A historical background to the Jean-Pierre Bemba arrest (Part 2)

In 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had been the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for 32 years, was toppled by Laurent Kabila, the leader of the Allied Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL).  The AFDL was supported by the Ugandan army and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) in their struggle against Mobutu.

To gain military and financial support from these countries, Kabila promised that once he gained power these countries and other big corporations would be granted lucrative mining deals. Papaioannou (2006) argues that the close relationship between the AFDL and corporations meant that the formation of the post-Mobutu Congo government was compromised by the AFDL promise to secure beneficial agreements for its allies, instead of focusing on rebuilding the Congo. Consequently, when Kabila failed to turn his promises into reality, a civil war that killed more than three million people ensued.

According to Papaioannou, Kabila did not meet the investors’ expectations; in fact, he alarmed his former allies when he decided to nationalise a key railway line, and when he expressed to United States diplomats that he favoured extensive state-owned projects.

According to research done by Global Witness (2004), at the end of 1997 when Kabila had been in power for several months, over 100 preliminary joint venture and privatisation mining agreements were signed and 200 were pending. Many of the preliminary agreements to these had been negotiated with the Mobutu government. When Kabila took over, he reviewed some of these agreements. Global Witness revealed that foreign companies including Ashanti Goldfields Company Limited, Banro Resource Corporation (over gold and diamond concessions in South Kivu and Maniema), American Mineral Fields (over a coppercobalt tailings project in Katanga), and De Beers, were all affected by Kabila’s review of the agreements.

Things reached a low point in July 1998 when Kabila ordered all foreign troops (including his former allies) to leave the DRC. In August 1998, the Ugandan army and the Rwandan army invaded the DRC, this time as Kabila’s enemies. These two countries aligned themselves with various rebel groups who were opposed to Kabila’s rule. The Rwandan army supported the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), while the Ugandan army backed the Jean-Pierre Bemba led Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent troops to back Kabila – splitting the country into rebel and government-held areas. 

Through the support of the Rwandan and Ugandan armies, different Congolese rebel groups were able to effectively control rebel-occupied territories as de facto sovereign states that they opened for investment and business dealing, writes Papaioannou. The country’s resources were used to finance a five year civil war, which effectively became about access to the country’s resources and the control of territory with rich natural resources. 

According to Global Witness, since the late 1800s the Congolese people have always suffered at the hands of foreign and indigenous businessmen and political leaders intent on exploiting the DRC’s rubber, ivory, diamonds, gold, copper and cobalt, timber and other resources.

Following in the shameful tradition of those who have exploited and plundered Congo’s resources in the past, Rwandan forces and their allies organized the removal of thousands of tonnes of coltan and cassiterite in the vicinity of Kamituga, which they transported back to Rwanda, writes Braekman. Coltan is a vital ingredient making up miniature circuit boards, found in almost all cell phones, laptops, pagers and many other electronics, while cassiterite is the chief ore found in tin.

Meanwhile, the Ugandan army confiscated Kisangani’s entire stock of wood. Bemba and the MLC seized the entire stock of available coffee. Braekman explains that these resources were then transported to Uganda. "Ugandan generals close to their President, Museveni, set up companies and generously supplied arms to various…militias."

Thus, between September 1998 and August 1999, the occupied zones of the DR Congo were plundered of all their stocks: stocks of minerals, agricultural products and livestock, writes Braekman. 

This analysis is consistent with  the conclusions of the U.N. Panel of Experts’ investigation into the matter. The panel was convened by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, and mandated to conduct an investigation into the causes of the civil war in the DRC. The panel found that sophisticated networks of high-level political, military and business persons in cahoots with various rebel groups were intentionally fuelling the war in order to retain their control over the country’s resources.

A Human Rights Watch report by Ganesan and Vines (2004) also concludes that the control of diamonds, coltan, and timber has been a powerful incentive to prolong the DRC’s vicious civil war. Ganesan and Vines explain that Uganda has no diamonds itself but became a diamond exporter after it had occupied diamond-rich areas in the DRC. The U.N. panel also found that Rwanda, which has no diamond reserves of its own, began to export diamonds after it became involved in the war. It found that the Rwandan military financed its involvement in the DRC through commercial exploitation of resources, shareholding in businesses operating in the DRC, payments from the rebel group RCD, and taxation and protection payments from businesses operating in Rwandan-controlled areas in the DRC, write Ganesan and Vines.

 The panel of experts further concluded that big battles during the civil war were fought in areas of major economic importance; for example, towards the cobalt and copper-rich area of Katanga and the diamond area of Mbuji Mayi. These areas made millions of dollars for whoever had control over them. 

According to Amnesty International (2003), US$3.8 million worth of diamonds were exported in 2001 to Antwerp, Belgium, from Uganda, which has no domestic diamond production. Also, the UN Panel of Experts cited the sharp rise in Ugandan gold exports, in excess of the country’s national production, as evidence that the Ugandan forces transported gold out of eastern DRC to Uganda.

