Debt, dirt and blood
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has just ‘celebrated’ 50 years of independence from brutal Belgian rule. One of the birthday presents it received was a debt write-off of around 10 billion USD from the IMF/World Bank, which essentially frees up 15 percent of the national budget, hopefully for things like health, education, reconstruction and security sector reform.
Now before we start patting anyone on the back, let us not forget that most of this debt was incurred by Mobutu (the kleptocratic President who was propped up by the USA and these international financial institutions for the duration of the Cold War) under dubious circumstances. Let us not also forget that the DRC has continued to be charged interest on those loans through the nose (the DRC has been forking out at least 300 million USD every year just to pay off the interest!), or that realistically speaking, the DRC was never going to be able to pay the debt off anyway.
But there was one rather sinister detail hiding behind the whole deal. The Canadian government had been trying to delay/block the debt write-off. Why? Because of a mining deal between the DRC government and a Canada-based mining company (First Quantum) that had gone bad. The DRC’s Supreme Court had annulled mining rights (for copper/cobalt in Kolwezi) on a number of mining titles, and the company was seeking arbitration on the matter. The mining rights were allegedly being taken over by a company registered in that haven for secrecy and tax evasion – the British Virgin Islands.
While the debt relief did go through, the attempt to block/delay it was really a nasty move on the part of the Canadian government, particularly given the current state of the DRC – the conflict, the poverty, the suffering. Just last month the UN warned that there is a “catastrophic” shortfall in aid for the DRC that threatens to leave hundreds of thousands of people there with vital health and food assistance cut off. Not that this made headlines, though – the media blackout goes on.
This affair is hot on the heels of another natural resource exploitation dispute in the DRC – over oil drilling rights in Lake Albert. London-based Tullow Oil had its concessions taken over by another company registered in the British Virgin Islands – reportedly one without any expertise in oil drilling. This company is apparently owned by the nephew of South African President, Jacob Zuma. But it has been alleged that Israeli diamond tycoon Dan Gertler (who is close to DRC President Kabila) is behind both the takeovers – the oil in Lake Albert and the copper/cobalt in Kolwezi.
This kind of dealing would look bad in any impoverished country, but let us also remind ourselves of the blood that has been shed over these riches. This conflict has been by far the deadliest of our times, with violence and conflict-related illness and starvation having killed millions. And while the objectives of the many and varied parties to the conflict (and their backers) are also many and varied, the battle over control of minerals such as tantalum, tin and gold has always loomed large as a factor fuelling the conflict. Minerals extracted through violence and virtual slave labour (made possible by the conflict) are always going to be cheaper than those for which a decent wage is paid, which of course helps not only the corporations going after them, but also us consumers when we want to buy electronic goods.
The mix of public and private, of public figures and profit, of governments and corporations in this mess is all so obvious. Ever since the UN came out with its first report in 2002 on the exploitation of natural resources (linked to the conflict) in the DRC, national governments all over the world have been falling over themselves to protect their ‘home’ corporations that had been named and shamed. And countries like the USA and France have hardly been cooperative with further attempts by UN investigations to get to the bottom of the link between natural resources and the conflict, as this example shows.
Here’s an interesting comment by the spokesperson for Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on the whole mining contract vs. debt relief issue: “We will continue to work with our international partners to ensure Canadian investment in the DRC is protected, while empowering those within the country as they work towards peace and sustainable economic development”. It’s a wonder the spokesperson could put two such contradictory objectives together in the same sentence and keep a straight face.
It all seems to be just another sad, sorry and sordid page in a tale of conflict, plunder and profit, with everyone (governments, corporations and individuals) trying to get their fingers in the pot and come away with the riches. This is another case of, both figuratively and literally, riches covered in dirt and in blood.