Cobalt: The ‘Blood Diamond’ of Congo

Since 1996, over six million Congolese citizens have died as a result of genocidal wars and the exploitative conditions of Western finance capital. Now, as China emerges as the primary investor of the region’s mining sector, locals are facing a new threat.

Nasser Eid | nasser.eid@yale.edu

The murder of Patrice Lumumba ushered in the rise foreign investment in the country’s mining sector. For decades, Congolese men, women, and children have worked as miners to excavate cobalt, a mineral resource that is essential to technology. Until recently, the United States used bribery and military reinforcement to create deals with Congo’s government and maintain a stronghold on the mineral. Now, China has outbid the United States and owns an overwhelming majority of cobalt mines. Facing abject poverty and discrimination in the mines, Congolese citizens are now pushing back through building revolutionary force.

In 1885, King Leopold II claimed the Congo as his private property and committed mass genocide against at least 10 million Congolese to extract rubber. The stage was set for local populations to resist colonialism for decades until they won independence in 1955 with the election of prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Today, the Congolese are subject to a new form of exploitation: large-scale commercial mining of cobalt.


In an interview with Al Jazeera, D.R. Congo cobalt miner Manix Kemia stated, “We’re working very hard and digging very far to take this out, but we’re getting almost nothing for it. The conditions are dangerous but we’re not paid for our level of sacrifice.”


Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt production comes from the Congo, putting it at the center stage of the clean energy revolution. Cobalt is necessary to make battery-powered cars, along with lithium, nickels, and manganese As a result, China and the United States have engaged in a contest over cobalt deposits for over a decade. Since the Obama and Trump administrations, a company backed by the Chinese government bought two of the latest cobalt mines over the past five years.

(“Manono, Province du Tanganyika, RD Congo. Une femme congolaise nous présente un sachet de cassitérite qu'elle vient d'extraire dans une carrière située aux alentours de la ville”. Image courtesy of MONUSCO. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the production of electric vehicles is expected to increase to 11 million units in 2025, China has continued its strides to secure access to raw materials and production. In response to China taking this swift action, President Biden noted at General Motors that “We risked losing our edge as a nation, and China and the rest of the world are catching up. Well, we’re about to turn that around in a big, big way.”


China accounts for over 50% of cobalt demand in the Congo because it established ties with the country’s government elite over a decade ago. In 2005, former Chinese president Hu Jintao hosted a reception for Congo’s new president, Joseph Kabila, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Although China agreed to use $6 billion to fund hospitals, railways, roads, schools, and electricity in a US-backed agreement, a leak of more than 3 million documentaries revealed that Chinese interests channeled $55 million to Kabila and his family. This bribery schedule paved the way for Chinese interests to now own 15 of the 17 cobalt operations in the Congo.


For Congolese citizens, China appeared to be an ideal trade partner. Chinese investment in the region lacked any ideological purpose that would seemingly tear away the human dignity of locals as Belgium and the US had done in the past. Moreover, China has an unmatched record when it comes to rapid modernization. President Kabila referred to China’s model as “La Modernité”, suggesting his belief that the Chinese government would present a mutually beneficial relationship; China was to extract raw materials and Congo was to repair its infrastructure and improve its production. Yet, in addition to the disparity of benefits in the contract, no long-term plan was created to consolidate Chinese investment and improve the infrastructure so that services could be rendered to the Congolese population. These factors, along with unexpected costs, meant that the DRC’s poor institutions would most likely have been able to fully maximize any deal with China.


However, it is evident today that China has failed to have good practice in the agreement. The Chinese companies who were responsible for the execution still fail to properly assess the environmental and social impact of their presence. Companies such as the China Railway Engineering Company and Sinohydro promised to build roads and hospitals in exchange for a 68% stake in the Sicomines venture. However, these companies failed to live up to their end of the government, causing criticism about their lack of transparency.


In response, the national government released a statement that it would review some mining contracts and ensure they sufficiently benefit Congolese citizens. For some analysts, this decision is believed to be the result of Western pressure pushing back on China's lucrative gains in the region. China’s ambassador to Congo said that the country “must not be a battlefield of major powers,” but it is increasingly evident that both powers are not interested in revitalizing the region. While the royalty rate to be paid to Congo increased from 5% to 15%, China has not paid its share of the project. The deal was signed in 2018 but construction still has not yet begun.


These current-day complications are not surprising given China and Congo’s long history of working towards the development of Central Africa. During King Leopold’s rule, Belgium shipped Chinese workers to the region to build national railroads. Due to the region’s vast landscape, large-scale mining, which depended on railroads for access to laborers and tools, did not begin until the latter half of the 20th century.

