Corona Crisis, Nature Strikes Back, Coltan Congo's Curse - Chapter 2
Aldabi Alombong lived in Goma. His father was a border patrol officer and his mother stayed home to take care of the house and family. Lake Kivu was just a stone’s throw from their house. Life was hard but good. They had shelter, enough to eat and his dad was always bringing home so-called confiscated contraband, which meant that the family enjoyed quite a rich table daily. He and his two younger sisters were able to go to school. He felt he had been kind of lucky to live there and not in Lubumbashi or worse, Kinshasa. He was not too concerned with politics or business, his daily chores to help his dad, his mother and his sisters were enough. He played football quite excellently, so he trained hard every day hoping to become a professional football player someday. He dreamt of being noticed by some football scout who frequented Africa in search of fresh talent. He just knew that day was nearing; he was almost nineteen. An important game was coming up in a week. It would be televised and his team AS Vita Kabasha could win the championship.
Aldabi didn’t ever give the things which his father brought home much thought. Sometimes, he returned from his office with bars of soap, cases of Coca Cola, bottles of Johnnie Walker or counterfeit designer clothes like Lacoste, Adidas or Calvin Klein, but he remembered the day his dad came home, a bit drunk, and showed him a little tin can with a cover. ‘Psst,’ he remembered his dad whispering, ‘look at this. This is worth as much as gold.’
‘What is it?’ Aldabi took the can from his hands and looked into it. It appeared to be like a grey dusty amount of sand. ‘Is it silver?’
The old man laughed. ‘No, my son, this is called coltan, and one kilo of this stuff is worth more than three month’s wages. Do you feel how little of that stuff is so heavy?’
He weighed the can in his right hand and confirmed its weight by nodding. ‘Where did you get it, Dad?’
He looked him in the eyes, wetted his lips and whispered. ‘If I told you, you’d be in danger, so best not to tell you.’
‘But why did you show it to me then?’
‘Because I wanted to tell you that if you started working with this mineral, your financial worries would be over.’
‘What ‘s it used for?’
‘Well, Col stands for Columbite and Tan stands for Tantalite.
It ‘s a metallic ore. Niobium and Tantalum are extracted from it. Tantalum is used to manufacture tantalum capacitors which store energy in modern electronics like tablets or smartphones. But what is more important to a lot of nasty military people is that coltan can be used in specialised alloys to create weapons for armour penetration because of its ultra-high density and melting point, so it can withstand extreme heat. Its specific gravity is 16.654, this means that one litre in volume weighs almost seventeen kilos!’[AR1]
He looked at his son who seemed to not have understood all because he asked, ‘What are capacitors, Dad?’
‘They are electric circuits or a device for accumulating electric charge. In other words, it can store and regulate the flow of an electric charge.’
‘And what is Niobium?’
‘Niobium is used for a number of applications such as in the nuclear power industry. It ‘s also used in ornaments like necklaces or bracelets, because as a metal, it has a beautiful bluish colour and it‘s even used for rocket engines.’
The boy nodded. He thought about that a moment and said, ‘I now understand the value of these minerals, but I don’t have any financial problems. I have a roof over my head, I go to school and there’s food on the table every night, plus I can train for my passion which is football.’
‘Yeah, of course my son, but there will come a time that you have to earn your keep yourself and that is, in these times, very difficult. Haven’t you seen the extreme poverty that surrounds us here in Goma and the rest of the country? So, what I want to tell you is that survival is your priority as it was mine.’ He paused for a moment, breathing heavily, as he seemed a little drunk that evening.
‘Look, the reason I joined the border patrol was because of the exterior benefits and you know what I mean. Because I work there I have always been able to provide those extras others lack. In other words, we ’re not corrupt, but we just take advantage of the perks. That doesn’t make me immoral, but when one has a family to support and to feed in countries such as DRC, you have to become, um, practical.’
Aldabi looked at him. His father was getting older now and he knew he was not healthy. He had been ill several times and the only way he was able to endure his internal pain was to drink alcohol. Thank God he wasn’t abusive when he drank, only full of self-pity, but always with a sense of pride. He understood that his father tried to drink away his horrid memories of Kigali.
