Equatorial Congo Airlines (ECair), which filed for bankruptcy in 2016, has signed a memorandum of understanding with South African company Allegiance ... Capital to restart its operations. Who is this partner? Where will the capital come from? Will the Congolese state’s support be enough?
Belgian journalist Erik Bruyland, author of Cobalt Blues, feels that creating the Entreprise Générale du Cobalt (EGC), revising the mining code and President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi’s announcements are insufficient.
In the essay that was published by Racine in July 2021, Bruyland examines his native country’s post-colonial history. He talks to us about Cobalt Blues.
Jeune Afrique: What prompted you to write this book?
Erik Bruyland: First, the fact that I was born and raised in the DRC. At the time, the Union Minière was a well-organised, well-functioning company. It was considered a state within a state as it provided social security, infrastructure, hospitals, schools, etc.
I saw everything wither away once privatisation occurred in the early 2000s. It went from bad to worse, to what now looks like a mafia system.
The problem today is that there are no inclusive institutions. Due to technological revolution and climate change, more and more minerals are being discovered and used. However, this wealth is ending up abroad, as foreign companies take refuge in offshore structures and tax havens.
What solutions do you think should be considered?
Since the DRC is a sovereign state, nothing can be achieved without its leaders’ involvement. Indonesia, Bolivia and Guinea have reviewed their mining contracts. Everything depends on their leaders.
President Félix Tshisekedi wants to make primary school education free; but with what funding? If there were a sovereign wealth fund, this programme could be financed by mining revenues.
Of course, international lobbies and mining groups have a share of the responsibility, but the elites are primarily responsible for the situation in which the DRC finds itself.
When leaders are honest with themselves, they always manage to find solutions. I often meet very smart people who are very good at analysing the situation. They tell you what’s wrong and what needs to change; but once they’re in government, they do what everyone else does, which is line their pockets. That’s politics of the belly.
In 2018, the mining code was revised. It now takes into account local content and CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility]. In March 2021, the Entreprise Générale du Congo – a new subsidiary of Gécamines, supported by the giant Trafigura – was launched to help clean up and structure the sector. Can any of these initiatives help improve the situation?
The mining code has already been revised several times, but has never been respected. It is true that codes can be rewritten, but if they are not heeded, then there is no point.
The Entreprise Générale du Congo personally views it as a failure, even though it functions as announced, i.e., the ‘creuseurs’ [illegal miners] will be rounded up and the revenues returned to the population. This is [a regressive] step, one that goes back centuries, to a time when copper was mined in an artisanal way.
The mines must be operated in a professional manner, with large equipment and well-paid staff, not with small-scale miners who are mistreated. Although improvements have been made in recent years and Glencore is still trying to put things in order, not a lot has changed.
So you don’t think there’s a way to resolve this crisis?
It is interesting to note that Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge, the current prime minister, is Gécamines’ former director-general. He is aware of the situation. If he cannot save the mining industry, it will become hopeless.
Today, there is a window of opportunity. The world needs strategic minerals, like cobalt, to build wind turbines and electric cars. Everyone – from the Chinese to the Americans – is going to get in on the Green Deal.
If we continue to squander the DRC’s mineral resources, there will be nothing left in 10 years. Either we change [how] mining is done, by ensuring that the local population directly benefits from it, or we miss the boat, which will be disastrous for future generations.
On 14 May 2021, Tshisekedi announced that he wanted to review the mining contracts. This is the first time that a Congolese president has made such a clear and public declaration. It remains to be seen whether he will do so.
The Congolese must also be sufficiently well-versed in these contracts; and financial institutions must be able to analyse them and participate in financial arrangements with international consortiums.
Unfortunately, these local financial institutions are not up to the task because they have been neglected. Their leaders go to bankers in Singapore, Dubai and London for their own personal interest[s].
When the World Bank supported the privatisation programme, consultants like International Mining Consultants made very critical analyses and proposed solutions. Instead of introducing privatisation, which was a crazy idea as it led to a mafia system, we should have ensured that this exploitation was professionally-done. However, some people deliberately refused to listen to the consultants as they wanted to line their pockets.
Awareness must be raised in the DRC. We must storm the Bastille, before it is too late.
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