OPPORTUNITY AND CHALLENGE
Why should Americans care what happens in a complicated, mysterious, dangerous, mostly overlooked, by the US anyway, country in the heart of Africa? For a major reason among many, look no farther than the cell phone in your hand, the airliner you fly in, or the car you drive. The mineral resources of the DRC are critical to the many technological and industrial products we depend on today, and will only become more critical to us in the future.
Coltan (Columbo Tantalite) is refined to tantalum for cell phone capacitors. Cassiterite is smelted into tin for electronics solder and galvanizing steel. Wolframite becomes tungsten for cutting tools and aircraft engines. Cobalt is the life-blood of electric car batteries. Copper, manganese, uranium, gold, diamonds and essentially every other mineral important to making the world go around is abundant in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
So whether you are aware or not, you do have a stake in what happens in the DRC the next few months. Current president Joseph Kabila and his administration have siphoned off millions in Congo’s mineral wealth during his kleptocratic administration. Sweetheart deals with his friends have bled the Congolese economy into a coma for nearly two decades. While America was building its ‘service’ economy, some other countries, primarily China, have been insinuating themselves into the DRC with the long-range strategic purpose of securing raw materials for their industrial economy well into the future. By the way, they are happy to sell us products manufactured with those sometimes ‘tainted’ materials at a nice profit.
Needless to say, their goals are not necessarily aligned with ours. The vision of our government and business leaders has been more short sighted it seems. Only when the media reports the latest Ebola virus outbreak or warlord running amok in the region do we in the US hear anything regarding DRC. Remember a few years ago, the cry came from college campuses and social media that there is ‘blood on your cell phone’? Warlords in eastern Congo were forcing children into muddy holes at gunpoint to dig coltan for them, which they then sold to cell phone makers and used the profits to buy more weapons.
This did happen, and worse. Not in every mine, but enough that the chorus of outrage demanded action. In response, legislation was passed in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act. Called Section 1502, it addressed the issue by placing a responsibility on US publicly traded companies to disclose whether their product supply chains might contain ‘conflict minerals’. The immediate effect was a de facto embargo on all mineral imports from the region by American companies, creating further hardship on the legitimate Congolese mining communities, as well as a regulatory burden on US industry.
In recent years, certification processes for non-conflict minerals have been instituted in some mining areas, easing the situation for some artisanal miners. In addition, Chinese smelters continue to skirt restrictions and trade in unverified ores which leak into our domestic supply chains. US manufacturers complain that the weight of regulatory compliance puts them at a disadvantage and are calling for 1502’s repeal. Reports are that President Trump is considering an executive order to do just that.
PamojaUSA sees in this, both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is for a new, reform minded leadership in Kinshasa to address the issue as a responsible government should. The agenda of Felix Tshisekedi does speak to reforming the mining sector on a number of fronts including security, military reorganization, transparency, and local reinvestment among others.
The opportunity is for US interests to engage now with the Felix Tshisekedi campaign to assist them in developing the kind of meaningful policies that would resolve the issue for the betterment of the lives of the mine workers, and the jaundiced perception the US has of the DRC. At the same time, American companies such as Apple, Intel, HP, Boeing, Ford and many others can take a proactive role to reduce the need for the regulatory restrictions in the first place. The many NGOs working in this area like the Enough Project, most notably, can and should play a significant role as well. We invite any interested industry, government, and NGO leaders to contact us to open a dialog with the Felix Tshisekedi team to begin working now on sustainable solutions for mutual benefit.
Finally, we believe that it is in the best interest of the United States to get more involved economically with the rapidly developing continent of Africa, and the tortured Democratic Republic of the Congo can be key. We should go there, to paraphrase former President John F. Kennedy, ‘not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’ There will be no easy days in untangling the forest of corrupt, self-interested claims that have been staked there for decades. But we believe that now, leading up the December 23rd election, is a window of opportunity that should not be missed. We hope you will join with PamojaUSA and with Felix in his campaign for the presidency and help bring long overdue change to the Democratic Republic of the Congo!