‘You see my dear son, please listen carefully. You are eighteen years old now and soon you will have to take care of a family yourself, so I’m just telling or suggesting that in this world, you must do anything to survive. This is my lesson to you today. Do you hear what I am saying?’
‘Yes, Father, but this is coltan. Doesn’t it come from the mines and isn’t it dug out by children under threat of militia and governmental troops? I heard about people, young miners, being killed for this stuff. It seems quite dangerous.’
‘Exactly that is the lesson for today; what is the meaning of danger when through it lies the only road to survival?’ he asked.
‘How much is that tin can worth?’
‘Well, I don’t know yet, but tomorrow morning you and I will go to one of the buyers I know in town. He has been paying me a percentage of each trade deal for years. With which money do you think your education, roof, our car and food are paid for?
He didn’t say anything. He just looked at his son and closed his eyes slowly. He sighed as if he was exhausted and said, ‘I think I ‘m going to lie down until your mother and sisters return from shopping. She called me, and we are having steak this evening. You will need that to make your muscles strong and powerful for your next match.’
Aldabi placed the tin can on the coffee table next to the couch where his dad fell asleep instantly and left him alone, with only the sound of his snoring surrounding him. He looked at him and loved him but hated him too. Because he was corrupt, he may have been able to keep us alive, but his father’s name, and thus also his, was not very popular in town. Jealous people always seemed to stare at them when they were driving around in their car or when Aldabi was playing in the team. Some of his mates hated him. He could feel it when he stepped onto the pitch, an eerie feeling, them pointing at him and not passing him the ball, not even when he was in a free position. Perhaps because of that, Aldabi trained hard to become the best and most technical player who scored most of the goals. Usually they couldn’t win without him, but that honour came at a certain price.
Loud snoring continued. Suddenly, he noticed that his father’s necklace had slipped out of his shirt collar. He remembered that his dad always had a key hanging from it. So he carefully took off the chain with the key from his father’s neck and walked away in the direction of a small shed outside their house. Why he took the key off, he did not know, but something inside told him to do that. He had seen his dad enter and emerge from that shack of wooden planks and a tin roof many times but never asked what he was doing in there. But now, because his father told him something more about survival skills and doing what needs to be done to live, he decided that it was time to look inside. He intuitively knew that there would be answers. Slowly, he opened the rusty padlock and then the creaking door. Holding his breath, because he didn’t want his father to hear him, he stepped inside. It was quite dark, but because the planks were not fixed by a real carpenter, the gaps between them allowed just enough sunlight for him to be able to discover what the shack’s secrets were. He saw at least ten plastic buckets with closed plastic lids tightened with duct tape. In a corner, he observed about a dozen boxes of scotch, so he assumed that was confiscated contraband for his father’s own use and trade. More boxes without names stood scattered all over the floor. One was open. He looked inside and found a pile of polo shirts by Ralph Lauren still in plastic wrappers. But his true attention was drawn towards the buckets, so he decided to open one. Using his fingernails, he started to undo the sticky tape slowly. He didn’t want to tear it. With his tongue between his lips, he concentrated and finally succeeded in taking the lid partly off by lifting it just enough for him to look inside. He already knew what he’d find. Coltan, kilos and kilos. He tried to lift the bucket, but it was just too heavy, and he remembered that coltan had a very high density so just a little of the stuff would weigh a ton. It was easy to calculate the value of this treasure and he praised his dad for only selling off just enough to feed and clothe his family. He ‘d never spoken about it before, so why now? Aldabi asked himself. Was his father in trouble? Did others know about this mineral stashed away in their garden shed? Where did he get it from? Who brought it here? Who was selling this to his dad? Many questions shot through his head. It was damp in the shed, he started sweating and wanted to get out of there as fast as he could. Carefully, he resealed the lid with the tape and made sure that no one would notice that someone had been there. He turned around, walked back in the same footsteps he came in with, and stepped out. Using the key to lock the door again, he turned around and stood suddenly eye to eye with a man. He recognised him; it was his father.
