Look at your Mobile phone for a second.
If you opened it up, you would see something similar to this…
…lots of microchips, small semiconductors and circuits.
In order to manufacture all of this, you need a very special element: TANTALUM.
Where does this tantalum come from?
Well, mainly from one country: the Democratic Republic of CONGO.
One of the World’s poorest countries.
It’s impossible to estimate how many people have died in order to manufacture the phone
you have in your hands right now.
Tantalum is one of the most highly demanded materials on the planet.
And Congo has the largest reserves.
It could be an enormous source of wealth to them.
A country that also has lots of natural resources.
Nonetheless, Congo is one of the poorest and most violent countries on Earth.
And believe me, their history is much more complex than those clickbait articles you’ve
found on your twitter feed.
So why is Congo so poor?
In this video, we’ll tell you the story.
Congo was featured in that movie ‘Gorillas in the mist’.
It’s funny, because we don’t know anything about this country, despite how often pop
culture references it…
We’re talking about one of the biggest countries on the planet.
It has more than 80 million inhabitants living within a territory the size of Western Europe.
And oh boy!
They have a hell of a fortune under their feet: cobalt, gold and, of course, COLTAN.
Coltan is the ore that tantalum is taken from.
So we all have products imported from Congo in our home.
Many of you might say: wow!
They’re so lucky, having so many natural resources, right?
In fact, the opposite is true.
All this gold, cobalt and, especially, coltan, is actually a curse for Congo.
Yes, my dear viewers, Congo is one of the poorest countries on the planet.
And we’re talking about so called absolute poverty here.
Most of the population lives on less than a dollar
Starvation is common.
And guerrilla warfare is so typical in this country that it’s no longer newsworthy.
But you already know this.
The question is…
And the answer is a combination of all the bad things we usually mention here on VisualPolitik:
wars, bad governance, corruption and, of course, colonialism.
Imagine all of this on a massive scale and you have a good high level picture of Congo.
We already know why Congo is so poor.
End of the story… right?
Oh come on!
This is VisualPolitik.
The case of Congo is unique in history.
We can’t even compare it with other African nations.
So, if you know VisualPolitik, you already know that we’re going to cover all the details
about this country.
Including the result of their latest elections.
So the question here is…
Why is Congo so poor?
Why do we say that their natural resources are a curse?
And… the most important question of all…
Can their brand new president lift this curse?
Today we’re going to answer all of these questions but, before we do, let’s take
a look back at the history.
HOW TO PRIVATIZE A COUNTRY
In the year 1877, king Leopold II of Belgium bought Congo.
Yes, you heard that right.
Usually, when we talk about colonization, we mean a country conquering another one,
Well, so here’s the first unique thing about this story.
What we know today as Congo was a land with many tribes, and a land with a huge potential
to grow rubber.
In a time when pneumatics were being produced on a mass scale, rubber was in high demand.
King Leopold II looked at this opportunity with dollar signs in his eyes and said: why
conquer a country if you can buy it?
You see, it was a different time and, back then, European powers thought they could do
anything they wanted in Africa.
On one hand, it was a source of wealth to be exploited.
On the other, they thought colonization was a matter of charity.
They wanted to export European values and civilization to a ‘land of barbarity’.
This is why Leopold II created the International African Association, an organization led by
him that allowed him to go to Congo and create his own factories and plantations.
Since the Congolese people had no private property, Leopold II could take over the land
without any kind of contract.
Of course, in order to legitimize this looting, Leopold II, the king of a respectable country
like Belgium, claimed he would turn this ‘Free State of Congo’ into a civilized place.
The Congo Free State is unique in its kind.
It has nothing to hide and no secrets and is not beholden to anyone except its founder.
–Leopold II, King of Belgium
The reality was way different.
Leopold II wanted to get as much rubber as possible.
So he enslaved the population and forced them to reach production quotas.
If they didn’t, he would chop off one of their hands.
This is how one of the worst genocides in history started.
Something comparable, in relative terms, to Mao’s cultural revolution.
The massacre was so terrible even other colonial powers such as the United Kingdom denounced
Leopold for his atrocities.
If you wanna know more about this, I have a video about King Leopold II on my other
But let’s move on with today’s story.
After Leopold II died, he passed his property over to the state of Belgium.
This is how Congo became a colony in its own right.
