FOR THE BETTER PART of the past two years, Western media attention has trained an intense spotlight on Iraq. While the media fascination with Iraq is understandable, given the high drama of regime change and an occupation unraveling in the face of insurgency and chaos, it has obscured another conflict that has caused the most suffering in the world in recent years.
With only brief interruptions, fighting has engulfed large parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the former Zaire, since 1996. The deadliest phase started in 1998, when Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded, assisting Congolese rebel groups against Laurent Kabila's government, which received assistance from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia. As many as three million people have been killed and at least another two million displaced. In one of its largest peacekeeping efforts, the United Nations has deployed more than 11,000 soldiers and civilians.
Resource pillage has been a key factor sustaining violence in the Congo. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of several developing countries in which abundant natural resources have helped fuel conflict, either by attracting predatory groups seeking to control them or by financing the continuation of wars that were initially caused by other factors. Prominent other examples include Colombia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Sudan and Afghanistan. Governments, rebels and warlords have made billions of dollars by selling a variety of "conflict commodities." They have used the revenues to arm themselves and to line their own pockets. But the population at large has suffered extraordinarily due to violence, economic collapse and social deprivation.
Although the intervention by several of Congo's neighbours was initially triggered mostly out of security concerns, the opportunity to plunder the country's enormous resource wealth became a paramount reason for continued fighting. Congo is extremely rich in minerals and gemstones such as diamonds, gold, coltan, niobium, cassiterite, copper, cobalt, zinc and manganese. It also offers copious agricultural and forestry resources such as timber, coffee, tea and palm oil. In addition, the country's wildlife, including okapis, gorillas and elephants, has long attracted poachers.
At first, the foreign invaders and their rebel allies resorted to outright theft of stockpiled raw materials. Once the stockpiles were exhausted, they organized a variety of methods to extract additional resources. In some cases, the armies have been engaged directly in resource extraction; in other cases, local Congolese were put to work by Rwandan and Ugandan forces. Child labour was used in gold and diamond mining. Occupying forces and their rebel allies have also forced coffee growers and palm oil producers to sell their commodities at depressed prices. Finally, a series of companies of questionable reputation--most of them European--were given concessions to exploit Congo's resources.
Looted resources became a major source of Rwanda's and Uganda's foreign exchange and allowed them to finance their military presence. In Uganda's case, the individual enrichment of top military commanders and business leaders also was a main driving force.
The Kabila government nearly fell to Rwandan troops at the beginning of the invasion. To stave off defeat and continue the war, the cash-strapped government, too, relied on the country's resources to purchase weapons and secure allied support. It granted concessions and entered into joint ventures with foreign firms in return for up-front payments. And the Kabila government appealed to Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia for military assistance.
Although the governments of these nations had strong political and strategic motivations for dispatching troops, they also demanded compensation, and the Kabila government used resource wealth as an incentive for its allies to stay involved. The government granted several concessions, including offshore oil wells to Angola and a share of a diamond mine in Kasai-Occidental province to Namibia. …