New Internationalist

The arms smugglers

Issue 367

Gold, gems and other war loot are smuggled out of conflict zones and swapped for guns and cash. Wairagala Wakabi exposes the networks of arms dealers, smugglers, merchants, warlords and governments in the Great Lakes region.

FOR many decades the small, dusty northeastern Congolese town of Aru thrived largely on trade with Uganda. Its rich farmlands supplied cassava and beans to the Ugandan town of Arua, which is just 10 kilometres over the border and is the main trading centre in the West Nile region. In the opposite direction, from Uganda to the Congo, came mainly consumer products like clothing, toiletries, beer and biscuits.

Over the past five years Aru has continued to be a trading town. Only nowadays the main trading commodities are no longer sugar and beans but guns, gold and coltan. ‘ Aru is now one of the areas with an open gun market where all the arms dealers are well known and guns go very cheap,’ says Levi Ochieng, a researcher with International Crisis Group (ICG), a Belgium-based NGO working in conflict areas. Most of the dealers in Aru provide guns in small quantities but some can organize truckloads, says Ochieng.

According to the United Nations Observer Mission in Congo (MONUC), Aru continues to be the main entry route for arms that fuel massacres and carnage in the eastern Congo, despite the fact that the war has formally ended. The location of the town is ideal: virtually ungoverned, it is approached by gunrunners from some of the hottest war zones in the region.

For one, it is near northern Uganda, where rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have for 16 years battled the Ugandan Government. Uganda’s northern neighbour Sudan has provided the LRA with a large arsenal of arms, some of which eventually find their way into the hands of traffickers and Congolese warlords.

Aru is also close to the southern Sudanese border where the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) have fought the Sudanese Government for close to two decades. Some arms captured by the SPLA end up on the open market, though some rebels sometimes sell their own guns.

The border between Uganda and Congo is very porous and there is never any serious border monitoring,’ says David Avuti, a resident of Muni – a Ugandan town five kilometres from Aru – who regularly crosses to Congo without meeting customs or security personnel from either side of the border. Though Uganda has established two customs points at Vurra and Aliwara, the rest of the long borderline marked by dense green vegetation remains unmonitored, making it easy for goods to flow between Uganda and Congo.

African gun routes

Richard Nabudere, who heads Uganda’s national campaign to control the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, says that weapons have reached Uganda all the way from Somalia through Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Somalia has been stateless for over a decade and is now controlled by heavily armed warlords. Kenya’s North and Rift provinces, as well as Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja region, are all awash with tens of thousands of automatic weapons in easy reach of Aru.

In 2002, Uganda recovered over 10,000 guns in Karamoja, but an estimated 80,000 others are still in civilian hands in an area with 400,000 inhabitants. Karamoja borders Kenya’s and Sudan’s gun-infested zones, and the gun markets in the region – where an AK-47 goes for about $60 – are infamous.

South Africa has been another key source of weapons but Richard Nabudere says most originate from Eastern Europe.

Like many other Congolese towns ruled by warlords and awash with trade in minerals and arms, Aru remains one of the top troublespots in the Congo. Warlords often confiscate planeloads of weapons belonging to rivals and visit terror on civilians to raise funds for purchasing arms and maintaining their armies. MONUC has itself confiscated arms and planes in eastern towns which it says enter the country through Aru.

Smuggler’s paradise

Observers say the lucrative trade in minerals like coltan, gold and diamonds is the main cause for the continuation of the carnage in Congo. Congo’s marauding militia enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Uganda and Rwanda. The guns and gems trade cannot easily be stamped out because it benefits all the parties that have the power to stop it: the Rwandan and Ugandan governments – including their corrupt customs, police and traffic officers that are bribed to let in the minerals – and the Congolese warlords. While occupying forces physically quit Congo in 2002, they left behind a sophisticated smuggling network that could run for many years.

Goma, which lies just off Rwanda’s northern border, was the headquarters of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD-Goma) – the main group Rwanda backed in the war. The town still has a heavy Rwandan business and security presence.

Before the rebel leaders headed to Kinshasa to take part in the unified government, they had already established their own networks. They operate cargo planes that traverse eastern Congo every day,’ says Arthur Asiimwe, a Kigali-based stringer for Reuters. He adds that the rebel leaders’ networks are well connected to business entities in Europe and America (see keynote).

