to Seven Sisters after protesting down at Whitehall the whole day. The train wasn’t allowed to go any further for some strange reason (no trouble was being caused), the British Transport Police then decided to make everyone get off the train and this lead to the shut down of the station. I stayed and captured this amazing footage.

It soon became apparent after talking to some protestors and a freelance cameraman who had been following the crowd that they had been protesting down at Whitehall in their many hundreds over the past week. It was strange that I had never heard a single thing about it in the mainstream media about this (whereas when later checking citizen journalist sites like Blottr, these were awash with news on the protests) – the freelance cameraman I bumped into on the platform said he had been following the protests for the past week and had been trying to get the footage he took the mainstream news but none of them were in the slightest bit interested in it. He also told me that the whole time he had been at the protests the only journalist he had seen was from The Guardian newspaper.

So what was the whole protest about?

The protestors say that presidential candidate Étienne Tshisekedi was cheated from power in the recent elections by the incumbent Joseph Kabila who is said to be a puppet for the west who has for years allowed the rape of the country’s natural resources by Western powers. Independent Western observers in the country said that the election was fair and safe and no corruption cheating occurred, although a UN report said that the electoral process was “lacking transparency and marred by irregularities” as well as many human rights abuses [1]

Joseph Kabila was sworn into office for the second term in December 2011, but Etienne Tshisekedi has claimed that the elections were beset by irregularities and corruption. Tshisekedi then attempted to have his own swearing in ceremony in Kinshasa which was dispersed by the police, and his headquarters were broken into.

In the wake of the election there has been vast demonstrations by Congolese not only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but all over the world, some of the people I spoke to likened their protests to the Occupy Movement and The Arab Spring.


The Current conflict in DRC

Since it received its independence from Belgium in 1960 the DRC has seen some very turbulent changes in power, there was even a change of the country’s name to Zaire in 1971, which was then later changed back to DRC after a military coup in 1996. There have been 4 presidents since 1960 – only 2 of which were democratically elected [2]

In 1996, Laurent Kabila (the father of Joseph) led a rebel movement, with the support of Rwandan and Ugandan troops to overthrow then president Mobutu Sese Seko of the then named Zaire. He succeeded in taking the capital in May of 1997 and Zaire became the DRC. One year later, 1998, war broke out again in the east where the Rwandan and Ugandan governments were unhappy with Kabila’s broken promises to them [3]. On top of this the locals were worried by the increased Rwandan & foreign interest presence in the country – many locals soon saw Laurent Kabila as a pawn for foreign powers [13]. In 2001 Laurent Kabila was assassinated by his bodyguard and his eldest son Joseph Kabila was sworn into office

What was once a war over politics and ethnicity then became war over resources and profit. This conflict has continued ever since with rebellions and foreign military incursions involving up to 14 nations. A war which should have ended is 2003 is still continuing to this day with rebels controlling mines and/or imposing taxes on the people working in mines to gain funds. There are a variety of forces currently exploiting the people and resources of the DRC – these include Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda,The Lord Resistance Army, Uganda People’s Defence Force, The Rwandan Patriot Army, Armeé National Congolaise, and elements of the official DRC army – Forces Armeés de la Republique Democratique du Congo [4]

Despite being on the richest countries in the world with regards to national resources, the average annual income in DRC is only $300. Between 1998 and 2011, 5.4 million people have died, with 45, 000 continuing to die each month from diseases [2] The violence for the most part is targeted against civiilans – this includes war crimes, sexual violence and crimes against humanity [3]


But how are these war crimes, sexual violence and crimes against humanity related to coltan and other conflict minerals?

As I said earlier there are wars being fought over the contents of your pocket. That product is coltan and other conflict minerals. Coltan is columbite-tantalite a dull black metallic ore from which the elements mobium and tantalum are extracted [5]. When refined, coltan becomes a heat resistant powder, metallic tantalum which has unique properties for storing electrical charge [6]. The properties of refined coltan are vital elements in creating devices that store energy or capacitors, which are used in a vast array of electronic devices, from mobile phones, laptops & digital cameras to jet engines & hearing aids [7].  Coltan is a highly sort after mineral and worth about $500 a kilo


Together with gold, tungsten & tin – these make up what are known as the “conflict minerals” – or any other mineral or its derivatives determined by the Secretary of State to be financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country

Differing sources say that the DRC contains 64% and 80% of the worlds supply of coltan reeserves [2][6][7]. With the increase in small size of electrical devices coltan is in more demand than ever before. Coltan is the most highly sort after are with mobile phones. Mobile phone use has been growing 45% annually over the last 4 years and cellular subscriptions have hit 5.9 billion throughout the world [8]

So if you thought that this conflict is somehow far removed from your everyday life you are wrong.


How is coltan mined?

