New Internationalist

The scramble for Africa

Issue 367

Africa is endowed with an overwhelming abundance of gems, metals, minerals and other natural resources – but Katharine Ainger asks whether this wealth is a blessing or a curse.

Wolfgang Maria Weber / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com
Rare minerals such as coltan and niobium, extracted from conflict regions in sub-Saharan Africa, make their way into everyday items like mobile phones and game consoles. Wolfgang Maria Weber / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com

TILBURY dock, on the sea-reach of the Thames, is a bizarre industrial landscape patrolled by strange beast-like machinery: trucks lift sea-containers in their jaws and place them on railway wagons and lorries. Towering over them are giant cranes and mountain ranges of coal and scrap metal.

Docked in one of the berths, a ship’s belly yields up cargo, its container crates stacked high in the warehouses. In the previous week the ship has nudged up the west coast of Africa loading goods at the war-ravaged cities of Luanda, Matadi, Monrovia and Freetown before arriving here in London.

Across from Tilbury on the far bank of the Thames, barely visible through the slanting grey rain, is the old Gravesend pier where Joseph Conrad began his 1899 tale of colonialism and atrocity in the Belgian Congo, Heart of Darkness. His story opens on the ship Nellie as the protagonist Marlow waits with the rest of the crew for the turn of the tide in order to depart. ‘The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway,’ Conrad wrote. ‘The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest and the greatest town on earth… “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”’

Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ was not just a reflection of the racist view of Africa as ‘the dark continent’, but a reference to complicity in an African holocaust, the taint of blood on goods acquired in shameful circumstances and Europe’s plunder of Africa’s wealth. Standing on the banks of the Thames under an overcast sky, the London of today seems shrouded still by Conrad’s ‘mournful gloom’.

At Tilbury dock today there is nothing to prevent the importation of timber sold to fund distant conflicts. Just beyond the circle of the M25 motorway, diamonds arrive at Heathrow airport, where customs can’t detect ‘blood’ gems sold for arms by warmongers. Mobile phones made with the mineral coltan – a rare substance traded by brutal combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo – are ubiquitous. In the financial heart of the City, unpoliced investments and financial institutions have profited from some of Africa’s bloodiest wars.

Private interests from warlords to unscrupulous corporations to arms dealers and organized crime have helped to fuel African conflicts over the past decade as they vie for control over valuable resources. Globalization has added a key dimension to contemporary warfare – armed groups from some of the world’s most remote places can be directly linked with commerce in the ‘technological heartland of metropolitan society’.1 A complex international network of smugglers, brokers and traders means that everything from diamond rings and garden furniture to the components of mobile phones and Playstations may have originated as the booty of Africa’s conflicts.

Everything from diamond rings and garden furniture to the components of mobile phones may have originated as the booty of Africa’s conflicts

It was a ship worker who first discovered the truth about Belgian King Leopold’s brutal exploits in the Congo. In 1897 Edward Morel stood on the quayside at Antwerp watching shipments being unloaded from the Congo. He noticed that though ivory and rubber of enormous value were being brought in by ship, the only goods being sent back to the Congo in exchange were bullets and firearms. He deduced that there was just one explanation for this – slave labour.2 He wrote: ‘I have stood on that quay in Antwerp and seen the rubber disgorged from the bowels of the incoming steamer. To my fancy there was mingled with the sound of musical chimes of the old cathedral tower another sound – a sigh breathed in the gloomy Equatorial forest by those from whose anguish this wealth was wrung.’ He went on to form the worldwide international human rights campaign, the Congolese Reform Movement.

At Tilbury docks today, amidst the clatter of the late industrial global economy, one might hear a faint echo of that same sigh. But we who end up with Africa’s wealth – when we fill up our petrol tanks, buy a gold watch or throw away a mobile phone – do not see the connection or the plunder at the other end of the resource chain. For the brutal reality of where many of these raw materials originate is a far cry from abstract notions of virtual wealth and seamless trade.

The paradox of plenty

Africa is vastly rich in natural resources but the continent has paid a terrible price for this wealth. In the past decade horrendous wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Liberia have been fuelled by fighting for control over diamonds, timber, gold, minerals and oil.

An old joke popular in Sierra Leone is bitter testimony to this fact: ‘When God created the world, He endowed Sierra Leone with such a wonderful wealth of natural resources that the angels protested. “Don’t worry,” God replied. “Just wait until you see the people I’ve put there.”’3 In a 10-year-long horrific civil war, warlords from the armed rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) amputated hands to terrorize the population and sold diamonds to fuel killing sprees with names like ‘Operation No Living Thing’. Some 75,000 people died in the war and over two million were displaced. Ibrahim Kamara, Sierra Leone’s UN ambassador, said in July 2000: ‘ We have always maintained that the conflict is not about ideology, tribal or regional difference… The root of the conflict is and remains diamonds, diamonds and diamonds.’4

This is the ‘paradox of plenty’: the more a country is enriched by the extraction of primary resources and the more its dependency on them deepens, the lower its ratings for human development drop. Thus while the soil is rich with diamonds, the average Sierra Leonean can expect to live for just 34.5 years.5 Angola, too, has diamond and oil wealth of enormous value, yet a quarter of all Angolan children die before the age of five. Angola’s diamonds and oil were used by rebels and the Government to enrich themselves and to buy arms to fight one another at the expense of an impoverished, brutalized population.

