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In DR Congo, “economic colonialism” has become widespread looting

Pope Francis took the opportunity of his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday to denounce the “economic colonialism” of which the country is a victim, according to him. A way of remembering that it has immense reserves of minerals highly coveted by the rest of the world and continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world.

Haro on “economic colonialism”. Pope Francis, on the first trip of a pontiff to the Democratic Republic of Congo since the 1980s, denounced the looting of national resources that he compared, Tuesday, January 31 has a “subjugation similar to political colonialism” before the country’s independence in 1960.

“Remove your hands from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Stop suffocating Africa! It is not a mine to be exploited or a land to be robbed,” said Pope Francis in a country where around 40% of the population claims to be Catholic.

The head of the Catholic Church did not choose the Democratic Republic of the Congo by chance to evoke “economic colonialism”. The local population has never really been able to enjoy the fruits of a subsoil very rich in minerals and close to 100 million people still live on less than $2.07 a day. Yet DR Congo, and in particular the Katanga region in the south of the country, has the largest reserves of copper in Africa and cobalt in the world. It is also home to many gold mines and other rare metals needed to manufacture smartphones or batteries for electric cars.

For the pope and NGOs such as the “Congo is not for sale” coalition, it is the consequence of a plundering of resources that has everything to do with “economic colonialism”. A concept to be handled with some caution, however.

How is the Democratic Republic of the Congo an example of “economic colonialism” in Africa?

“It’s a great example of how economic colonialism has taken hold historically and how it still works today,” says Ben Radley, an economic policy scholar at the University of Bath, who has worked extensively on the mining sector in Central Africa.

Until independence in 1960, this country served economically as a resource sink to inflate the “super-profits of Belgian mining groups”, recalls Ben Radley. Political and economic colonialism then went hand in hand.

After the Mobutu era (1965 – 1998), marked in part by the capture of the profits of the Société Générale des Carrières et des Mines (Gécamines) by the Marshal-President, there was what the Belgian journalist Erik Bruyland called the “Congolese far west”. During the first years of Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s exercise of power, “small companies, which I call vultures, took control of the most important mines in the country”, detailed the author of “Cobalt Blues”. in an interview with Le Monde.

This new distribution of roles “takes up the same dynamics of resource exploitation as when the country was a Belgian colony”, assures Ben Radley. The population benefits only marginally from the money from the mines, while foreign groups exfiltrate the profits. The DR Congo does plan to tax the profits of these groups, but “the local branches of these companies are structured in such a way as to lose money and thus escape this taxation”, adds Ben Radley.

However, even if “the pope’s use of the metaphor of economic colonialism helps to draw attention to a real problem, the situation is more complex”, assures Peer Schouten, a specialist in the economics of conflict and DR Congo at the Danish Institute for International Studies.

For him, economic colonialism is a “very 20th-century” concept and refers to a situation where one or more foreign powers control the production and exploitation of resources in a country through national companies.

In DR Congo, it is rather a “fragmented exploitation of resources”, notes Peer Schouten. The extraction of gold or cobalt can, for example, be the work of a first company, while the transformation of the ore will be carried out by a second group and the sale will be managed by another entity. The looting of the basement is real, but it is not organized by a colonial power that oversees everything.

Who are the actors of this “economic colonialism”?

For Erik Bruyland, the scene of the plunder of resources in the DR Congo begins to be set from the 1990s. It was at this time that businessmen like the sulphurous Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler began to obtain concessions for the exploitation of cobalt or copper mines.

Alongside the man who has been nicknamed the “king of mines” in the DR Congo, we also find the Swiss raw materials giant Glencore and the Kazakh group ERG, which specializes in Congolese cobalt.

But since 2008, it is another player that has attracted all the attention: China. “In Katanga, most of the mines are operated by Chinese companies,” emphasizes Peer Schouten. Their establishment in DR Congo followed the signing, in 2008, of what had been called the “contract of the century” for Kinshasa. Beijing pledged to invest massively in infrastructure in exchange for mining rights.

Except that “the investments were slow to materialize, while the mining rights were undervalued”, sums up Peer Schouten. In June 2022, the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF) of the Democratic Republic of the Congo notably denounced the lack of “serious monitoring of investments at the expense of Chinese partners”. President Felix Tshisekedi had made the renegotiation of contracts signed in 2008 with Beijing one of its priorities. Discussions that have not yet come to fruition.

The responsibility of the Tech giants is also more and more often mentioned. The Apples, Teslas and Microsofts all need minerals mined from DR Congo to make their products and “one would expect these tech watchdogs to be able to know everything their contractors are doing,” Peer acknowledges. Schouten. However, these multinationals have “set up such complicated supply chains that they are unable to really know what is at the end of the chain”, assures this expert. And above all, these groups have no incentive to do better by “States which have not legislated on the responsibility of multinationals for the protection of human rights”, he concludes.

The neighboring countries of DR Congo have also been accused of participating in this plundering of resources. In 2001, a UN report accused Uganda and Rwanda of “becoming the godfathers of the illegal exploitation of natural resources and prolonging the conflict in DR Congo”.

And the role of the government of DR Congo?

“The problem with the talk of economic colonialism is that it can quickly become outright victimization of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” warns Peer Schouten. “There are certainly very greedy external agents, but national politicians have also failed to reinvest the fruits of this trade in infrastructure or in developing services useful to the local population”, assures Christopher Cramer, a specialist in African economies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

The pope did not hesitate to criticize political leaders who were blinded by “the search for easy gains and the thirst for money”.

And it is perhaps in this that the pope’s speech can have the most influence. “He is clearly the foreign dignitary whose word has the most weight with the local population”, assures Ben Radley. For this expert, this criticism against the ruling class and the denunciation of “economic colonialism” represents precious ammunition for activists and local NGOs to try to make these subjects important themes during the campaign for the presidential election of December 2023.

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