Inside Africa’s PlayStation War

Photo from the Pulitzer Center

In the rugged volcanic mountains of the Congo the conflict known as Africa’s World War continues to smolder after ten grueling years. The conflict earned its name because at the height of the war eight African nations and over 25 militias were in the combatant mix. But more recently the conflict was given another name: The PlayStation War. The name came about because of a black metallic ore called coltan. Extensive evidence shows that during the war hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coltan was stolen from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The UN and several NGOs claim some of the most active thieves were the Rwandan military, several militias supported by the Rwandan government, and also a number of western-based mining companies, metal brokers, and metal processors that had allegedly partnered with these Rwandan factions.

After it is refined, coltan becomes a bluish-gray powder called tantalum, which is defined as a transition metal. For the most part, tantalum has one significant use: to satisfy the West’s insatiable appetite for personal technology. Tantalum is used to make cell phones, laptops and other electronics made, for example, by SONY, a multi-billion dollar multinational based in Japan that manufactures the iconic PlayStation, a video game console. And while allegations of plundering coltan from a nation in desperate need of revenue seem bad enough, the UN also discovered that Rwandan troops and rebels were using prisoners-of-war and children to mine for the "black gold."

"Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms," said British politician Oona King, who was a Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2005.

Most of the fighting from Africa’s World War ended in 2003 following a peace accord. But reports of troop tension, instability and rampant sexual violence against women continue to emerge from where the war was at its most intense: the eastern portion of the DRC, near the city of Goma and in the DRC province of North Kivu. This is a region where millions of Congolese live among active volcanoes and endangered Mountain Gorillas.

But even if many have put down their guns, a London-based non-government office called Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) continues to fight its own battle against scores of Western-based mining companies that continued to work in the DRC, or purchase minerals and metals allegedly stolen from the DRC, as the war raged on. These companies, such as Eagle Wings Resources International of Ohio, Cabot Corporation of Boston, Mass., and Chemie Pharmacie Holland of the Netherlands, were charged with having stolen millions of dollars worth of resources out of the DRC, or made millions processing stolen resources from the DRC, namely coltan.

When the war started in 1998, the UN and others believed that one area of the conflict was the product of tribal and ethnic rivalries. The Rwandan government, for instance, told the world they invaded the DRC, their neighbor to the West, to go after those who committed atrocities during the 1994 genocide that killed over 800,000 people.

Yet, according to the UN, the Rwandans were shedding blood for something far cheaper; they were shooting it out for the mines that pockmarked the volcanic mountains of DRC’s eastern regions. These mines contained deposits of cobalt, uranium, gold and, of course, coltan.

A UN Panel of Experts investigation would expose the resource war in 2001, releasing several reports entitled "The Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the DRC". The reports made disturbing charges against scores of multinational mining companies, like Eagle Wings Resources International and Chemie Pharmacie Holland. The UN alleged the mining companies directly and indirectly fueled the war, paralyzing the DRC government, and using the conflict to keep the coltan flowing cheaply out of the Congo. Some companies were also accused by the UN of aligning with elements of the warring parties.

Fast forward to 2008, and RAID, which is funded by the Queen Elizabeth House, remains determined to convince several of the world’s most powerful governments to investigate the UN’s allegations. Stealing natural resources amidst the chaos of a war violates guidelines set-forth by the Organization for Economic Co-operation, which administers these ethical standards endorsed by over 30 nations, says RAID. The International Criminal Court has also started its own investigation, and RAID is calling on all named governments to cooperate with the court.

But there’s one major problem: nearly all of the governments, including the US State Department, have essentially brushed RAID off. They’re refusing to initiate an investigation despite the assurance, for example, of Richard S. Williamson, who was US Ambassador to the UN at the time. He told the UN Security Council "the United States government will look into the allegations against these companies and take appropriate measures [and] not turn a blind eye to these activities."

Not long after the report from the UN Panel of Experts went public, the UN exonerated all US companies. RAID says diplomatic pressure from the US and other governments made the UN cave. "The US government was one of the most determined to quash the UN Panel’s reports but this is also true of Canada, the UK and Belgium," says Tricia Feeney, executive director of RAID. "All (US companies) were exonerated. The UN Panel said the cases had been resolved."

Feeney says just because the UN laid down, doesn’t mean the companies are innocent. "Essentially the UN was forced to drop the case but as they explained (in their reports), ‘resolved’ didn’t mean that the initial allegations were unsubstantiated," she says. "The (US) companies have tried to hide behind the technicality of ‘resolved’ but the UN itself made clear that this classification didn’t mean that the companies had not behaved in the way described in the UN reports."

The UN said it stands by the report, but added it is up to the governments to make their own investigation and prosecute if need be. RAID says the UN has cowered because if Western-based mining companies are prosecuted out of Africa, China may step in. It is widely known the West grows more concerned by the day as China continues to sign more and more resource concessions with African nations, such as Sudan and Nigeria.

