There is no obvious link between our new toys and civil strife in Africa; at least, not on the surface. In reality, however, the two are inextricably linked and provide the strongest reason the U.S. should be paying much closer attention to what is unfolding in the war-torn central African country.
In recent months, a rebel group known as M23 has emerged, opposing Congo’s government and seeking its demise. The group, numbering several thousands of members, has already captured several towns on Congo’s eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda. Its most significant move took place last week with the capture of Goma, Congo’s largest eastern city. Evidence suggests M23 is supported by the Rwandan government, although these allegations have been strongly denied by Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Most members of M23 were previously involved with the National Congress for the Defense of the People, a rebel group that fought the nation’s military from 2006 to 2009. The conflict was resolved on March 23, 2009 (hence the name M23), when the rebels were integrated into the Congolese army and promised a number of concessions. However, feeling that these promises had not been upheld, the group broke off earlier this year and began a campaign to challenge the government’s control over the country, claiming that President Kabila’s government is corrupt.
This is just the latest chapter in Congo’s tragic recent history. War first erupted in 1997 when then-President Mobutu was overthrown by rebel forces. The conflict raged until 2003, resulting in around 5 million deaths, in what was considered the most lethal war since World War II. In the last 15 years, some half a million women have been raped, and millions more displaced from their homes.
Goma has not been spared its share of trouble. It sits in the province of North Kivu which shares a border with Rwanda. Conflict has spilled back and forth over that border for almost two decades as the Rwandan government has sought to repel opposition groups driven out after the 1994 genocide. With Goma now under the control of M23, following the submission of the police and flight of the military, there are fears of a reignited conflict.
So what does all this have to do with your new iPad or Galaxy S iPhone? Congo is a mineral-rich country, producing large quantities of tin, tungsten and cobalt. It also possesses around 70 percent of the global supply of coltan, a mineral used to make capacitors for mobile devices. Most of the coltan in Congo is found in North and South Kivu. Control of Congo’s minerals may equate to wealth of $24 trillion, according to market research firm IHS. That is terrifying news for those well-versed in the pattern of conflict in Africa’s history that has been largely funded by such mineral acquisitions.
The result of this latest move could be major effects on the supply of coltan and other minerals to manufacturers, turbulence in the market or at worst the direct support of civil conflict through the purchase of “conflict minerals.” Rules exist to prevent the latter of these outcomes, but many industries have found loopholes to sidestep such regulations.
Several steps should be taken to minimize the effects of this recent situation and prevent further suffering for Congo’s people.
First, negotiations must be taken seriously by both M23 and the Congolese government. So far this week, talks have stagnated as the government insists it cannot meet the rebel group’s demands. It is crucial that the government hear the grievances of the group while solidifying its legitimacy as the sole power in Congo.
Second, Rwanda must be transparent about its involvement with the M23 rebels and cease any support it is giving the group. Rwanda receives massive amounts of foreign aid from the U.S. and U.K., yet has failed to deliver a strong record on human rights and government transparency. Kagame should understand that backing rebel militias will bring consequences from the international community, and is an act that must be consigned to history for the sake of Congo’s people.
Third, the U.N. must take a stronger role in resisting rebel groups in the region. The 20,000 peacekeepers in North Kivu have been ineffective against M23’s claim on Goma, while an impending humanitarian crisis in the region could be another black mark on the UN’s history of resolving conflict in Africa.
Finally, the U.S. government should be taking this situation very seriously. Conflict in Congo has been overlooked for far too long as millions have died and many more have suffered. If a threat to the global technology market is required for action to be taken, as sad as that is, then so be it. Inevitably, if our domestic interests are impacted enough, we will surely do something.