Birds of prey on Congo PDF Print E-mail
The shaping of policy at UNODC (2002-2010)


 The Congo River impresses the air-traveller approaching Kinshasa airport: its water volume greater than the mighty Nile, its current faster than that of the thunderous Zambezi. Yet, it was not the Congo River that attracted my attention. As the United Nations plane I was in hovered above the airport, my eyes were transfixed by the dozens of airplanes idle on the grass. Not on the tarmac, not on the runways, not ready to take off. In the tall grass were small planes with bent propellers, mid-size turboprops with twisted landing gears and some gigantic crafts with rusty jet engines protruding under wings the size of tennis courts. Abandoned, crashed and seized planes, unworthy of the skies, cannibalized for parts, at least 30-40 years old. Weird colours and company names were still visible: orange Diamond Jetways, blue and yellow Zanzi Co., red striped Bluebird etc. There were no markings on most fuselages, just badly applied paint to mask the craft's original identity.

Elsewhere in the Democratic Republic of the Congo I saw similar airplane junkyards. In Goma (in the east) and in Kisangani (in the centre of the country) there are other wastelands of metal, rubber, plastic, fabrics, electrical parts, dynamos, glass and spent heavy fuel. From the sky, these craft look like carcasses of birds of prey, rotting in the tall grass after fate has taken its course.

" Birds of prey they were", says a colleague from the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the peacekeeping operation in the country. Those planes have been used in the largest, longest and deadliest heist the world has even known. Operating from dirt roads, open fields and clearings in the forests, these aircraft have transported Congo's resources, looted by organized mafias, arms dealers, rogue armies and local warlords, for processing by multinational companies abroad.

The grand abuse of the Democratic Republic of the Congo started over a couple of centuries ago. " The robbery is still going on, more than ever." The Governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku Kahongya, has gentle manners, but he is known for effective leadership. Yet, he is frustrated, as most of the illegal trading goes on in his province and especially in the provicial capital Goma. " When God created the world, he sat down in Congo and blessed it with all the riches he still had handy. Humanity turned God's blessing into a curse". That natural resource curse keeps eating the heart of Africa, as documented by the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in their latest, and quite outspoken, report to the Security Council dated 22 December 2008.

The diabolical plot that turns a natural blessing into a natural resource curse is well known to UNODC. In particular, our Office has examined the link between illegal resource exploitation, arms trafficking, international mafias and insurgencies, in a variety of theatres. In all cases, we have found that these elements cause humanitarian disasters, with catastrophic consequences for the population. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a textbook case for a long time. As the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) wrote a century ago (in 1909) " because of the exploitation of its natural resources, Congo may represent the greatest crime ever committed in the history of the world".

I discussed this with colleagues at MONUC, especially with the very articulate and informed Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Alan Doss, and with national authorities. At my mentioning this, the Minister of Justice shook his head in despair: " Our economy will never take off unless we break this vicious circle. But it is going to be hard: so much is at stake, in Congo and abroad ." The stakes are high, for sure.

" We will break the pirate's stronghold on DRC," I wanted to respond, but these words did not come out of my mouth. " We will do our best to help you," is all I could utter instead. My trembling voice must have betrayed the doubt or, better said, the fear about whether any institution, large or small, and especially an office the size of UNODC, could possibly cope with the sheer nakedness of greed that was before my eyes. It is difficult to think of another nation on the whole African continent that has had a harder time than the Democratic Republic of the Congo in emerging from the tragedies it has lived through.



(Image reproduced in King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild)


Before colonial times, the beautiful people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were up for grabs, human livestock in humanity's worse slave trade. Then, it was the turn of other resources, and more tragedies. "The shootings, shackles, beheading, whipping, mutilations, killings and kidnappings of the slave-labour system imposed upon Congo by Europe's insatiable demand for slaves at first, ivory later, and then for wild rubber surpassed any imagination", wrote Adam Hochschild in his widely acclaimed book King Leopold's Ghost. During the past 100 years, the exploitation of natural resources has moved upscale, towards higher-value minerals. Uranium for the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from the heavily guarded mine of Shinkolobwe. But since then, even more valuable minerals have appeared.

Perceived as humanity's entitlements, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as elsewhere, natural resources have been carted away without investment, manufacturing or human skills; they have been stolen by whoever controlled the land. According to Hochschild, in a tragic tale of greed, terror and suffering, the quarter-century-long exploitation by the African company controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium may have caused the death of about 10 million people and an expropriation of natural assets worth billions of dollars today (the company folded a century ago, almost to the day, when the country became a colony of Belgium and no longer a personal property of its king). Alex Delcommune, a long-time administrator and ruthless rubber baron, reportedly said: " Had King Leopold's rule lasted another 10 years, one would have no longer found ivory or rubber, or perhaps a single native in the country".

Ever since then, things have just gotten worse. The resulting conflicts, violence and secession attempts have more than decimated, literally, the population. In the past decade alone, during a protracted civil war, another 5-6 million people have been killed. The United Nations too has paid a heavy price, with the death of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in Congolese skies in 1961.

In countries where the public administration works, export revenues finance development. That is not the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where infrastructure -- physical (roads), administrative (government), legislative (laws), security (army) or justice (police, courts and prisons) -- is non-existent. Here, there are no roads, no water mains, no power lines besides those built to bring electricity to mines. Its borders (10,000 km), by land, water and skies are open. Everything is moved by rusty aircrafts, the rotting birds of prey, to foreign markets.

