The Blood Gold Mines of The Congo Offer Lessons for Tanzania’s Mining Sector

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The sun is extra calm this time of year. It gives way to the soft rift valley monsoons that turn the red soils of Kigoma muddy, which makes the roads hard to navigate and the maize thicker. It’s never too harsh, never too cold—just the right climate, and it’s home.

Two kilometers from where I write this is Africa’s deepest lake, Lake Tanganyika. It connects us to the mineral-rich Congo. I suppose the climate, soils, and even cultures are the same on the other shores as they are here. After all, Tanganyika is only 72 kilometers wide.

But something else connects us even deeper than the lake. The laptop on which I write this was manufactured in one of Apple’s sweatshops in East Asia. From there, a direct line can be drawn to Cupertino, California, which Apple calls home, and where the hardware and software for this laptop were designed. The line then proceeds to Washington, D.C. It is here that Apple lobbies the Senate for cheap labor outside the West. In fact, Apple doesn’t need to lobby for that; the Western system already allows the capitalistic extraction of cheap labor, minerals, and value from the global south with not much responsibility whatsoever.

The line then proceeds to one of the Congo’s rich mineral regions, where Western mining companies extract cobalt, gold, diamonds, and oil—all while employing tactics of modern slavery. It is this web of connection that Siddarth Kara pieces together in his book “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Daily Lives.” Sidhart, in comprehensive interviews from first-person account testimonies, shows that at the bottom of the supply chain of most technology are rare earth minerals mined by workers hacking away in toxic pits for subsistence wages.

His book and hundreds of other reports illuminate what is happening in the Congo, tracing the roots of the clashes involving militant groups over territory and natural resources, extrajudicial killings by security forces, political violence, and rising tensions with neighboring countries to greedy multinationals. Since 1996, there have been 6 million deaths in the Congo, along with 7 million internally displaced personnel, making this the bloodiest conflict since World War 2. Sidhart shows that those deaths and refugees are not a coincidence but an elaborate design of imperialism.

Sometimes I think Lake Tanganyika separates us rather than connect us.

Ever since its seizure by King Leopold in 1885, the region has not known a long peace. During his reign, Leopold governed it as a personal dominion, unlike the colonization model other European nations used after the Berlin Conference. At the time, rubber and ivory were kings in the Congo, so he amassed a fortune from them. His administration was one characterized by atrocities and systematic brutality that spanned forced labor, torture, murder, kidnapping, and the amputation of the hands of men, women, and children when the quota of rubber was not met. Leopold was so brutal that the American Civil War soldier George Washington Williams called his actions ‘crimes against humanity’ in one of the first uses of the term.

While the population of pre-colonial Congo is hard to accurately estimate, estimations show that it decreased by 1–15 million during his tenure. What caused it were the reduced birth rate, epidemic diseases, famine, and violence caused by his regime. His brutality was too much even for other colonial powers to fathom!

In 1905, after several months of investigation, a commission published a report that corroborated the abuses that Leopold had denounced. Leopold could do nothing to prevent international public opinion, even in his home country of Belgium. Following a series of diplomatic maneuvers and driven by the pressure of public opinion, he finally renounced his rule over the Congo Free State, which subsequently became the Belgian Congo, now under the Belgian government.

Under the Belgian government was no better. Exploitation continued as Belgium ‘civilized’ Congo.

As technology grew, certain metals garnered new purpose. Such are the likes of iron, copper, tin, cobalt, lithium, tungsten, zinc, gold, silver, and uranium, which are crucial in the making of microchips and rechargeable batteries. And for reasons only God knows, all of these happened to be in the Congo, lying dormant as dirt for eons until foreign economies made them valuable. Just for scope: The Katanga region holds more cobalt than the rest of the world combined; in 2022, the Congo was the world’s producer; and the Congo is believed to have the world’s largest lithium deposits.

Lumumba’s Legacy: A Brief Glimpse of Self-Determination in the Shadow of Colonial Exploitation and Modern Tech’s Unsustainable Practice

The Belgians and other foreign economies then built mining towns in the Congo to extract minerals and make slaves of its people. In 1960, as the result of a widespread and increasingly radical pro-independence movement, the Belgian Congo achieved independence, becoming the Republic of the Congo under Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. But the Congo, like the rest of Africa, was too valuable to let go, so they never really left.

Lumumba, though, did bring a fleeting moment of light at the dawn of independence. He gave the Congolese a glimpse of a future in which their fate was their own, their resources would be used for the nation’s benefit, and they would be away from foreign nation’s interference. His anti-colonial vision wouldn’t live for long because conflict minerals are cheaper, and there is nothing capitalists in the West love more than reducing cost of production and gouging prices.

After Lumumba was deposed by the C.I.A.-backed Mobutu Sese Seko, he was arrested and flown to Katanga, then tortured and murdered under the supervision of Belgian officers. Mobutu would preside over a despotic 30-year kleptocracy that saw the Congolese standard of living fall dramatically. In the 1990s, Gécamines, the state-owned successor to the Belgian monopoly that provided housing and fixed wages to its miners, collapsed, leaving behind an unemployed population that turned to artisanal mining.

The artisanal sector now employs north of 200,000 people who still practice primitive methods that expose miners to toxic fumes with no protective gear, hire children as young as 6 for $2, kill thousands each year from accidents, and, with its poor regard for the environment, contaminate the soil and water.

Even though big tech companies like Apple, Tesla, Samsung, and Nvidia claim to source from well-regulated industrial mining in the region, “there is no such thing as a clean supply chain of cobalt from the Congo,” as Sidhart shows in his book. That’s because the minerals mined in the artisanal sector are usually sold to large mining companies and enter the supply chain. About 30% of the Congo’s cobalt output into the world is got this way.

There have been multiple reports implicating various companies with gross violations of human rights in the Congo from Amnesty and numerous other organizations, but the condition only seems to worsen because demand for the Congo’s minerals has only skyrocketed, and so have the wars and conflicts. We can, with high certainty attribute this to the rush for rare earth minerals used to make modern climate-friendly electronics like your phone battery and electric cars but it would be unwise to ignore the hypocrisy of the rule-based order. America after winning the Cold War, culminated a system that favored her and her most precious allies in every aspect of life. She re-wrote the algorithm of the world to hold all power in trade, culture, and military while presenting an ‘all people are equal democracy’ font.

That hypocrisy is what denies the Congo her peace and worth. Unlike what it says it stands for, the West’s actions show that she does not believe that people outside the West should be entitled to the same humanity as those in the West—we are simply chess pieces to be moved to meet and align with her interests.

To fully address the crisis in the Congo, the West would have to fully live by the principles it preaches—all people are created equal. There should be no exceptions when enforcing human rights, no cherry-picking when and where to enforce international law, and no making deals with dictators. Other important steps the West can take are to pass a global minimum wage, hold Western companies liable under Western laws when they violate human and environmental rights in the Global South, and make the free market inclusive and fair.

The West should and must undertake these measures because, after all, it’s what true democracies must do.

Some days I find myself praying we never find huge deposits of cobalt, lithium, or the like in Tanzania. That is not despite my nationalism, but because of it. I am scared that when we do, the greedy capitalists will come to plunder, and we are not equipped to negotiate a fair deal. The last thing I want is for Tanzania to give the same lasting image the Congo gave Sidhart: “The heart of Africa reduced to the bloodstained corpse of a child, who died solely because he was digging for cobalt.

You may also read Tanzania’s Unyielding Resolve: Empowering Peace in the DRC.

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