‘So now you know, son,’ was all his father said. ‘Now you know everything. Not to worry, I already noticed when you took off my chain that you were going to the shack. I am glad you did that, I was anticipating it because it was me who left the key hanging outside my collar.’
Aldabi’s heart was racing, but his father’s words had a calming effect on the boy. ‘Sorry, Dad, I was just…er , curious, especially after our talk earlier.’
‘There are several thousand dollars’ worth of coltan there. I want you to have it. You can use it for your university education or whatever you like. I already took care of your mother and sisters, so you don’t have to provide for them.’ He put his big hands on Aldabi’s shoulders and looked at him straight in the eye.
‘But why, Dad? Why now?’
‘Because,’ he paused and cleared his throat, ‘because I won’t be here much longer anymore to provide or protect you. There’s a price on my head. One of the militia groups is pissed off and has issued a death warrant for me.’
‘Are they going to kill you?’ the boy responded incredulously.
‘Only a matter of time, son. They can come any day now, perhaps today, maybe tomorrow, so we better move fast. I need your help to transfer the coltan to a safer place, right now, this very minute.’
‘Do you have such a place? Where?’
‘Let’s load the car before your mother returns and we’ll drive there together, come on!’
Pauline and I usually took the train from Nyon to Geneva together. That morning, after our pasta and love night, we arrived around 7.45am at the central train station. She looked beautiful. I always admired her fresh look in the morning as if she felt better in the early hours. Better than me, because I somehow felt uneasy. The memory of yesterday had not gone. The visions of before were still imprinted on my brain, the dream I had that night was disturbing. I really wasn’t looking forward to the meeting planned for me with Didier, one of the founders of the company. He was a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy who had no time for chit-chat, just straight to the point, his point being making a maximum profit. We stepped into the busy morning outside of the station. Hundreds of travellers, school children, business people, workers in overalls and people with other occupations were waiting for buses, trams or stepping in taxis; a usual weekday in Geneva. A warming early sun welcomed us.
As we both worked in different locations, Pauline kissed me and waved goodbye. ‘See you tonight, my love,’ I heard. I watched her for a moment going towards Rue de Lausanne where the office of MSF was located. She always walked from the station because it was quite near. I mostly took a tram to the other side of Lake Geneva where my office was. It was not too far either and sometimes I walked but not today. I was expected at eight o’clock sharp. The tram was full, so I had to stand all the way, holding fast to one of those belts hanging from the ceiling. Again, a flashback appeared. The moment was 1994, Rwanda. I saw many people lying in the streets. No, they were not sleeping, but dead. They were hacked to pieces, slaughtered like sheep. Rivers of blood ran down the roads, diluted by rainwater.
I shivered. The reason why these visions of memories had recommenced was the planned trip to that area. It had happened before, but I had learned to live with it, always able to push them away into some deep cerebral chamber. But since yesterday, the visions seemed to become stronger, more vivid than ever before . Sleep had only arrived in the early hours of the morning, just before our alarm woke us up, so I felt exhausted, even before work.
Didier, a French citizen, my boss, was standing in his office and looking out of the window when I entered.
‘Bonjour, Erik,’ he turned around and shook my hand. ‘Have a seat. Coffee?’
He picked up the phone and requested two cups of coffee.
‘So, how have you been? I heard you got fever from a vaccine?’
He looked at me and asked, ‘Are you still working with this man in Goma?’
‘Yes sir, he is our main supplier.’
‘Word is that he is turning sides and now directly delivers to the Chinese. Have you heard about that?’
‘Yes, I was informed about it. Availability of the products is dwindling, which means he is offering not to us first anymore but to others instead.’
Didier looked at me and asked rhetorically, ‘Is that a good or a bad development?’
‘You already know the answer to that one, Didier. It is not a good thing for us, because now we can’t deliver according to our supply contracts much longer. On top of that, our stock is quite low.’
‘Therefore, it is a wise decision that you go down there ASAP. Fix the issue, do what you can to restore our supply guarantee. Without that we may have to close your desk.’