With the control over the territory in the hands of warlords, natural resources today are still exploited to the benefit of a few. Illicit money pays for bribes to corrupt officials, arms for insurgents, income for renegade soldiers, planes for transporting airborne cargos and cash for cronies to stash abroad. All these people have a vested interest in chaos, in the perverse cycle that persists with dramatic humanitarian costs. The Congolese are among the worst-off people in the world today: the country is occupies position 167 in the latest Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme, and is slipping. The per capita income is less than one dollar a day.

In Goma, the flow of refugees who, as recently as this past December, escaped the looting by the marauders of self-styled general Nkunda (who was recently arrested) represent the humanitarian cost of the illegal trading in gold, diamonds, uranium, coltan, niobium, tantalum, platinum etc. You may not know it, but today you couldn't operate without some of these high-value minerals, since they are used in cellular phones and in the satellites that allow us to connect with one another.

As warlords guard and run mining operations, war financiers sponsor the appropriation. Artisanal diggers ( les creuzers, as they are known in the local jargon) are kept at gunpoint by militias and survive on meagre wages that are spent in illegaly-run shops. These modern slaves engage in hard pick-and-shovel work under a glaring sun for 12 hours a day; when they finish, the next crew takes over.

" They are born poor, live poor and die poor" says Abbe Apollinaire Muholongu MaluMalu, a religious leader in high esteem with national officials. " Their share of the income from the minerals they extract may be 5 per cent of the total value". I am reminded of the Afghan and Colombian drug farmers: poor from the cradle to the grave, they too pocket a fraction of the immense earnings by the drug cartels. But Afghanistan and Colombia trade in illicit drugs, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo sells high-value licit minerals used to manufacture high-technology equipment. In the case of Afghanistan and Colombia, the illicit drug trade should be stopped and the cultures converted into licit crops. In the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, " the exploitation of minerals should be expanded to fund development and made compliant with national laws", says Desire Segahungu, President of the Federation of Congo Enterprises in North Kivu.


At the end of the process are international traders and foreign manufacturers who of course deny complicity in the dirty business. But their footprints are everywhere: just look at the annual reports (and at the Board membership) of the companies dealing in Congolese minerals. Many are listed on stock exchanges in London (AIM), Toronto (TSX or TSX-V), Johannesburg (JSE) and New York (NYSE).

What these companies do is the opposite of money-laundering: actually, it is money-staining. International drug cartels are involved in whitewashing: they turn illicit money gained from the trafficking in drugs into legal tender. Mining companies do blackwashing: they convert licit money gained from the trading in minerals into illicit funds for rogue armies, weapons trade and terrorist financing. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if a primitive economy drives a savage war, the war is needed to (illicitly) exploit licit resources. It is a full, and vicious, circle. The end products (processed minerals) may meet high-technology standards, but the starting point is very dirty: violence, rape, crime. And slavery, at its worst. Once exhausted, a uranium mine was closed and deliberately flooded by its legitimate owners: now you can see desperate people sifting through the water for primitive yellowcake, their flesh slowly consumed by radiation.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexis Thambwe-Mwamba, wants help, now. " Why isn't the world helping us? It should be in everybody's interest to put an end to this tragedy". He is right. The self-perpetuating mechanism of illicit exploitation feeding into wars and corruption, can and should be confronted. Strong local administration is needed to turn interested businesses into loyal partners. And vice-versa: the pursuit of licit revenues should help the country develop and control its territory. But the obstacles are gigantic and growing.

In the global scramble for natural resources, foreign powers' interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are not helping the State overcome its tragedies. Rather, they are protecting their supply of materials. " It is all God's fault!" Abbe MaluMlu, the clergyman, says in self-deprecation. " By giving so much to one single nation, the Lord made Congo the monopolist of minerals that humanity badly needs. No matter the cost, no matter the violence, foreign powers fight for these minerals, and too many nationals oblige, pocketing handsome rewards".

The Justice Minister, Luzolo Bambi Lessa, believes change is possible, and asks me to help: " Many international agreements deal with this sort of problem. We need the laws and the domestic administrations to implement these agreements." This is not unrealistic. It is common sense, but the task is daunting.

One doesn't even know where to start. " Will the world ever hear the cry of the people of Congo?" I wonder. At the outset of the twentieth century, the Democratic Republic of the Congo could have been reasonably called the most murderous part of the European scramble for Africa. Joseph Conrad put it bluntly: " All of Europe collaborated in the making of Kurtz", the evil character in The Heart of Darkness. Today, at the outset of the twenty-first century, what has changed is that the plunder is not only European. No longer. Writing today, Conrad would very probably blame the entire world for the making of Kurtz.

" It's a situation that cannot, shouldn't last" Abbe MaluMalu states. I shake my head: " I don't see great motivation to do anything about it." I should have added: " There are so many Kurtzes these days in, and outside, Congo". At times I wonder about my very personal, human capacity for outrage at pain inflicted on another human being, whether by drugs, crime, slavery, arms or terrorism, and about the cynicism I meet as I explain what goes on around the world, and how my Office is trying to cope.

It's of course an over-simplification to blame the troubles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and of Africa in general, entirely on foreigners. History is far more complicated than that. The Government in Kinshasa does face a challenge of gargantuan dimensions, starting from the capital itself.

Antonio Maria Costa 



Last Updated on Sunday, 04 May 2014 16:16