7 April 2002

Mugabe's Congo fortune under fire

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his counterparts in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda could soon find themselves cut off from millions of US dollars in revenue from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the first significant agreement to emerge from the Inter-Congolese Dialogue at Sun City, South Africa, delegates from the government and opposition parties agreed to review dubious contracts and concessions. Mugabe's government, together with Société Minière de Bakwanga, runs the country's largest diamond mine. In 1999, its annual production was worth around R4,4-billion. Both Rwanda and Uganda became exporters of diamonds - a natural resource that neither country possesses - after their troops occupied mining regions in the country. The agreement at Sun City would see a transitional government in the Congo reviewing war-time contracts for the exploitation of gold, diamonds and other natural resources.

The conflict in the Congo is estimated to have claimed two million lives and to have displaced a similar number of people. Congo ambassador to Pretoria Bene M'Poko, who led the government team in the economic and financial commission at the talks, said the Congo's natural wealth had contributed to the war. The country has significant hydroelectric potential on the Congo river, large deposits of gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt, as well as valuable hardwoods and the world's biggest deposits of coltan - a strategic mineral used in aerospace and cellphone technologies. "The country is a victim of its resources," M'Poko said. "A lot of people are taking advantage of the war to exploit those resources illegally." Thomas Nziratimana, chief Southern African representative of the Rwandan-backed rebel group RCD-Goma, said: "We have said we need to put up a commission which will be under the transitional government that will look at the details - and I say each and every detail of the contract - to see whether the interests of the country have been alienated."

With the more difficult political and military issues still no closer to resolution, the delegates found common ground on the recovery plan partly because each side believes the other will be seriously embarrassed by a review of the contracts. Rebels and government point fingers at each other for giving away the country's riches. The tragedy for the Congo is that, on this score, everybody is right. A UN panel of experts investigated the exploitation of its natural resources and presented a series of detailed reports pointing fingers at almost everybody involved in the war. In its most recent report, the panel said the initial reasons for the involvement of outside armies were political and security-related. Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, for instance, got involved to protect themselves against "negative forces" – some associated with the Rwanda genocide of 1994 - operating in the lawless eastern Congo.

But the panel says the primary motive is now "extracting the maximum commercial and material benefits. This holds true for both government allies and rebel supporters." The panel highlights the role of Zimbabwe, which it says has been awarded lucrative diamond mining concessions in return for supporting the Kinshasa government. The concessions, operated by a Zimbabwe Defence Force company called Osleg, carry the cost of Harare's military involvement. It also quotes a report by Global Witness on a logging concession that would see Zimbabwe given the rights to exploit hardwood resources. It is not clear whether this concession has been implemented. On the rebel side, the panel describes how exploitation of coltan finances the activities of the RCD-Goma, and benefits its Rwandan backers. Uganda, backing another rebel group, exports more gold than it produces, the panel finds. That gold must come from the Congo, proving that Uganda, too, benefits from the war. These economic interests will make it difficult for the participating countries to pull back their troops, as required by the Lusaka peace accord, says Henri Boshoff, a military analyst with the Institute for Security Studies. Angola and Namibia pulled back since they had few economic interests. "But Zimbabwe has a lot of interests, as do Uganda and Rwanda. It's not going to be easy for them to leave." (ZWNews / Sunday Times, SA)

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