In a quarter of the roughly 50 wars and armed conflicts active in 2001, resource exploitation has played a key role.6 These are known as ‘resource wars’ and with good reason. A poor country with weak infrastructure, few options for making money and possessing significant ‘lootable’ resources is four times more likely to experience war than a similar country without them.7

In a vicious circle, resource exploitation fuels war, and war facilitates continued exploitation of the resource. Groups making money from war have a vested interest in perpetuating conflict. Thus these wars are less about one side winning, than about the ability to engage in profitable crime under the cover of warfare.8

Only 120 people are responsible for most of the small arms going to Africa

Of course resources are not the only cause. Conflict comes from a complex combination of political, social, economic and military factors. And the states that descend into chaos are typically weak, repressive, undemocratic and economically vulnerable. But how do such states get into this situation? The benefits of activities such as mining and logging typically go to a tiny oligarchy of foreign and local business and government élites. Thus a state heavily dependent on oil and mineral extraction is statistically very likely to be highly corrupt, authoritarian and maintaining a massive military budget – all of which leads to a heightened risk of civil war. And though there are exceptions to the rule, such as Botswana, they are few and far between.9

Across sub-Saharan Africa many governments are in a state of decay. Under pressure from Northern governments and institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to repay debts and restructure their economies, the public sector and social infrastructure have been decimated. Meanwhile leaders and their politically powerful cronies siphon off state revenues for personal gain.

Young men typically join rebel groups in these places because the government provides nothing and there is little else for them to do. Seizing valuable resources is their ticket to wealth and power.

These factors create a brutal dynamic. Resource wars often feature ‘extreme and conspicuous atrocity’ against the population,10 because corrupt governments’ power relies on large resource revenues not popular support. Meanwhile fighters are only interested in loot and have no need to win over local hearts and minds. In fact quite the opposite is true. Plunderers clear resourcerich areas they wish to control by terrorizing civilians through systematic rape and torture. Others are forced to serve as prostitutes, semi-slave labourers and child soldiers.

The fog of war

At the height of the war in Sierra Leone it emerged that RUF rebels – whose favoured way to terrorize people was to amputate their hands – were selling diamonds that were ending up on the world market. A rumour went round the diamond world that a British industry man was having nightmares about a famous jewellery advert featuring a hand adorned by a glinting diamond ring in which the slogan had been changed to: ‘Amputation is forever’.11

So what, if any, is the degree of complicity among consuming nations? How do diamonds get from an artisanal mine in Africa to a ring on your finger? How does the mineral coltan get from a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo into a mobile phone you might buy in the local shops?

Between the two are complex networks of smugglers, fixers and arms brokers. International commerce is the key to understanding how these networks operate so effectively. The illegal economy feeds into the legal economy in this underworld of crime and high finance.

Arms trafficking is a crucial link in the chain. According to one source, perhaps only 120 people are responsible for most of the small arms going to Africa, including those who armed the genocidal Rwandan militias. Resource commodities often get sold or swapped for illegal arms shipments coming in the opposite direction (see pages 13-22 to trace the trail of plundered resources from the mines to the smuggling networks).

Shipping and aviation companies have also played a crucial role. In October 2002, a UN Expert Panel issued an exhaustive report on the exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which alleged connections between the atrocities committed there and 85 businesses operating in Europe, Asia and North America. It showed how coltan, among other substances, was smuggled into Dubai and then on to other trading zones.

At the other end of the trail, traders in places like Antwerp, Oostende, London and Tel Aviv receive the conflict loot. The diamonds, coltan or gold, now shed of their bloody associations, enter the legal economy. The truth is that the UN has no definition of ‘conflict resources’ to help stop the trade and there are no workable mechanisms for governing the behaviour of transnational corporations in conflict zones.

The UN Expert Panel tried to use the voluntary OECD Guidelines for Multinational Corporations to enforce investigations into the corporate role in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo; but governments of the OECD – the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the world’s most industrialized nations – have thus far taken no action.

Perhaps the International Criminal Court may prove more robust. Its Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, has intimated that foreign business people who knowingly supplied cash or weapons in exchange for conflict resources to people guilty of war crimes could be prosecuted: ‘ Follow the trail of the money and you will find the criminals. If you stop the money then you stop the crime,’ he said last year. A probe into possible war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the Congo begins soon, in what Ocampo has called ‘the most important case since World War Two’. He added that among the countries where links to the purchase of blood diamonds had been found were the US, Canada, Britain, Russia, Finland, Zimbabwe and China.12

Breaking the cycle

Yet despite the horror stories, there is hope. In 1999, a fifth of all Africans lived in war-torn countries. Today, for the first time in five years, no major conflagrations are taking place, though fighting continues in some hotspots. The brutal conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola ended with peace deals in 2001. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a negotiated peace deal in 2002 has resulted in a ceasefire except in some pockets in the east. Liberia’s war ended officially in August 2003. In Sudan peace talks are ongoing, as are talks in Burundi and in Côte d’Ivoire. Perhaps most positive of all, the African Union has agreed a new peacekeeping mandate to intervene in members’ conflicts. The complex problem of disarmament is ongoing and many of the countries that are officially at peace are plagued with instability while fighting and economic exploitation continues.

