Congo: The Dark Side Of The Digital Revolution

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coltanThere has been so much said about Congo, the heart of darkness, the ghost of King Leopold, the footsteps of Dr. Kurtz, these stories still colour the opinions of many westerners as they try to understand what is a highly complex situation.

They still conjure up a picture of cannibal tribes, savagery, children who need to be saved, but this is not true in any sense of the word. The war in Eastern Congo was caused by two external factors, the Rwandan Genocide and the internet and technological boom of the mid to late nineties.

To talk about Congo without examining the role of global electronics companies is like trying to discuss slavery in America without discussing cotton plantations. The myth that this is just a battle between savage tribes who have always hated each other is wrong, because until 1994 the Kivus had been relatively quiet and harmonious apart from an uprising in the 60’s.

This is what happens, scholars have found there is a direct link between inter-communal violence and the launch of electronic products. The prize is Coltan or Columbium tantalite, this is what is powering the computer you are using right now, your smart-phone too, there would be no digital revolution without it, and there would be no war in Congo without the digital revolution. Here is what happens, a new i-pad or Samsung Galaxy or HTC is due for launch, an order for thousands of tonnes of Coltan is received. A new rebel group or splinter faction is formed, other established rebel groups also start to recruit, they battle for mines, round up civilians and rape and torture them into working in the pits. The civilians held hostage are fought over as labour, concubines, soldiers and supporters. A kilo of coltan fetches $300 on the world market, a year’s wage for most Congolese. Most ends up in Malaysia where it is smelted, Malaysia doesn’t have a single Coltan mine, so it is mostly from Congo.

There have been attempts to block the flow of illicit ‘blood minerals’ through the Frank-Dodd or Wall Street act, which said that companies must prove their minerals are ethically sourced. Demand has not gone down, the West still wanted the same blood minerals but wanted a get-out clause to clear their conscience. So minerals were just smuggled out just in time to make the Christmas clamour for electronic goods, the show must go on. On the one hand the West castigates Rwanda, Uganda and Congo itself for the war, and yet they are the cause of it. The locals have no need for the heavy charcoal-gray ore, it is as much a curse to them as war, famine, pestilence. Before Westerners point the finger of blame, they should look at themselves. Sadly, this is not Dolphin-tuna that you can boycott, you can’t boycott the digital revolution, you can’t boycott Apple, Samsung, Galaxy, or HTC because they have the most desirable products that we all need to make a living and communicate.

This is why we need a mature discussion about Congo, not just castigation, sanctions and international arrest warrants, but a discussion that understands the causes and at least mitigates for these causes. The Frank-Dodd act did not make things better, it caused the various rebel factions to splinter, realign, consolidate, merge and de-merge causing mass-murder. Even though it had the best of intentions, it was an unworkable law in a lawless land.

Tagging of minerals has helped but the vast majority of minerals go untagged, putting sanctions on rebel leaders is also pointless, what drove Bosco Ntaganda was not bloodlust but the West’s insatiable lust for minerals at any cost. These ‘Savage tribes’ had lived in co-existence for centuries, it was the arrival of a Rwandan civil war on Congolese soil that sparked it and the digital revolution has kept it going for 18 years since artisan mining emerged. You the computer user are the silent partner in rape, looting and killing, you can turn the other way but you are as guilty as any of those savages you judge. The so-called savages are raping and killing each other to fulfil your insatiable need to communicate, this is the dark-side of the digital revolution.

Essay by Rama Isibo

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