‘Understood. I will talk to him and his network and find out about the Chinese.’
Didier shook his head vehemently. ‘No, not just talk, convince!’
‘Convince, persuade, change their minds you mean?’ I replied.
‘Of course. There must be a way. You must find leverage. You have known these operators for a long time. You brought our firm in contact with them. Do they have any weak points? What about their families, children, mothers and fathers?’
I took a minute to reflect on what he was truly saying. Did he want me to force a contract out of them by coercion, manipulation, threat or bribery?
We were interrupted by a lady who brought us our coffee. After taking a sip, Didier asked, ‘Is that clear to you? Do you understand what I am trying to explain?’
‘Very clear, I understand exactly. I ‘ll go there next week and make sure our special relationship and arrangements are restored to business as usual.’
‘You do understand that if we can’t get the coltan from Congo anymore, we’ll have to buy it from Australia which would be a lot more expensive. That move will eat into our profit big time.’
‘Sure, I ‘m quite aware of that. It won’t happen. I ‘ll take care of it.’
‘Good man,’ he smiled, and finished his coffee.
I hadn’t touched mine. I still felt uneasy inside. Coffee would not have been a good idea for me. At that moment I was totally unable to come up with a practical plan. I had no clue how to restore the special arrangements we had, because I understood Africa better than Didier. I needed time to think. There were no permanent and secured relationships if more and better paying competitors entered the game. There were no guarantees, period. Bribing only went so far. More bribes would eat into the firm’s profits and make us vulnerable. I had to find, as Didier suggested, leverage, but what? Political decisions were beyond our control.
‘I can’t really tell you yet what can be done. I will find out what exactly is happening and what can be done to change course. Give me some time to mull it over please, I’ll keep you posted.’
Didier offered his hand once more. I took it and thanked him for his time.
Just before I opened the door to leave, he said, ‘Don’t come back empty-handed and by the way, we are being closely watched by UN, and several NGOs are mapping our operations to ensure we don’t trade conflict minerals from Congo. Everyone is talking about SDGs, you know, these damn sustainable development goals they cooked up, but how to balance them with the game of making a decent profit is anyone’s guess.’
I wanted to answer or say something but instead decided to keep my mouth shut. I had understood quite well and closed the door behind me. All I could think about was that his last remark was too little, too late; we were already up to our ears in conflict minerals, whether we liked it or not. We had all been benefiting from it for a long time. I was a millionaire and he was a billionaire, and we both knew that our money was not earned through skill and knowledge alone.
The rest of the morning I sat at my desk, doing the usual; talking on the phone, looking at supply and demand, buying and selling coltan, but also other minerals such a cassiterite or cobalt, although our stock was gradually shrinking. Larger orders than 200 kilos had to be postponed, which did not make our customers very happy. Threats of going to other suppliers, even from Venezuela where coltan had been discovered in 2009, already started to fill my incoming email box. Obviously, I did not tell them that I was going to Kigali next week to sort things out, because that would have given them a the wrong message and we would have lost their business immediately. All I needed was extra time, a week, ten days at the most.
More trouble started that day. Our trading business in cobalt and cassiterite, or tin ore, was also affected by internal changes in supplies from DRC. Ever since the Chinese started scavenging the planet for minerals to satisfy their ever-growing manufacturing industries, they were able to compete with traditional traders such as us. It was tough to fight against a people who’d be willing to settle anywhere in the world to do business. While we were all living and working comfortably and safely in cities like Geneva or London, the Chinese went to live and settle at the places of trade, setting up logistics networks and trading posts, beating us to first dibs of supply. Therefore, we were fighting an uphill battle. But who would be crazy enough to work and live in places like Goma? Not many people I knew, but the Chinese were just sent there with orders not to come back before they’d completed their mission successfully. Their funding was politically motivated by a communist government with more money than us. That meant they dropped anchor even in the worst places, creating Chinatowns everywhere they settled. I believed, and knew, that supply contracts during time of wars and greed could only be maintained by physically being there. That was how I had organised these supply contracts in the first place, many years ago. It had all started back in 1994.