Pétronille Vaweka, a Congolese grandmother, has mediated local peace accords in her homeland’s wars. But now, she says, one of Africa’s longest, bloodiest conflicts can be solved only if the United States and other democracies “will wake up” to protect their own economic and security interests. “The world’s economies, new technologies and climate change all are increasing demand for the rare minerals in the eastern Congo — and the world is letting criminal organisms steal and sell these minerals by brutalizing my people,” Vaweka said this week. “Africans and Americans can both gain by ending this criminality, which has been ignored too long.”

Pétronille Vaweka, USIP’s 2023 Women Building Peace laureate, speaks after receiving the award Feb. 27. She says U.S. leadership is vital to gathering the political will to end the eastern Congo basin wars.
Pétronille Vaweka, USIP’s 2023 Women Building Peace laureate, speaks after receiving the award Feb. 27. She says U.S. leadership is vital to gathering the political will to end the eastern Congo basin wars.

Vaweka, 75, received a USIP peacebuilding award last week and has been making her case in Washington. Her country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is unable to control armed criminal organizations and guerrilla factions battling for power over the people and resources. “The United States and other democracies must join with African peoples, governments and international institutions in an unprecedented initiative to shut down this organized crime and help our country establish a legal, transparent mining economy that will benefit not only Congolese, but everyone in this world who uses a cellphone or a computer built with the metals from our soil,” Vaweka said in an interview.

She noted that the U.S. government’s 19-month-old Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa declares a priority to help African countries develop economically through their increasingly strategic and valuable mineral resources — and to ensure legal, transparent supply chains for those minerals to world economies. “Africa has suffered many wars and criminal thefts of its resources — but we also have ended some of those wars and crimes,” such as the 1990s “blood diamonds” conflicts of Sierra Leone and Liberia, she said. “We can build on those successes, but the first requirement, which so far I do not see, is the political will to act.”

Eastern Congo’s Agony

The dense forests, rugged highlands and lakeshores of the eastern DRC are pocked with both industrial and artisanal mines, guarded by armed militias and worked by hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are effectively enslaved. More than 250 local and 14 foreign armed groups are fighting for territory, mines or other resources in the DRC’s five easternmost provinces, the government’s stabilization agency for the region said last year. Over 30-plus years, the fighting has drawn in armed forces from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Tens of thousands of U.N. peacekeeping forces, soon to withdraw, and African regional troops have tried to restore order and help the government establish real authority.

“I weep because at this moment, in … Goma” — a city of 1 million people on DRC’s Rwandan border — “women and children are dying [and] thousands of families are forced from their villages,” Vaweka told a USIP audience last week while receiving the Institute’s 2023 Women Building Peace Award. The M23 rebel movement, which U.S., United Nations and human rights investigators say is directly backed by Rwanda, has targeted the Goma area, and committed documented atrocities against civilians, in the single most violent recent escalation of fighting in the east. The DRC has deployed Romanian mercenaries in Goma in a desperate bid to defend it.

Effectively, the DRC’s 100 million people live in what is simultaneously one of the world’s most resource-rich — but also corrupt, violent and poverty-stricken — countries. The eastern DRC warfare has killed an estimated 6 million people since the 1990s, the most in any conflict since World War II. It has uprooted 7 million people, roughly the same scale of displacement as in Sudan’s civil warfare, and more than any other current African conflict.

Minerals and Money

The DRC “is a treasury of minerals,” Vaweka said, including an estimated 70 percent of the world’s known cobalt, a vital component of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other green energy products.

Over the decades of fighting, many separate investigations — by the United Nations, the Global Witness anti-corruption organization, human rights groups, a DRC investigative commission and others — have documented the smuggling of gold, copper, cobalt or other minerals from illegal mines in eastern or southern DRC into neighboring countries for sale onward to global markets. Groups that run small artisanal gold mines sell their metal to smugglers who move it to the capitals of Burundi or Uganda for sale onward, often to buyers in the United Arab Emirates, according to recent years’ reporting by United Nations experts, Interpol and multiple investigations by news organizations.

That mineral smuggling then finances the warfare, U.N. investigating experts have reported. During two DRC civil wars in the 1990s, the military forces of Uganda and Rwanda entered eastern Congo and took over existing illegal mines to sluice profits back into their home countries. At other times, the profiteers have been commanders in Congo’s own army, such as Bosco Ntaganda, later convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. The U.S. government has sanctioned companies based in Europe and the Middle East — such as those of Belgian gold entrepreneur Alain Goetz and Israeli diamond billionaire Dan Gertler — for their roles in systems that market Congolese resources abroad.  

The DRC’s mix of mineral wealth, violence and corruption is heir to the country’s origins as a colony forged, beginning in the 1880s, by Belgium’s King Leopold II. First Leopold himself, and then the Belgian state, used violence and atrocities to forcibly create a profitable colony among hundreds of ethnic communities across the Congo River basin. At independence in 1960, factional fighting and a coup d’etat led to a 32-year dictatorship to which the United States and Western nations lent support during the Cold War.

The DRC achieved its first peaceful, elected transfer of power in 2019, and President Félix Tshisekedi won a second term in December amid a chaotic election that heightened extreme nationalist rhetoric and factional tensions. He has declared support for anti-corruption reforms, but has failed to deliver major progress, many analysts say. Domestic and international rights advocates, including Human Rights Watch, have underscored an acute need for broad reforms, including permitting an independent judiciary, prosecuting corrupt officials, halting political repression and protecting civilians in the country’s zones of warfare.

The U.S. Role

Since 2020, the U.S. Energy and Interior Departments have maintained a list of minerals, currently 50 of them, that they judge vital to America’s economy, energy grid or national defense. Many are difficult to access through reliable supply chains and many, including cobalt, copper, lithium, tantalum, tin and titanium, are mined in the DRC, often from illegal mines controlled by armed groups and smugglers, or in industrial mining that is significantly dominated by China, USIP and other analysts have noted.

Recently, the U.S. government has made “a real push” to “look at Africa and see what can be done to assist U.S. and other Western mining companies to get involved,” USIP Africa analyst Tom Sheehy said last month, notably by investing in building a $2.3 billion railroad to carry copper and cobalt from Congo and Zambia to Angola’s seaport of Lobito. Business analysts have noted the risks of such investments from political instability fueled by deeply rooted corruption and warfare in the DRC.

“This is why it is economically and strategically logical, as well as humane and just,” for the United States and other democracies, concerned about the global availability of strategic minerals, “to make an unprecedented investment in supporting the Congolese people’s desire to build a stable economy and governance that are run by laws and transparency — and not by armed gangs financed by organized crime and corruption and violence that rules us now” in the eastern DRC, Vaweka said.

A Peacebuilder’s Plea

After years in which she worked directly in the conflict zones of eastern DRC to mediate conflicts and free hostages, Vaweka has been a trainer in the country’s National Stabilization and Reconstruction Program—and is developing a network of women peacebuilders and mediators to work throughout the country’s east.

“But I cannot do this alone; we cannot do this alone,” she said, while neighboring countries, mineral buyers, major corporations, high-tech manufacturers — and ultimately, billions of consumers — support a supply system for the global economy “that is based on brutal, illegal mining of these minerals from our soils and by people working in conditions of slavery.”

“This will require a partnership of Africans and Americans and those from other developed countries. But we have seen this kind of exploitation and war halted in Sierra Leone and Liberia—and the Africans played the leading role, with support from the international community," Vaweka said. "We need an awakening of the world now to do the same in Congo. It will require the United Nations, the African Union, our neighboring countries. But the call to world action that can make it possible still depends on America as a leader.”

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