Foreign investment in Congo has never been meant to improve the living conditions of the country’s citizens. Since World War II, the United States took a keen interest in the region to use Congolese uranium as material for atomic bombs. To protect these interests, the US and the CIA bankrolled mercenaries and Congolese troops and used warplanes to suppress Soviet-backed revolters. The United States attempted to outbid other countries in the region for decades by investing in Congo’s national development.

In subsequent years, Mobutu knew the importance of Congo’s cobalt mines to the United States and attempted to maximize his personal gains in every deal he struck with them. In 1970, Richard Nixon and the first lady held a bouquet for Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire at the White House. As a leader of a newly-independent country, Mobutu was launched into global clout and was determined to keep control of the country’s natural resources and use it as a bargaining chip in dealing with the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. According to Professor David Engerman, a scholar of twentieth-century international history who has written on a variety of topics related to the history of development assistance, “The Americans were working on leverage as well, whether it's USAID or especially through the World Bank and the IMF. But that sort of leverage was an effort to push through certain kinds of policies. It wasn’t necessarily about ownership … Chinese lending in Africa has been applying more direct collateral.” Although hundreds of millions of dollars had been sent to Mobutu before his trip to Washington, he stated that he contracted a Belgian company to excavate the mine. In a panic, the United States sent several giant C-130 transport planes and $60,000 worth of Coca-Cola at the insistence of Mobutu. The US also invested $800 million to bring electricity to the region. In the 1970s, Mobutu requested material support to industrialize the Democratic Republic of Congo and sought technical collaboration for railroad development. However, by the early 1990s, he and his army pillaged mining villages like Gécamines as the country drifted towards civil war.


The relationship was detrimental to the Congolese. Families in these villages sold off their remaining mining equipment in order to feed themselves. This created a gap for foreign companies, like China's Creusers, to come in and begin digging at abandoned sites. Shortly after Mobutu was deposed, Chinese businesses and the Beijing government had the opportunity to make heavy investments in the region. Not only was Congo rich with mineral resources but it also lacked regulations to protect workers. This was the ideal situation for China and other foreign investors: they could gain access to the materials they needed without fearing legal persecution. As Professor Engerman stated, “The Chinese have been using the leverage of debt in a more draconian way than the Americans did. The Soviets did less strongarming even than the Americans during the Cold War.” Today, this has left millions of Congolese villagers in extreme poverty and on the brink of death.


Due to facing abject poverty, hundreds of thousands of Congolese individuals and families have migrated to mining areas with the hope of working as miners or even discovering cobalt on land they can purchase. Most Congolese individuals in the region of Kolwezi have become creusers, or “artisanal diggers.” The cost of living is incredibly high, so many of these diggers are willing to work at and sneak into licensed mines for cobalt excavation. However, Congolese miners are also working collectively to fight for better wages and living conditions. In one DRC mine, employees’ demands included an extra $100 a day per worker and contractor to compensate for working in isolation, and a bonus of $4,000 per person before they would return to work.

(“Discussing Fairphone with the creuseurs at the Gecamines site”. Image courtesy of Fairphone. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)


Negotiations between workers and mining companies are often marked by violence. According to spokesman Odilon Kajumba Kilanga, when creuseurs’ demands were not met, they would “go in to work and say, ‘No, I won’t do anything.’” Kajumba also said that “The Chinese will feel unsafe and call in the police.” Then, the police do the company’s bidding: “They know they will get a gift from the Chinese, so they will threaten you with teargas and batons.”

When Congolese citizens own the mines they operate, they are able to build economic power within their own communities. For example, at first, the discovery of gold along the banks of the Ituri River led to a free-for-all, but locals quickly organized the mining zone into a cooperative. In contrast with the privately-owned cobalt mines, the cooperative provided safety equipment and regulations barring child labor. People who work at the camp say the workers demonstrate consistent discipline.

(“Mining in Kailo”. Image courtesy of Julien Harneis. Licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Yale, students and faculty who engage in conversation about foreign investment in Congo should center the lived experiences and stories of those harmed by neo-colonial practices. When we fail to connect the historical transformation of external domination from Belgium to Congo, we reduce the daily realities of Congolese triumph, joy, and sorrow. By entering discussions from a place of wanting to build collective consciousness, we can create the conditions for building solidarity and feeling fundamentally connected to those on the African continent. Writer’s Reflection: When writing this article, I wanted to highlight the language that we should be using to link the history of colonialism that the West and China has forced upon the Democratic Republic of Congo through debt and labor exploitation. I also wanted to highlight the agency of Congolese miners and how they have captured the revolutionary spirit of past anticolonial movements. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate how the working-class movement of the Congolese can serve as a model to destabilize forces of power and racism through unionism and community.

I’d like to thank Professor David Engerman for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me. If you are interested in learning more about the situation in Congo, I encourage you to form or join a work-study circle that analyzes the history of neo-colonialism and the methods that can be used to move the mass struggle forward.