Congolese opposition supporters chant slogans during a march to pressure Congolese President Joseph Kabila to step down, September 19, 2016.
Kenny Katombe / Reuters

For the last two decades, fighting has plagued the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, resulting in 5.4 million deaths, rampant corruption, and one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. The instability has already spread beyond the east as a constitutional and electoral crisis propels the fragile situation toward a larger conflict, and it is now threatening to destabilize a mineral-rich area known as Katanga. 

Katanga is home to 50 to 60 percent of the world’s reserves of cobalt, representing the largest global supply of the mineral, as well as significant quantities of copper, and a conflict there would seriously affect U.S., as well as European, national security. The Pentagon has identified cobalt and copper as “strategic and critical minerals” for the production of military planes, missile guidance systems, and other hardware. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, cobalt is a critical material because it used as a superalloy in military and commercial jet engines, and it is very difficult to substitute because of its very high heat resistance. As of 2014, 16 percent of the world’s cobalt was used in superalloys, five percent was used in magnets, and 42 percent was used in batteries, all of which are essential in military hardware as well as in hybrid and electric cars, commercial planes, and consumer electronics. The global commercial demand for cobalt is also increasing significantly, particularly for building batteries in hybrid and electric cars as well as an array of electronics products. Similarly, copper, which the National Mining Association says is the second most used mineral by the Department of Defense by weight, is also mined in Congo. It can be found in naval vessels, Coast Guard ships, and Air Force planes as well in military and commercial engines and motors of all sizes. 

Should Katanga be destabilized, U.S. and European defense industries would be cut off from accessing these critical materials, the majority of which are trucked out of Katanga on one main road. That long road could quickly be disrupted by attacks on vehicles or even protests, cutting off major cobalt supplies for the U.S. and European militaries, auto manufacturers, and technology companies. As one official at a mining company operating in Congo told us, “The road from the mines in Kolwezi to Kasumbalesa [at the Zambian border] is the most vulnerable point. It’s too long to fully protect, so someone could ambush it at different places on different days, and the troops would be stretched too thin. That would really disrupt the trade because the mining companies would have to simply stop the trucks. And truck burning in Congo does happen frequently.”

A former mining official told us there were other mines, but Kolwezi was the main one. “Of course, the Congolese government would come down as hard as humanly possible to protect that road,” he said. “But it would shut down mineral flows for some time. There is no question that that would have a major impact on the price of cobalt.”  

Such a cobalt crisis occurred in 1978 during the Shaba rebellion, when foreign-backed Katangese separatists captured the copper and cobalt capital of Kolwezi. The price of cobalt tripled in a matter of months. France and Belgium intervened by airlifting cobalt out of the region at great cost, and businesses panicked. Katanga also has a history of secessionist struggles, and its popular, exiled, exceedingly wealthy ex-governor, Moise Katumbi, has been targeted by Congolese President Joseph Kabila and convicted in absentia on politically trumped-up charges. Tensions and dissatisfaction with the regime are rising. Armed groups, such as Kamuina Nsapu and Bundu dia Kongo, are popping up in different regions of the country. The deadliest conflict in Congo at the moment—in the central region of Kasai—broke out overnight with little warning, displacing around 1.4 million people over the last year, and tensions and conflicts in other regions, such as Tanganyika, Fizi, and the Petit Nord of North Kivu, have escalated. Growing numbers of pro-democracy activists are resisting, and they are even willing to die to rid the country of its kleptocracy. A new conflict in another province of Katanga, Tanganyika, has already sent tens of thousands of refugees to Zambia in recent months. This is just the tip of the iceberg because if the government continues to prevent a credible democratic transition, instability is almost certain to spread.

At the root of the problem is the fact that for decades, leaders in Congo have experienced hardly any consequences for robbing the country’s extraordinary natural resource wealth, committing heinous human rights abuses and wrecking government institutions in the process. It is estimated that President Joseph Kabila’s family owns 80 companies. In addition, up to $4 billion per year has gone missing or has been stolen from government coffers due to the manipulation of mining contracts, budgets, and state assets.

Kabila remains unpunished for refusing to implement the democratic reforms he promised in December 2016 when his ruling party and the opposition signed an agreement to hold elections the following year. Had it been implemented, the deal would have paved the way for the country’s first-ever peaceful democratic transition. The terms required Kabila’s government to hold elections sometime in 2017 and for Kabila to refrain from running. His party and the opposition would appoint a transitional oversight council that would run the government until elections were held. In addition, his regime would unblock media outlets and drop the charges against political prisoners and politicians in exile. The government has not completed voter registration, and it just announced that elections cannot be held until April 2019, further angering the opposition and civil society. Kabila has refused to confirm whether he will stand down in the elections, and warning signs indicate that he may organize a referendum to change the constitution so he can run again. Instead of a consensual transitional body, the government unilaterally named a prime minister and a council without consulting the opposition. Seven radio and television stations remain blocked from appearing on air, and the trumped-up charges against prisoners of conscience and opposition members have not been dropped.

Furthermore, the Kabila regime has gotten away with maintaining its military connections with North Korea. In several reports, the UN Group of Experts on Congo has documented that over the past decade, the Congolese government has collaborated with the North Korean military. Pyongyang has helped train and equip Kabila’s presidential guard through murky arms deals, and according to UN experts, North Korean weapons continue to be found among armed groups in eastern Congo. Jane’s 360, a defense analysis site, reported last year that the Congolese army possesses North Korean-made anti-aircraft weapons.

Without the prospect of facing any consequences for their bad behavior, Kabila and his allies will continue to hold onto power and delay elections, furthering insecurity in the region. There is, however, a rather simple, direct way to attack Kabila and his associates’ vulnerabilities. Because they hide most of their ill-gotten wealth abroad and use U.S. dollars to launder money through the global banking system, the United States and Europe could use the relevant legal and policy tools at their disposal, which are currently used to battle terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, and other organized crime. These tools follow the money trail, shut offenders out of the international financial system, and expose them to criminal justice and asset seizure. However, Washington and its allies rarely use these tools to counter grand corruption, hijacked elections, and mass atrocities in places like Congo because they are perceived to be of little strategic significance. 

The threats Congo’s leaders and their international collaborators pose can be countered if the United States and Europe utilize the strongest tools they have at hand: aggressively enforcing top-level, targeted sanctions on Kabila, his family’s business empire, and his commercial partners while ensuring that banks actively implement relevant anti-money laundering measures. The recent U.S. Treasury advisory to banks in South Sudan—which warned of potential money laundering—coupled with the limited but potent network sanctions are a good example of how these tools could be applied to Congo. The South Sudan case represents the first time the United States began using the full authority available to it with respect to tools involving financial pressure. By sanctioning individuals and their associated companies while notifying banks that suspicious financial activity is occurring, the United States put South Sudanese officials on more serious notice to signal that the days of total impunity for financial and human rights crimes are over.
Law enforcement and regulatory officials in the United States and around the world can go after Congo’s pillaged national fortune, which has been hidden in international banks, real estate, and shell companies. This proven combination of financial pressure—via targeted sanctions and anti-money laundering measures—can help shift the cost-benefit calculations of these leaders and their commercial collaborators away from mass violence and corruption and toward a stable, democratic transition. Such an approach would hold the promise of not only preventing greater suffering in Congo but also more robustly securing U.S. and European national interests. Rarely does such a diplomatic bank shot present itself at such a small cost.

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