Another Amnesty International (AI) report reveals that 19 coltan trading houses in Rwandese-controlled eastern DRC declared exports of more than 445 tonnes of the substance. Furthermore, in November 2000 rebel group RCD instituted an export monopoly and declared exports of 208 tonnes in December 2000 and January 2001. Taking into account illicit exports and direct transfers to Rwanda by the Rwandese army, the actual tonnage of coltan produced in the Kivu provinces in 2000 may have been between 1,400 and 1,700 tonnes. The UN Panel of Experts estimated that the Rwandese army made at least US$250 million from coltan transferred to Rwanda over a period of 18 months.

When Ugandan and Rwandan troops withdrew from the DRC in 2002 – 2003, this led to a battle between local armed groups contending for control of the gold mining areas, writes Prosansky (2007). These groups drew the battle lines along ethnic lines. People from the Hema tribe sided with the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), while the people from the Lendu tribe sided with the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), explains Prosansky. Driving these armed groups was the desire to control areas rich with gold, for that gave them access to arms and wealth. 

Bemba, Patasse and the Central African Republic

According to Global Witness (2004), in 2000 alone nearly 85% of the DRC’s diamond production (US$854 million, out of a total US$1.02 billion) was illegally smuggled out of the country. The UN Expert Panel reported that an estimated one third of the total rough diamond production of the DRC (around US$300 million) was smuggled to the Central African Republic (CAR), and to Congo-Brazzaville, due to the lower export duties in these two countries.  The diamonds are then sent to the main diamond trading centres – i.e. Antwerp, London, New York, Lucerne, Johannesburg, Dubai, Tel Aviv and Bombay. Antwerp is the largest diamond trader in the world, with 80% of the world’s diamonds passing through the city. 

Bemba and the MLC used Bangui in the CAR as the base to smuggle out of Africa ‘blood diamonds’ and coffee. Also, the MLC received its arms via CAR. This went on until the overthrow of Patasse (who was the President of CAR) in 2003.

 The Global Witness report also reveal that during the same period, Bemba and the MLC rebels used the CAR as a base to smuggle out timber stockpiles belonging to companies such as Siforco (a company which is part of the Danzer Group – the largest manufacturer of hardwood veneers) and Safbois (an American/Belgium Conglomerate). After the civil war, in the lead-up to the establishment of a transitional government, Siforco was still paying taxes both to the government and to Bemba and the MLC

The DRC has the largest forest reserves in Africa; it covers 135,110,000 ha of the DRC’s land area. According to Global Witness, the forest types in the DRC include evergreen, swamp and montane — valuable timber species. During the civil war, about  40% of DRC’s forests were under government control, with the remaining 60% in rebel-held territory.

When Uganda controlled the Kisangani area, it transported the timber from that area by air.  Global Witness points out that many of the planes returned to Uganda loaded with afrormosia, iroko and possibly sapele timber that was destined for the prestige flooring markets in Germany and Italy. 

After the civil war, around 2002, Safbois, was awarded a logging concession of more than 100,000 square miles, and it is now felling the forest for the precious afrormosia tree – African teak, according to Vidal (2007). Moreover, it is mostly European companies who dominate the industry and have vast concessions in the DRC. For example, according to World Wide Fund for Nature,  IFO in the Republic of Congo and SIFORCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo — Danzer’s subsidiaries, manage a combined total forest area of 3.2 million hectares in central Africa. 


Part 3 of this essay explores the role mining companies played in the civil war.   



Amnesty International Report (2003). Democratic Republic of Congo: ‘Our brothers who help kill us’- Economic exploitation and human rights abuses in the east. Amnesty International Website. Retrieved on 21 June, 2008, from: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR62/010/2003/en/dom-AFR620102003en.pdf

Freeman, C. (No date). Congo at a crossroads. Friends of the Earth website. Retrieved on 21 June, 2008, from: http://www.foe.org/oecdguidelines/Oped.pdf

Ganesan, A. & Vines, A. (2004). Engine of war: Resources, greed, and the predatory state. Human Rights Watch website. Retrieved on 21 June, 2008, from: http://www.hrw.org/wr2k4/14.htm

Global Witness Report. (2004). Same old story: A background study on the natural resources in Democratic Republic of Congo. Global Policy Website. Retrieved on 21 June, 2008, from: http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/congo/2004/07congonatres.pdf

Papaioannou, A. (2006). The illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo: A case study on corporate complicity in human rights abuses.  In O. De Schutter (Ed.), Transnational Corporations and human rights, (pp. 263 – 286). Portland: Hart Publishing.

Prosansky, B. (2007). Mining gold in a conflict zone: The context, ramifications, and lessons of AngloAshanti’s activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights, 5, 236 – 274.

Vidal, J. (September, 2007). Slow down the river. The Guardian. Retrieved on 21 June, 2008, from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/sep/22/congo.environment

Vilwar, E. (2003). The lost world war. Corporate Watch Newsletter (13). Retrieved on 21 June, 2008, from: http://archive.corporatewatch.org.uk/newsletter/issue13/newsletter13.pdf

World Wide Fund for Nature. (September, 2006). WWF and global timber company team up to promote sustainable forestry in Africa. WWF Website.  Retrieved on 21 June, 2008, from: http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/forests/news/successes/index.cfm?uNewsID=80520

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