If you stop the money then you stop the crime

But barely have the peace deals been signed than the investors begin circling. The talk among the extractive industries is of a new ‘African gold-rush’, with the World Bank granting concessions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. The idea that the exploitation of natural resources will bring ‘ development’ to shattered economies, however, has been thoroughly discredited – not least by the World Bank’s own recent report into the extractive industries.13The question must be asked: has anyone learned the terrible lessons of Africa’s resource wars?

For peace in these countries to hold, for poverty to be eliminated, for societies to be rebuilt, the underlying causes of the conflicts that tore them apart need to be resolved. Opening the floodgates to international investment before the original exploitation has ended, let alone been investigated and justice brought, is likely to sow the seeds of further corruption and war.

This strategy repeats the pattern of plunder rather than breaks the cycle of war. As Patrick Alley of the NGO Global Witness confirms, ‘ Resource exploitation and conflict is a cyclical thing. If we can stop the cycle, we can begin to talk about war prevention.’

J.B. Russell / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
A landmine victim in Angola dances during festivities for the International Day of the Disabled. Despite vast reserves of petroleum, diamonds and natural resources, decades of civil war has riddled Angola with unexploded ordnance, impoverishing and crippling the population. J.B. Russell / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

Future resource wars

As resource wars in some areas die down, Global Witness is currently mapping the contributing factors of possible future conflagrations. To take just one example, the West is keen to tap energy sources outside the volatile Middle East. The Gulf-of-Guinea countries in West Africa – Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe, Chad, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo- Brazzaville and Angola – form a region dubbed the ‘New Middle East Gulf’ because of its immense untapped petroleum resources. The United States has declared African oil a ‘national strategic interest’ that is predicted to provide 25 per cent of US oil by 2015. ‘The carrier battle groups of the future and the expeditionary strike groups of the future may not spend six months in the Med[iterranean Sea], but I’ll bet they’ll spend half the time going down the west coast of Africa,’ said NATO Supreme Commander, US General James Jones in April 2003, announcing plans to boost US troop presence there.14

The new African ‘Middle East’ is already a hotbed of instability which, as Diarmid O’Sullivan of Global Witness points out, has already provided two case studies of oil revenues that have split society and fed civil wars: namely, Angola and Congo-Brazzaville. How can we avoid seeing these oil revenues fuel corruption and conflict in the future? Some ideas for ending the resource wars cycle are presented on pages 26-27.

But building long-term peace ultimately means building democracy, reducing vulnerability to the ‘resource curse’ by moving away from dependence on primary commodities, and creating political systems that are accountable to the rightful owners of Africa’s wealth – its impoverished populations. The alternative is a future in which resources continue to be the stake of bloody power-struggles between ruthless plunderers and warmongers.

  1. M Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars: the Merging of Development and Security, Zed Books 2001.
  2. Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Pan 2002.
  3. As told by Elijah Zarwan, ‘Coming Through Slaughter: an interview with Sierra Leonean journalist Philip Neville’, World Press Review online, http://www.worldpress.org 21 March 2002.
  4. Quoted by Barbara Crossette, ‘Singling Out Sierra Leone, UN Council Sets Gem Ban’, New York Times, 6 July 2000.
  5. Human Development Index, UNDP Human Development Report 2003, Oxford University Press.
  6. Michael Renner, ‘The Anatomy of Resource Wars’, Worldwatch Institute, October 2002.
  7. Paul Collier, ‘Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy’, World Bank, 15 June 2000.
  8. Tim Raeymakers, ‘Targeting Business in Conflict: Beyond the Plunder Logic’, Paper presented at the Conference on Curbing Human Rights Violations by Armed Groups, UBC Centre of International Relations, Vancouver, 13-15 November 2003.
  9. Michael Ross, ‘Extractive Industries and the Poor’, Oxfam America 2001.
  10. Mary Kaldor quoted by Michael Renner, ‘The Anatomy of Resource Wars’, Worldwatch Institute, October 2002.
  11. Greg Campbell, Blood Diamonds: tracing the deadly path of the world’s most precious stones, Westview Press 2002.
  12. Reuters, ‘War Crimes Court Eyes Blood Diamond Buyers’, 23 September 2003.
  13. See Extractive Industries Review http://www.eireview.org
  14. Jim Lobe, ‘Pentagon’s ‘Footprint’ Growing in Africa’, Foreign Policy in Focus http://www.fpif.org, 12 May 2003.

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