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How Uganda has helped turn DRC’s vast gold reserves into a nightmare

  • Vava Tampa
  • 6 Aug 2021

Congolese gold has become a profitable source of foreign currency for Kampala, with devastating and bloody consequences for the people of DRC.

( Marc Hofer, File / AP )

According to a new United Nations report that discusses the so-called ‘conflict minerals’ devastating the Democratic Republic of Congo, 95 percent of the 27.7 tonnes of gold Uganda exported in 2019 was of non-Ugandan origin, likely smuggled from the DRC, in violation of the UN and African Union (AU) Charters.

As I read the report, I could not help but wonder just how many of the DRC’s estimated 10 million people who depend on the mining industry directly or indirectly to survive might have been killed, raped, tortured, abused or displaced in the process.

Africa’s second-largest country, the DRC, is home to one of the world’s largest reserves of minerals, including gold, very much prized by the electronics industry. Estimated to be worth $24 trillion — that’s almost twice the GDP of the EU-27 —  these reserves are of immense global importance.

Around 80 percent of DRC’s 90 million citizens live below the poverty line. Over two decades of Uganda- and Rwanda-sponsored proliferation of ‘conflict minerals’ have had devastating, perhaps irreversible, effects not only on the Congolese people, but also on the worsening climate crisis in the country.

Exactly 20 years ago, the UN published its first report on ‘conflict minerals’ devastating the DRC. The report concluded that the governments of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, whose troops had occupied parts of the DRC since 1996 under the pretext of security, were looting and exploiting Congolese minerals to benefit their economies and treasuries.

A 2009 Congolese Senate report estimated that 40 tonnes of gold were smuggled out of the DRC each year, depriving the DRC over $2 billion annually. 

Gold, of course, does not fall from the trees like mangoes do. 

For Uganda to ‘loot’ the volumes of gold the UN and NGOs have documented in impressive detail, Ugandan soldiers and their local militia used brutal violence, including the killing and otherwise abusing of anyone who stood in their way, including the local population. 

Official figures from the Bank of Uganda indicate that Ugandan gold exports jumped from $12.4 million in 1994-95 to $110 million in 1996 – the year Uganda’s troops began occupying parts of the DRC.

In 2000, Rwandan and Ugandan troops fought each other three times in the mineral-rich Congolese province of Kisangani over minerals, killing thousands of Congolese people and destroying roads, schools, hospitals, markets and public buildings.

Understandably, the DRC authorities took Uganda to the UN's highest judicial body, the International Court of Justice, first in 1999 and again in 2005, seeking $13 billion in reparations for victims and wildlife damages. The DRC legal team demonstrated how the Ugandan president’s brother, Lt-Gen Salim Saleh – in tandem with other Ugandan and Rwandan ‘godfathers of conflict’ in the DRC – have been involved in the conflict minerals that devastated the DRC between 1998 and 2003.

In 2005, the ICJ awarded the DRC the first $6 billion of the $13 billion, saying that Uganda had violated international law by occupying parts of the eastern DRC and supporting local militias. The final verdict is expected this November.

Yet in the absence of meaningful international pressure, coupled with ever-increasing gold prices, the illegal exploitation of Congolese gold by Uganda – which possesses negligibly small gold reserves of its own – has only gotten worse. 

In 2018, for instance, Uganda’s reported domestic gold production was just 12 kg, worth around $500,000. Yet in 2019, when the rate of 1 kg of gold reached $45,000, Uganda miraculously exported over 25 tonnes of gold, meaning, to paraphrase UN experts, that over 95 percent Uganda’s gold exports were “looted” from the DRC. Where else would such a large volume of gold come from?

Accompanying the exploitation of Congolese gold is the killing, impoverishment and displacement of Congolese people. According to the New York-based International Rescue Committee’s 2007 mortality report, these wars killed Congolese people at a rate of roughly 1,500 a day, Around 1,100 women and young girls are also raped every day.

The report did not explicitly accuse the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni of profiting personally. However, the violence and instability that have been killing Congolese people actually serve Uganda's economic interests, as Congolese gold has become a profitable source of foreign currency for Uganda. Unsurprisingly, the UN report also documents the smuggling of guns and recruits from Uganda into the DRC to kill Congolese people.

You have to wonder, as I have been, just why the UN and AU haven’t imposed a temporary embargo on the import and export of Uganda’s gold, not only to prevent conflict minerals from reaching the international market, but also to end the ongoing suffering of Congolese people.

The main destination of Uganda’s illicit gold is reportedly the United Arab Emirates and east Asia, supplying local jewellery markets that are not regulated by the US or EU anti-conflict minerals regulations, but an array of reputable Western companies and financial institutions have also been directly or indirectly involved in conflict minerals in the DRC.

Is this why the world is ignoring this catastrophe? Or is it because Museveni is one of the US’s staunchest African allies? 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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