The Persistent Horror of Congo’s Exploitation

“The horror! The horror!” The enormities the colonials inflicted on the Congolese are condensed in those dying words of Kurtz, the depraved, power-mad ivory-procurer of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It was ivory then; it is cobalt now. But exploitation and slavery continue to this day in the benighted Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), long after most former colonies have prospered in freedom.

The DRC is the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, essential to the lithium-ion batteries that power cellphones, computers, EVs, and a host of devices. The silvery metal is stained with the blood of Congolese slaves, many of them children. Siddharth Kara, an expert on human trafficking and slavery, hopes to wake up the world to this 21st century horror with Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives, his latest book, published in January.

Kara travelled extensively through militia-controlled mining areas to research his book. Enduring threats, environmental hazards, and multiple attempts to halt his investigation, he has brought unwelcome sunlight to the deplorable disregard for human suffering in this country of 60 million, ranked among the five poorest in the world. His research and fieldwork make for heart-breaking reading: instead of prosperity, the vast resources of the central African nation have only brought it untold exploitation for over five centuries.

Slave trade began in Congo, as across Africa, in the mid-15th century. By the 16th century, during the reign of King Alfonso of Portugal, slave raids and networks were systematized, and these operated well into the 19th century. At the 1884 Berlin Conference to discuss the carving up of Africa, European colonials authorized King Leopold II of Belgium’s personal ownership of, and sovereignty over, the Congo Free State. In a few years, the explorer Henry Morgan Stanley perpetrated a massive land grab for the king by securing several hundred treaties from unsuspecting, illiterate native tribes.

The tribespeople were compelled into servitude, first harvesting ivory, and when that ran out, rubber sap to meet the demand for tires for Karl Benz’s vehicles. Leopold was ousted in 1908, but the Belgian government continued to use forced labor. When rubber prices collapsed in a few years, the slaves were deployed in mining copper and other minerals, of which vast deposits were being discovered. The Belgians sold a northern rain forest teeming with oil palms to a British soap maker, destined to become the multinational behemoth Unilever. The British firm did not desist from using forced labor and imposing production quotas on the slaves.

Patrice Lumumba brought independence to Congo in 1960, but Belgium organized the overthrow of the nascent government with help from the U.S. and the U.N. The Kennedy administration abetted Lumumba’s torture and killing by rebels led by Mobutu Sese Seko, who then ran the country for 27 years as his fiefdom, much like Leopold. He was followed by two dictators. All cut deals, either with the superpowers or multinationals, to extend the exploitation and impoverishment of their people.

In the early 2000s, Joseph Kabila took office after his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated. The Second Congo War, that saw the death of five million Congolese as nine African nations and 30 militias laid waste to the country, was raging at the time. Like his father, Kabila junior brokered several deals with mining giants. In 2009, he brought in a new player – China, which has spread its tentacles in Congo through numerous CCP-linked companies. He stepped down in 2018. The election later that year, which Kabila did not contest, saw the U.S.-friendly Felix Tshisekedi becoming president and vowing to end the Chinese hold over Congo. Kabila, meanwhile, is working with his Chinese backers to wrest control and may contest in elections this year.

The exploitation of the Congolese is an enormous travesty. Multinational corporations earn untold billions from selling cobalt, while the Congolese live in extreme poverty, suffering abuse, slavery, child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, and the poisoning of their soil and water. Children as young as six years work in mines to augment family income. Miners earn $1-2 daily. More than 75% of Congolese live in poverty, 33% suffer from food insecurity; only 26% have access to clean water, 9% to electricity. Life expectancy is 60.7 years; in child mortality, the DCR ranks 11th from the bottom of the list.

Demand for cobalt is expected to grow 500% by 2050, and with the world fixated on electronic devices, the horrific injustice in Congo will continue. Miners, including children, work without protective equipment, crouched underground for hours breathing toxin-suffused air. Medical care is inadequate. Tunnel collapses and floodings are common; there is no counting the dead.

Smaller mining firms are prevented from scouting for better prices, so they often slip into debt. Illegal mining is rampant. A peculiar feature that Kara points out is artisanal mining, some 30% of all cobalt mining in Congo. Conducted legally and illegally by subsistence miners, who use rudimentary tools and assume all risks, it is valued because it yields 10-15 times a higher grade of cobalt per ton than industrial mining. Artisanal miners operate across the Copper Belt, stretching along the border between northern Zambia and southern Congo. They dig up heterogenite, an ore of copper, nickel, cobalt, and uranium, selling it to “negotiators” or to depots, reminiscent of Conrad’s “outposts,” and almost exclusively operated by Chinese.

They in turn sell to industrial processors, joint ventures between Congo’s state-owned mining corporation and CCP-linked and -funded Chinese companies. The latter have gained advantage with low-ball bids, bringing in their own cheap labor, securing plants with military force, and operating without human rights considerations. The semi-refined cobalt they churn out is taken to commercial-grade refineries in China, since Congo cannot supply the electricity needed for the process. It was thus that in 2021, China produced 75% of the world’s refined cobalt.

Virtually selling the country to the Chinese, Congo’s leaders have allowed them to run riot like the earlier colonizers who conquered with arms. This time, the ravaging of the land and its people is worse. With hardly any environmental rules enforced, mining has killed agriculture, caused severe air and water pollution, and increased exposure to radioactivity. Armed guards patrol the cratered landscape, inflicting gratuitous violence and sexual assault to subdue the populace. They are joined in this by Congolese soldiers, who are known to run child labor groups, pocketing the wages and the proceeds of ore sales.

Many child miners take up the job after parents die in accidents or from occupational diseases. Some end up selling themselves for sex. Like their parents, child miners are injured or die in falls and tunnel collapses. Mass casualties are frequent but go unreported. Kara’s opening chapter describes the discovery of a child’s body, and he imagines that the blood has given the soil of Congo its unique reddish hue.

At no point in Congo’s history have ordinary people benefited from the monetization of its abundant wealth that has supported the global economy – ivory, rubber, palm oil, copper, tin, zinc, silver, nickel, diamonds, gold, uranium, tantalum, tungsten, and cobalt. Instead, they have been preyed upon – by colonials, colonial-era companies, the superpowers, multinationals, soldiers and militias, traffickers, and now by their own leaders, Chinese miners, and high-tech companies.

Any chance for a trickle-down effect is dashed by rampant corruption, endemic to Africa, and cheating. A mining executive tells Kara the foreign companies dodge taxes and cheat the partnering state mining corporation. Figures are falsified, and bureaucrats and company employees pocket the difference.  

The devastation of Congo is a blight on the world for those who cherish freedom, liberty, and dignity. Hopefully, Kara’s compelling book will open the eyes of the world to “The horror! The horror!” of what the Congolese endure – even into the 21st century. We might think of that every time we look at our cellphones.

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