Coltan is mined in much the same way that gold was mined in the 1800s. Laborers, many of whom are children, digging basins, chipping away chunks of rock with hand tools, then wash the rubble to separate coltan from useless minerals [9]

Local miners are forced to pay spoonfuls of coltan to the military forces that control the land and some more to the local authorities.  Large mining operations also have to pay ‘fees’ to military forces and local authorities. The coltan is then collected from different mining sites and is collected by local traders who often mix illegally and legally mined ores. This coltan is then tested for the percentage of tantalum and purchased by traders.  Many of these traders operate without a license and smuggle coltan across borders by road and air to countries like China & Thailand where they are processed, made into capacitors and then sold to companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent, Ericsson and Sony for use in a wide assortment of everyday electrical products [7][3]. Mobile phone companies say that they do not purchase coltan or any other conflict minerals from the DRC – the problem is they do buy capacitors from south east asian companies that do purchase conflict minerals. By the time its has reached the end product the minerals would have pass through so many companies and middle men that the source would be extremely difficult to trace.


The relationship between coltan and the conflict

The sale of coltan is not illegal, for the most part the coltan mining in the world is legitimate and done in countries such as Brazil and Australia. In total coltan mining is valued at about $6 billion a year which for the most part comes from these legitimate operations [10]. In the year 2000 the worldwide demand for coltan exploded together with the increased production of mobile phones, laptops, as well as the reduction in the size of these devices which lead to the increase in the not so legitimate export out of DRC.

Throughout the latter half of the 1990s and the beginning of this decade, as the DRC descended into two civil wars, its mineral wealth began to directly fuel the conflict. The war between the DRC military and the rebels (officially) ended in 2003 but it has continued mainly in the north east of the country over the mining areas. At the height of a coltan price boom in 2001, the UN estimated that rebel groups were earning $20 million a month from mineral exploitation, though the market price has since fallen [11]

The rebels and militia are fighting over mining area rights – to gain control local populations to their will they are murdering men and raping women. The main warring factions over the mining areas are the Rwandan based Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and DRC army. The DRC Army itself has launched many attacks against its own civilian population to maintain control over mining areas.

Rwandan president Paul Kagame recently came under attack for support of Rwandan troops in Congo,  after details of an UN report was leaked stating so. This is a claim which he has flatly denied. This has served as an embarrassment for the UK and US who also have close ties with Kagame.

In 2001 the United Nations produced a report on the “Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, The report stated that there was a 2 phases to the exploitation of natural resources:

  • “Mass-scale looting. During this first phase, stockpiles of minerals, coffee, wood, livestock and money that were available in territories conquered by the armies of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda were taken, and either transferred to those countries or exported to international markets by their forces and nationals.
  • Systematic and systemic exploitation. Planning and organization were required for this phase. The systematic exploitation flourished because of the pre-existing structures developed during the conquest of power of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. These pre-existing structures were improved over time and new networks for channelling extracted resources were put in place. However, the systemic exploitation used the existing systems of control established by Rwanda and Uganda. In both cases, exploitation was often carried out in violation of the sovereignty of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the national legislation and sometimes international law, and it led to illicit activities. Key individual actors including top army commanders and businessmen on the one hand, and government structures on the other, have been the engines of this systematic and systemic exploitation.” [12]

The report stated that Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian rebels have looted & smuggled thousands of tons of coltan from the Congo into their countries to export to the global market. Official statistics provided by these countries’ governments – which many human-rights observers believe hide large amounts of black-market trading – show that Uganda and Rwanda dramatically increased the export of coltan following their occupation of northeastern Congo. For example, Uganda reported 2.5 tons of coltan exports a year before the conflict broke out in 1997, where in 1999, the volume exploded to nearly 70 tons [7]

The UN panel recommended the following:

  1. Security Council declare: a temporary embargo on the import/export of coltan, pyrochlore, cassiterite, timber, gold and diamonds from and to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, until their involvement in the exploitation of the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is made clear; an immediate embargo on weapons and military materiel to the rebel groups, and extending that embargo to the states that supported those groups.
  2. The Council: request the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to consider suspending their support to the budgets of Rwanda and Uganda until the end of the conflict; strongly urge all member states to freeze the financial assets of the companies or individuals who continued to participate in the illegal exploitation of the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  3. The panel further recommends that the Council consider establishing an international mechanism that will investigate and prosecute individuals involved in economic criminal activities, and companies and government officials whose economic and financial activities directly or indirectly harm powerless people and weak economies.
  4. The Council should also consider establishing a permanent mechanism that would investigate the illicit trafficking of natural resources in armed conflicts so as to monitor the cases which are already subject to the investigation of other panels, such as those of Angola and Sierra Leone
Unfortunately the panel has been unable to implement these actions

It is estimated that 5-8 million prople have died in DRC in the last thirteen years, 40% of whom were woman and children  [4][13]. On top of this there is the mass rape being used to intimidate the local populations. In addition to this there is the huge environmental toll on the country from mining leading to widespread erosion and deforestation.


