By Rebecca Hamilton
Goma, DRC - Jimmy Makozo is ten years old. He should be in school. Instead, he is on the streets of Goma desperately reaching out to strangers like me. Throughout Congo, celebrations are underway for the 49th anniversary of independence from colonial rule. It was in the midst of five thousand soldiers rehearsing for one of the Independence Day extravaganzas that Jimmy came and put his hand in mine. "My mother died. My father died too," he managed to communicate through a heavy stutter.
Jimmy is one of the millions of victims of the seemingly intractable Congo Wars. The Congolese suffered barbaric atrocities under Belgium rule, but their fate since independence has not improved as much as those organizing this week's celebrations would like to convey.
Like a laundry-list of other African countries, colonialism left scars that the post-independence transition to local rule only exacerbated. Cursed with the blessing of a resource-rich land, Congo has been the pie over which a dizzying array of powers has fought for a slice of.
The roots of the latest scramble in Congo's eastern Kivu provinces are found in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. As the Tutsi-led RPF took control of Rwanda, the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide fled across the border to neighboring Congo. There they re-grouped as the FDLR. Their existence spurred the creation of a Tutsi-led counter force, the CNDP, headed by Rwandan General, Laurent Nkunda.
The one characteristic uniting the Hutu and Tutsi-led forces, as well as the many other armed groups in the Kivus, is their ruthless struggle for control over the lucrative mines in the area. These mines provide tin, coltan, and tungsten - the inputs needed in a world hungry for mobile phones and computers. Racketeering and smuggling schemes abound in the rebel-controlled mining areas throughout the region.
There was a glimmer of hope in January this year, when the Rwandan government arrested Nkunda, and encouraged his remaining CNDP forces to integrate into the national Congolese Army (FARDC). In return, this newly-enlarged FARDC has undertaken Operation Kimya II, jointly with the United Nations, to uproot the FDLR. But the results have been middling at best.
On the positive side, one of the political officers responsible for the UN's demobilization program in the Kivus reports, "There is a direct correlation between the start of the operation and the numbers [of both FLDR and CNDP] coming to disarm." I met one of the newly de-mobilized FDLR officers yesterday. He said he was tired of fighting. Unfortunately, others are not.
Many FDLR troops have perpetrated revenge attacks, in particular mass rapes, against the civilian population in the areas where the joint operation has moved. Moreover, the Congolese government, already struggling to pay the wages of its 26,000 troops in the Kivus before the integration, is now unable to pay an army that has increased by 50% overnight. Unpaid, these soldiers continue to seek control over the mines and surrounding transportation routes that give them the ability to extort "taxes" on those extracting resources.
Political, military and business leaders, from Belgium's King Leopold II through to the present-day Congolese and their neighbors, have profited from Congo's vast natural wealth. But their fortunes have come at the expense of basic security, education and healthcare for ordinary citizens. And each time Independence Day rolls around, the leaders of the day celebrate their liberation from colonialism - conveniently overlooking the fact that their citizens continue to labor under the same destructive dynamics that the colonial powers put in place.
From inside Congo at least, this year's celebrations look to offer more of the same. But this doesn't have to be the case.
The power of the market gives ordinary citizens around the world the opportunity to act on behalf of Jimmy and the millions like him. Just as the Kimberley Process was developed in response to consumers' demands for conflict-free diamonds, a market solution will arise if consumers demand guarantees that our electronics are not powered by conflict minerals. Of course this is only one aspect of the comprehensive strategy needed to improve the lives of ordinary Congolese. But it is a vital one. In honor of Congolese independence this year, we can all begin to sow the seeds of true liberation by rejecting electronics whose materials cannot be certified as conflict-free.
Rebecca Hamilton is a fellow at the Open Society Institute. She worked previously at the International Criminal Court, which is investigating international crimes committed in the DRC. She is currently writing a book on the impact of citizen advocacy on Darfur policy.