Smuggled Congolese minerals are shoring up Uganda and Rwanda’s export revenues. ‘The greatest portion of the minerals is exported to Europe and the US through Rwanda and Uganda. For example, in Rwanda there’s a company that deals in minerals and has a well-established market in Europe and the US,’ says a Lebanese mineral dealer in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. ‘Basically, once the minerals are got from Congo, their stop centre is Rwanda and Uganda. It is from here that the dealers get in touch with markets abroad.’

Rwanda’s real GDP, which grew by 10 per cent in 2002, last year grew by just 3 per cent. This poor performance is mostly attributed to the withdrawal of Rwandan forces from Congo in July 2002,’ says a Rwandan journalist.

Similarly for the year to June 2003, Uganda’s mineral exports rose from $64m to $68m, according to government statistics. But a close look at the figures is rather revealing. For instance, the official statistics indicate that while the country’s total mineral production for 2001 was worth $22m, in 2002 it fell to just $6m. This clearly shows that much of what the country was exporting was not its own minerals but those smuggled out of the Congo and exported through Uganda.

All the arms dealers are well known and the guns go very cheap

In 2001 government figures show that Uganda was producing 2.02 tonnes of coltan but exported 14.96 tonnes. In other words, that year up to 86 per cent of the coltan exported by Uganda must have originated from the Congo. In fact, industry observers say export figures involving Congolese minerals channelled through Uganda are a lot higher, since most of them are not recorded by customs authorities.

A source in the United Nations Mission confirmed that the rebels at times trade minerals for arms and that primarily they get their arms through the governments that support them. For example, RCD-Goma has traditionally used the Rwandan Government to buy its arms in exchange for minerals while the groups Uganda supported got their arms through Kampala.

Both Uganda and Rwanda maintain what they call ‘Congo desks’, which take care of supplying their proxies in the Congo and negotiating in return for sharing the spoils of the mineral trade.

At the source

The mining of coltan – a greyish, sparkling metal composed of columbite and tantalite – intensified around 1999 in both South and North Kivu with miners operating in mountainous areas, fertile farming fields and even in shallow rivers. It is extracted manually by artisanal miners who earn a pittance for the pebbles and rocks they collect (see The looting of the Congo).

The rebels and warlords maintain a tight control on the coltan export trade. In most areas militia groups have appointed monopolistic companies to run the trade.

Go-betweens who enjoy the patronage of rebel and militia groups buy the mineral from the artisanal miners and in turn sell to exporters who are almost always cohorts of the militia groups. The minerals are flown out to the US or Europe – almost always by Russian or Ukrainian mercenaries. While Rwanda still had an official presence in the Congo, some planes flew to Kigali before the minerals were taken overseas.

The small airfields that litter Congolese towns like Minembwe, Kilimba, Mwenga, Kilembwe and Shabunda have all been used to ferry in arms or to take minerals out while the vast Lake Tanganyika has also been a favoured route for arms smugglers.

Other countries have also been implicated. Senior officials in the Government of Tanzania, which has more control over this Lake than any other country, have been accused of providing arms and diplomatic cover to Burundian rebels who for several years have been ransacking the Congo’s riches as well as killing civilians.

Indeed some contraband coltan has been impounded as far away as Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam port, suggesting that some of Congo’s minerals are passing through that country. Police say many of the cargo planes that are loaded with fish and horticultural products in Tanzanian airports ferry arms to rackets in the Great Lakes region.

In December 2003 it emerged that the UN Panel on the plunder of Congo’s resources had cut out of its report a chapter that detailed the involvement of Uganda and Rwanda in looting Congo’s resources and arming its militia groups. The reason given was that publishing the chapter could have harmed the fragile peace process in the Congo.

The report says Rwanda is still arming the RCD-Goma and Union for Congolese Patriots (UPC) and that its military and security agents still play ‘an important but highly discreet role’ in looting the Congo.

It claimed RCD-Goma runs the Congo Holding Development Company (CHDC), which has bases in eastern Congo and Kigali, and that it serves as the primary vehicle for illegally shipping out minerals. Kampala was also accused of ‘a shift to a more centralized, state-sponsored policy’ of militia funding and mineral exploitation. It added that Uganda’s ‘campaign of economic exploitation in eastern Congo’ was directed from the President’s office.

Wairagala Wakabi is a staff writer with the Kenya-published regional weekly The East African and has covered the Congo conflict since 1998.

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