The worldwide Congolese protests

It was the recent re-election of Kabila that has sparked off the protests that we have seen in London and by Congolese communities all over the world. There was talk of the lose of thousands of polling ballots from thousands of polling stations. Also the promotion of rebel leaders to high posts within the DRC government such as General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda who has a warrant put out for his arrest by the International Criminal Court for his involvement in war crimes, who is in control of many mining areas in East Congo at the permission of Kabila and is known to have used intimidate local populations to vote for Kabila [15]. Despite this widespread corruption in the polls the western observers said none occurred despite an UN report saying that much corruption and intimidation occurred. There was also little talk of this in the media in the west as well as worldwide protests that occurred in the aftermath.

I’ll have to say that if I didn’t happen to be in Oxford Circus that night I would never have known about these protests. After the Oxford Circus incident there was some mention of the protests in some mainstream media but it wasn’t very detailed in its description other than it saying that Congolese protestors caused the station to be shut down and also about the arrests that weekend.


So what’s next?

To this day despite the protests and uproar both within the DRC and worldwide over the elections as well as the UN reports over corruption during the elections Kabila has remained in power and only time will tell if his party changes the constitution to be able to be signed in for another term in the 2015 elections.

You’re probably wondering what you can do from your computer screen to stop the rape and pillaging that is happening despite being on the other side of the world. Its about letting your mobile phone / computer / electronic companies that you know that you are aware of the illegal smuggling of conflict minerals out of the DRC and that you do not support them allowing from happening

There are organisations out there geared towards the raising of awareness of the current war, murder & rape in DRC to the conflict minerals that are used by companies in our mobile phones. With the add of Hollywood the group Save The Congo produced a short video called Unwatchable which (I might add very graphically) depicts the violence that goes on against local populations from the DRC army and militias. To put the movie in context for the UK audience the action is transported from the DRC to and English family in the uplands of Chipping Sodbury. The website gives information on the relationship between mobile phones and the conflict as well as a petition to sign. Please note the video is graphic and should be viewed with caution – even if you decide not to watch it please read the rest of the informative site and sign their petition – In the US Friends of The Congo are also promoting the links between coltan the conflict.

The Hacktavist group Anonymous have been busy doing their part and have started what they call OpColtan against companies that illegally import minerals out of DRC. After hacking and leaking coltan related documents from Intel they have also recently gone after the European metals group Traxys leaking emails showing the companies link to the smuggling of coltan from Congo despite pledging to stop this trade

Occupy London, fresh from being evicted from their sites in London have joined 30 other activist groups from all around the world to create the Carnival of Dirt, aimed at highlighting the illicit deeds of mining and extraction companies around the world. Their website will keep you up to date with their activities as well as providing resources and information on the illegal practice of mining not just in DRC but everywhere, their blog will also keep you up to date with their activities.

EDIT 20/06/13: Fairphone through a crowd sourcing project have produced the first conflict mineral free mobile phone with part of the money from tne phone also going to phone recycling charities. The phone has a transparent supply chain and buyers can also see where the minerals and conpenents were made and how much they were paid

Keep an eye on citizen news  sites such as Blottr, Demotix and Indymedia London for the news that mainstream media have been ignoring. Vice Magazine also covered much of the protests as well as producing the brilliant Vice Guide to Congo with is really informative and worth watching

The most important is keeping your ear to the ground on the issues in the Congo and how your purchasing of mobile phones and other electronics effects them. Let your electronics company know that you don’t support the illegal trade of conflict minerals from the DRC and push for your local government to do the same. Keep an eye out for mobile phone recycling in your local areas rather than just throwing your old phone away.





[1] Report Of The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office on Serious Human Rights Violations Committed by Members of The Congolese Defense and Security Forces in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Between 26 November and 25 December 2011 – United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo –
[2] Beyond Wristbands: Your wider guide to the Democratic Republic of Congo – The Yorker –
[3] Critical Environmental Security: Rethinking the Links Between Natural Resources and Political Violence, Chapter 7 Sexual Violence, Coltan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – Centre for Foreign Policy Studies Dalhousie University –
[4] Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone – Social Science and Research Network –
[5] Coltan – Wikipedia –
[6] Coltan, Gorillas and cellphones – Cellular News –
[7] Coltan Facts – Friends of the Congo –
[8] 2011 ends with almost 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions – Cnet News –
[9] Coltan Facts – United Nations –
[10] How the mobile phone in your pocket is helping to pay for the civil war in Congo – The Telegraph –
[11] Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – The United Nations –
[12] The Angry Congolese are Raising Hell in London – Vice Magazine –
[13] Congo-Kinshasa: What Next? – All Africa –


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