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View from Kinshasa: Minerals and Development in the Democratic Republic of Congo

From 2000 to 2005, I was asked to teach an annual module in environmental conflict resolution at a program for mid-career professionals from developing countries held at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (funded by the Henry R. Luce Foundation). In one of the earlier cohorts of this program, we invited Dr. Dieudonne Musibono (Ph.D. in ecotoxicology from University of Cape Town), a professor of environmental science from the University of Kinshasa  to participate and subsequently he also invited me to Kinshasa to give a presentation to his students in 2002. After more than a decade Dr. Musibono and I have met again this month as he is a visiting distinguished professor at our centre in Australia, thanks to the International Mining for Development Centre (IM4DC) and here I reminisce on my experiences in Kinshasa and also invite Dr. Musibono to share some of his  images of field work and thoughts on why things have not changed much in the DRC since my visit there 12 years ago.

This article was co-authored with Dr. Dieudonne Musibono with research support from Fitsum Weldegiorgis

Traveling around the DRC, one finds reminders of the country’s latent wealth in strange ways. Kinshasa has its share of tall buildings, most of which are now abandoned or in varying stages of disrepair. The city’s Stade des Tata Raphael stadium, which hosted the famed “rumble in the jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974, boasts a capacity of a 100,000, but rarely sees many crowds these days for international events. The University of Kinshasa, supported during the Cold War with American financial assistance as the largest center of higher learning in Africa was looted of most of its library books. The university still has over 26,000 students, but meager resources to support young Congolese who aspire for the same hopes and dreams as us all. Amazingly enough, the university  has a small experimental nuclear reactor that was built during the cold war as a compensatory gesture from the United States for Congo’s supply of uranium for U.S. weapons. This is supposed to be the most secure site in country but during my visit there in 2002, it seemed deserted of much security, and the thought of enriched uranium in this troubled land eerily reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s portrayal of the Congo in his classic work Heart of Darkness (published in 1899).

Child Miners in DRC (Photo by Dieudonne Musibono)
Child Miners in DRC (Photo by Dieudonne Musibono)

In the northern jungles of Congo bordering the Central African Republic are the ruins of a city called Gbadolite, which are another sinister reminder of how the country’s wealth was wasted within generational memory. While much of the country languished in abject poverty, President Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country for almost four decades (1965- 1997), focused on developing this remote corner of the country from where he originally came to power. An airport was built with a runway to accommodate a Concorde and a terminal building embellished with choicest European frescoes. The town had clean water and reliable electricity during its heyday in the nineteen seventies. One of the finest high schools in Africa was built to educate the population of the Equateur province that had supported the regime. The hospital facilities and roads were comparable to those in a developed country. Grand palaces were built to accommodate the ruling elite, and the city is still remembered by many who saw its glory days as “Versailles of the Jungle.” Yet the prominence of Gbadolite was short-lived as such asymmetries of wealth were clearly unsustainable. The Mobutu regime finally fell to rebels in 1997, and the despot who had looted over $5 billion in wealth from his land was forced into exile to Morocco. More than a decade later, peace has still not returned to Congo, and country remains trapped in one of the most excruciating civil wars in history that has taken more than 3.9 million lives since Mobutu’s exile.[ii]

What went wrong with the erstwhile Zaire and subsequently the DRC’s development trajectory?  Was Mobutu to blame for all of the DRC’s woes? Even if he was the proximate cause, we are still confronted with the question of how he was able to assume power and retain it for 37 years. How did a country with so much potential languish and atrophy into what  Paul Collier has called “the bottom billion.” Economists, political scientists and sociologists have all puzzled over this phenomenon of how a country that is rich in resources can be so abysmally underdeveloped and stricken by conflict? Some have termed this observation a “resource curse,” which should make mineral extraction for new states taboo.  Is a scramble for resources to blame for conflict, or are incipient inequalities and economic injustice the primary cause; or perhaps the two are related in some way? Poetic alliterations such as “greed versus grievance” or “the paradox of plenty” have animated the literature and caught the public’s imagination.

Journalist Michela Wrong (2002, p. 215) describes the situation aptly as follows:

“Deprived of the chance to learn the lessons of its own history, Zaire’s population was kept in a state of infantilism by a more insidious form of colonialism. Instead of the roller-coaster of war, destruction and eventual rebirth, the intervention of the U.S., France and Belgium, of the World Bank and the IMF, locked the society into one slow motion economic collapse. Balked of expression, unable to advance, mindsets froze over somewhere in the 1960s, leaving the country’s leadership at the turn of the century stuck in an ideological time warp.”

Below are some further reflections from Dr. Musibono  in his own words which he relayed to me during his recent visit:  “According to the Congolese Mining Code (2002) and the Mining Act (2003), investors in mining should support social actions to promote development (Article 452, point e, in the Mining Act, 2003). Some industries are investing in clean water, building or rehabilitating school and health infrastructures, rehabilitating roads, planting some trees, etc. but the overall outcome remains marginal.

Major multinationals in the country such as Banro, MMG, TFM, have invested millions of dollars in these interventions without visible life improvement within beneficiaries.  The main reason for the lack of impact is because all of these interventions are largely under a “humanitarian” rather than a lasting development framework. They usually end when the investor leaves. Staff committed to these activities are not able, most of time, to distinguish development and humanitarian interventions. But also, the weakness of the Government without the national development plan to be implemented countrywide. They are asking beneficiary communities to propose the areas of interventions. Of course, they will talk about their daily needs because they do not know development issues.