Belgium’s government was a little more compassionate than the king but, still, the Congolese were
kept in slave-like conditions.
You see, colonialism is one of the most despicable practices in history.
But if there is one colonial power that was big on brutality, it’s Belgium.
And if you want to be even more angry, let me tell you that to this day, there are lots
of monuments, buildings and streets in Brussels dedicated to Leopold II.
But the truth is, in 1960, Congo got its independence.
This doesn’t mean things got better for them.
Their first president, PATRICE LUMUMBA, was no big fan of his former colonizers.
This is why both France and Belgium helped other groups to overthrow and execute him.
Which is how MOBUTU SESE SEKO’s dictatorship started and the country changed its name to
Mobutu is known as one of the bloodiest dictators in history.
But, as we often say at VisualPolitik, Mobutu may have been a son of a bitch, but he was
OUR son of bitch.
You know, it was the cold war, and Congo was an ally of the West.
So there was always money to finance his army.
But things changed in the 90s.
Without a USSR to be afraid of, America stopped supporting Mobutu.
And all those groups he was oppressing rebelled against him.
This is how the first Congolese civil war started… and the country got back its current
A civil war that led to another second civil war.
For a better understanding of just how devastating this conflict was, the Second Congolese civil
war is considered to be the deadliest conflict after World War II, with over 5 million deaths
and countless acts of torture, mutilation, and other atrocities.
Here’s the worst thing.
The violence has not stopped.
In 2003, the war ended.
Since then, Joseph KABILA has tried to be a dictator who rules over the country with
an iron fist.
But, let’s be honest.
As authoritarian and corrupted as he is, he can’t control the country.
There are guerrillas and looting from neighbouring countries all the time.
And you might wonder…
Why is there so much guerrilla warfare?
How can one country have so many armed groups?
How do they pay for those guns?
Let’s have a look, shall we?
Do you remember the NOKIA 6110?
This phone was launched at the end of the 90s and was one of the first cell phones to
reach a massive audience.
Suddenly, everybody had a mobile phone.
And this meant more and more tantalum was required to produce those.
Until that moment, the main tantalum producer was Australia.
Getting that material was more expensive than you might imagine.
You see… it’s almost impossible to find pure chemical elements in nature.
In this case, Australia had mines where you could find some ore and, after a complex chemical
process, get a little bit of tantalum out of it.
But there is an easier way to obtain it.
Yes, my dear viewers, I’m talking about COLTAN.
COLTAN is a rock that contains a lot of tantalum and it’s very cheap to refine.
And guess where you can find the biggest coltan reserves on the planet?
Basically, Congo is the Saudi Arabia of coltan.
There’s plenty of it, it’s easy to extract and easier to refine.
In fact, you don’t even need technology to get coltan: just a pick and shovel and…
there you go!
This is why thousands of Congolese joined the coltan hunt.
And, despite the high demand, tantalum became cheaper and cheaper.
But wait because this is just the beginning!
Remember the financial crisis of 2008?
Well, it also had some consequences in Australia.
GAM closes Wodgina tantalum mine
This mine was the world’s main tantalum producer.
Its closure meant that tantalum prices skyrocketed.
It’s hard to estimate the market price for this material because, unlike oil, there are
no public indexes.
But, according to some consultancy firms, tantalum prices almost doubled from one year
to the next.
And what was the consequence for Congo?
A coltan rush!
All of a sudden, everybody was willing to sacrifice their lives for a fistfull of rocks.
Especially the warlords.
This is how most of those guerrillas were financed: by selling coltan.
And the more tantalum they sold, the more violent they became.
We’re talking about such a huge massacre that even America had to pass a law for it.
Dodd-Frank Act Becomes Law
Basically, Dood Frank law was meant to protect consumers.
One of its sections referred to so called ‘conflict minerals’.
One of which was tantalum.
According to this law, companies buying tantalum should know where it comes from.
In a country like Congo, it’s almost impossible to control the traceability of a mineral.
Especially, given that there are almost no mining companies.
Yes, you heard that right.
It’s mostly just common people going to the countryside to extract rocks and sell
them to a man, who will sell them to another man….
And finally, it ends up inside of your mobile phone.
In many cases, Rwandan miners cross the border, exploit the mines and then go back to Rwanda
to process it.