In interviews over the phone, several of the named companies insisted they were not involved with any wrongdoing in the Congo. The CEO of Eagle Wings Resources International, for instance, who did not offer his name for publication, swore "on the Bible" he was unaware his company may have been acting unethical.

Both a mining company and coltan broker, Eagle Wings was one of a handful of US companies accused of using child labor in one of their mines in eastern DRC. Eagle Wings was also an alleged business partners with an "elite network" of Rwandan military officers, politicos and businessmen.  Accusations of child labor have bankrupted Eagle Wings, said the CEO. After finding out his company had been charged by the UN, his customers abandoned him.

But even if the mining companies take the brunt of the blame from RAID and the UN, some experts say there’s a whole other dynamic when it comes to blame for the "The PlayStation War".

When the war began in 1998, the race for every adult in the West to have a cell phone was well past the starting line. A computer in every household was also becoming a reality. And by the end of 2000, millions of Americans were still waiting for a PlayStation 2, a second-generation video game console, which SONY says was having manufacturing issues.

To fulfill the personal-tech desires of hundreds of millions of consumers, SONY and other manufacturers needed electric capacitors. These capacitors were made with tantalum, which is able to withstand extreme heat. So as multiple technological revolutions occurred in unison at the end of the 1990s, the worldwide demand for tantalum began to boil.

Like today’s demand for oil, this fever puts tremendous stress on tantalum’s supply chain. From the beginning of 1999 to the beginning of 2001, the world price of tantalum went from US $49.00 a pound to $275.00 a pound. At the same time, the demand and price of coltan also began skyrocketing; coltan is needed to make tantalum.

By 1999, the Rwandan army and several closely linked militias had swarmed over the hills of eastern DRC and took many coltan mines by force, said the UN. The Rwandan army that year would eventually make at least $250 million by selling DRC coltan with the help of mining companies and metal brokers. The estimates of the war’s dead range from hundreds of thousands to several million. A couple million Congolese are believed to have been displaced.   

American-based Kemet, the world’s largest maker of tantalum capacitors would eventually swear off coltan from the Congo because of human rights violations, making suppliers certify origins.

"But it may be a case of too little, too late," stated the UN Panel of Experts. "Much of the coltan illegally stolen from Congo is already in laptops, cell phones and electronics all over the world."

David Barouski, a researcher and journalist from Wisconsin, says it is certain that the coltan from this conflict is also in SONY video game consoles across the world. "SONY’s PlayStation 2 launch (spring of 2000) was a big part of the huge increase in demand for coltan that began in early 1999," said Barouski, who has witnessed the chaos of eastern DRC firsthand.  

"SONY and other companies like it, have the benefit of plausible deniability," he said, "because the coltan ore trades hands so many times from when it is mined to when SONY gets a processed product, that a company often has no idea where the original coltan ore came from, and frankly don’t care to know." He adds, "But statistical analysis shows it to be nearly inconceivable that SONY made all its PlayStations without using Congolese coltan."

SONY still uses tantalum in some of its parts, Satoshi Fukuoka, a spokesperson SONY from Japan, said in an e-mail. He said they are satisfied with responses from suppliers the tantalum they use is not "illegally mined Congo coltan".

This also goes for past purchases of tantalum parts as well, he said, but he did not specify how far back they began demanding parts without Congo coltan. Fukuoka said the PlayStation 2, PSP and PlayStation 3, "are manufactured mostly from independent parts and components that manufacturers procured externally."  

"The material suppliers source their original material from multiple mines in various countries. It is therefore hard for us to know what the supply chain mix is," he said. "I am happy to state to you that to the best of our knowledge, (SONY) is not using the material about which you have expressed concern."

Like the war in the Congo itself, the price of coltan has since cooled and is being priced at levels pre-1999, as the demand for the "black gold" declines. Nevertheless, experts such as Barouski say another Congo resource will take its place as the next "hot commodity", and the emergence of another African resource war will not be far behind.

Originally from Buffalo, NY, John Lasker is a freelance journalist who resides in central Ohio.

Links related to this story:

RAID’s website: http://www.raid-uk.org/

RAID’s report titled, "Unanswered Questions: Companies, conflict and The Democratic Republic of Congo": http://www.raid-uk.org/docs/UN_Panel_DRC/Unanswered_Questions_Full.pdf

The Report of the United Nations Panel of Expert on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: http://www.un.org/News/dh/latest/drcongo.htm

Produced by the Pulitzer Center, "Congo’s Bloody Coltan" is a quick glimpse at coltan’s role in Congo’s civil war: http://www.pulitzercenter.org/openitem.cfm?id=177

‘Blood Minerals’ in the Kivu Provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a report by David Barouski: http://www.raceandhistory.com/historicalviews/2007/2106.html

Top photo from http://www.pulitzercenter.org/openitem.cfm?id=529