In 2007, working for Banro at Namoya ( Maniema, DRC), as an environmental Consultant (CEMIC/Banro), I was surprised to hear that when Banro Foundation released money for local development projects, communities selected the rehabilitation of the school principal office roof that was damaged after a tornado, the purchase of 43 beds for the hospital and the building and protection of a spring  5 km away from the town of 15,000 inhabitants. I asked the manager of the Foundation who was proud to tell me how they have invested in local development projects as stated above. I told him that they were promoting paternalism and humanitarian. Because there was no development project amongst the three projects they have selected. He asked me an example of development project and said to him: You are producing rice and you do not have access to sustainable market. Why can’t you create a cooperative of rice producers; ask Banro Foundation to buy 2 or 3 trucks that will allow you to reach the market places either in Bukavu or in Kindu. Then you will be autonomous  and  keep 15% from each product sold and locate this money into a bank account. This local ‘sovereign wealth fund’ will empower you and sustain your profession. You will therefore move toward community development.”

Simple solutions by local academics in D.R. Congo such as Dr. Musibono should be considered as an antidote to the persistent failures of both development donors and corporate philanthropy. The vast resources of this beleaguered country must at last be put to proper use with persistence and sincerity.

 Some references and further reading

  1. Afrique Espoir, 2014. Le Monde dans ma poche. Ed. Afrique Espoir, Kinshasa, 126pp.
  2. ASADHO, 2006. L’État contre le peuple : La gouvernance, l’exploitation minière et le régime transitoire en République Démocratique du Congo. Ed ; NIZA, Amsterdam.
  3. Bakandeja et  Commission parlementaire, 2006. Sortir du piège du conflit: promouvoir la bonne gouvernance au Congo, Rapport Afrique 114- Juillet 2006. Kinshasa
  4. Banque Mondiale, 2008. République Démocratique du Congo La bonne gouvernance dans le secteur minier comme facteur de croissance. Washington, DC.
  5. Berwouts K., 2010. Un semblant d’Etat en état de ruine- Rapport de mission EurAc
  6.  Bread for all, 2012. Glencore in the D R Congo : Profit before human rights and the Environment. Ed. Bread for all- Catholic Lenten Fund. Lausane.
  7. Centre Carter, 2012. Les investissements miniers en R D Congo : Développement ou appauvrissement des communautés locales ? Ed. The Carter Center., Atlanta, Georgia.
  8. Dietrich P., 2002. Une économie du sang en R D Congo. Ed. Partenariat Afrique-Canada. Ottawa.
  9. Global Witness, 2012. Le secret qui entoure les transactions de Glencore en RD Congo risque d’exposer les actionnaires à des pratiques de corruption. Ed. Global Witness, Kinshasa.
  10. Lutundula et Commission parlementaire, 2006. Examen de la validité des conventions à caractère économique et financier conclues pendant les guerres de 1996-1997 et de 1998. ASSEMBLEE NATIONALE COMMISSION SPECIALE. Kinshasa.
  11. Musibono, 2013. Savoir et savoir-faire traditionnels mbun dans la conservation durable des écosystèmes au Congo-Kinshasa. Ed. ERGS-Kinshasa, 165pp.
  12. Musibono, 2006. Du marasme d’un Etat squelette aux défis du développement durable- Gestion de l’environnement au Congo-Kinshasa : Cueillette chronique et pauvreté durable. Ed. Chaire UNESCO- SADC-UNIKIN, Kinshasa, 265pp.
  13. SARW, NDS, CERN/CENCO, ACIDH, ECC, CDF, RRN-RDC, RJRN, LICOCO, RELCOF, OSI, 2009. Rapport du plaidoyer des Organisations de la Société Civile Congolaise oeuvrant dans le secteur des ressources naturelles pour la finalisation de la rénégociation des Contrats Miniers en RDC « Cas Freeport|Tenke Fungurume et First Quantum|KMT ». Kinshasa
  14. United Nations (Security Council)., 2001. Rapport final du Groupe d’Experts sur l’exploitation illégale des ressources naturelles et autres formes de richesse de la R D Congo. S/2002/1146
  15. United Nations (Security Council), 2007. Mining Industry in the D R of the Congo. In UN Security Council S/2007/68- Report of the Secretary-General.
  16. United Nations (High Commissioner for Refugees)., 2010. Rapport du Projet Mapping concernant  les violations les plus graves des droits de l’homme et du droit international humanitaire commises entre mars 1993 et juin 2003 sur le Territoire de la R D Congo. New York.
  17. Wrong, Michela, 2002. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo (Harper Perennial, 2002).

[i]  Mobutu died in exile in 1998 in Morocco but astonishingly, his flagrant  kleptocracy is still remembered by some in Congo as a time of stability. His son, Nzanga Mobutu was elected to parliament in 2007 and made the minister of agriculture .

[ii] Estimates from the International Committee of the Red Cross quoted in Simon Robinson and Vivienne Walt, “The Deadliest War in the World.” Time, May 28, 2008.