As you know, Rwanda is a country that’s growing really fast and offers much more security,
in legal, political and physical terms, compared to Congo.
And… well, if you didn’t already know this, here’s this other video we made a
long time ago, telling that story.
In fact, if you wanna know more about these kinds of things, you should subscribe to VisualPolitik
and hit that bell button so you won’t miss any posts.
But let’s go back to our story.
Many of you might wonder… since it’s so profitable…
Why aren’t there any big mining companies?
Aren’t there incentives to create companies that can mass produce coltan?
The answer is NO.
Well, here’s an example!
Biggest Congo coltan miner resumes buying after output halt
In this case, BISUNZU is one of the few Congolese mining companies.
It was founded by a Congolese senator that wanted to industrialize mining.
Instead of risking lives to get coltan, BISUNZU wants to use machines.
That way, they can offer better security for the workers and extract a lot more minerals.
So what’s their problem, then?
First, all of this machinery is expensive.
And Money is seldom abundant in Congo.
Second, nobody would invest in a place where corrupt politicians are going to make your
And, if politicians don’t do it, then some guerrilla will.
So what happens then?
Nobody invests in this industry and those who do, like BISUNZU, have to stop their production
all the time due to smugglers and warlords.
And this is how we can understand the vicious cycle of coltan.
The more demand there is, the more incentives there are for warlords to exploit it.
And the more warlords we have exploiting coltan, the less incentives there are to create an
industry that would provide quality jobs and create real wealth.
This is why, despite the fact that half of the tantalum on the planet comes from this
area, Congo doesn’t grow any faster.
And now you might wonder…
Can anybody change this?
Well… maybe… or maybe not.
You’ll understand in a second.
THE BIG FRAUD
Do you remember Joseph Kabila?
The Congolese dictator?
Well, in the year 2018, he had to resign and call for elections.
In fact, according to the Congolese constitution, he should have done it before.
But you know… dictators.
As you can imagine, 2018 couldn’t have been more rigged.
Kabila’s opponents only had one or two electoral cabins.
Citizens had to vote with tablets that nobody knew how to use.
And, well… no international observer accepted this process…
Congo to EU: Mind your own business An election that’s been delayed for two
years is about to be held, and the country has booted out the EU ambassador.
OK, so in this election, we had 3 main candidates: RAMAZONI, who was Kabila’s successor, FAYULU,
his biggest opponent, and TSHISEKEDI, the one with the lowest chance of winning.
Guess who won!
The winner was TSHISEKEDI.
And here’s where the debate starts.
According to all the organizations observing this process, including the catholic church,
the process couldn’t have been dirtier.
Many analysts say that Kabila knew nobody would accept his successor.
So he let a moderate enemy win.
Somebody who, at least, would let Kabila keep his fortune.
Because make no mistake, despite Congo’s poverty, Kabila is a millionaire.
Then again, Donald Trump has supported TSHISEKEDI, even if it’s only to guarantee some kind
of stable government for Congo.
So now the question is… can this brand new president change things?
Well… the truth is he does have opportunities.
Lithium/tantalum: New Australian production from Pilbara
Basically, the Australians have discovered a brand new way to extract tantalum more cheaply.
So they’ve reopened their mine.
What does this mean, then?
Well… less of a coltan rush, less money for the warlords and more incentives to create
an ethical and sustainable industry.
On the other hand, Rwanda, Congo’s neighbouring country, has been developing its own coltan
In 2018, they created a big factory to produce tantalum.
And they’re even experimenting with BLOCKCHAIN technology to guarantee the traceability of
This means it will now be easier to know where our tantalum comes from.
So now, this new Congolese government can partner with Rwanda to create a coltan industry
that generates jobs and growth.
But here’s a question for you…
Do you think the Congolese government will be willing to do so?
Is this brand new president going to end the rampant corruption in order to help his country
Or… will we continue to see Congo as poor as always despite its enormous natural wealth?
Please, leave your answer in the comment section below.
Before finishing, I’d like to thank SUZANE, from ROSKILL, for helping us with the research.
ROSKILL is one of the leading mining consultancy companies and they were so kind to us, answering
our questions and giving us a lot of information that is not easy to access.
Also, don’t forget to visit our friends from RECONSIDER MEDIA PODCAST, the podcast
that provided the voices on this episode that were not mine and, as always, I’ll see you