dock, on the sea-reach of the Thames, is a bizarre
industrial landscape patrolled by strange beast-like
machinery: trucks lift sea-containers in their jaws and
place them on railway wagons and lorries. Towering over
them are giant cranes and mountain ranges of coal and
in one of the berths, a ship's belly yields up cargo,
its container crates stacked high in the warehouses. In
the previous week the ship has nudged up the west coast
of Africa loading goods at the war-ravaged cities of
Luanda, Matadi, Monrovia and Freetown before arriving
here in London.
from Tilbury on the far bank of the Thames, barely
visible through the slanting grey rain, is the old
Gravesend pier where Joseph Conrad began his 1899 tale
of colonialism and atrocity in the Belgian Congo, Heart
of Darkness. His story opens on the ship Nellie as the
protagonist Marlow waits with the rest of the crew for
the turn of the tide in order to depart. 'The sea-reach
of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of
an interminable waterway,' Conrad wrote. 'The air was
dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed
condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless
over the biggest and the greatest town on earth...
"And this also," said Marlow suddenly,
"has been one of the dark places of the
'heart of darkness' was not just a reflection of the
racist view of Africa as 'the dark continent', but a
reference to complicity in an African holocaust, the
taint of blood on goods acquired in shameful
circumstances and Europe's plunder of Africa's wealth.
Standing on the banks of the Thames under an overcast
sky, the London of today seems shrouded still by
Conrad's 'mournful gloom'.
Tilbury dock today there is nothing to prevent the
importation of timber sold to fund distant conflicts.
Just beyond the circle of the M25 motorway, diamonds
arrive at Heathrow airport, where customs can't detect
'blood' gems sold for arms by warmongers. Mobile phones
made with the mineral coltan - a rare substance traded
by brutal combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo
- are ubiquitous. In the financial heart of the City,
unpoliced investments and financial institutions have
profited from some of Africa's bloodiest wars.
interests from warlords to unscrupulous corporations to
arms dealers and organized crime have helped to fuel
African conflicts over the past decade as they vie for
control over valuable resources. Globalization has added
a key dimension to contemporary warfare - armed groups
from some of the world's most remote places can be
directly linked with commerce in the 'technological
heartland of metropolitan society'.1 A complex
international network of smugglers, brokers and traders
means that everything from diamond rings and garden
furniture to the components of mobile phones and
Playstations may have originated as the booty of
was a ship worker who first discovered the truth about
Belgian King Leopold's brutal exploits in the Congo. In
1897 Edward Morel stood on the quayside at Antwerp
watching shipments being unloaded from the Congo. He
noticed that though ivory and rubber of enormous value
were being brought in by ship, the only goods being sent
back to the Congo in exchange were bullets and firearms.
He deduced that there was just one explanation for this
- slave labour.2 He wrote: 'I have stood on that quay in
Antwerp and seen the rubber disgorged from the bowels of
the incoming steamer. To my fancy there was mingled with
the sound of musical chimes of the old cathedral tower
another sound - a sigh breathed in the gloomy Equatorial
forest by those from whose anguish this wealth was
wrung.' He went on to form the worldwide international
human rights campaign, the Congolese Reform Movement.
Tilbury docks today, amidst the clatter of the late
industrial global economy, one might hear a faint echo
of that same sigh. But we who end up with Africa's
wealth - when we fill up our petrol tanks, buy a gold
watch or throw away a mobile phone - do not see the
connection or the plunder at the other end of the
resource chain. For the brutal reality of where many of
these raw materials originate is a far cry from abstract
notions of virtual wealth and seamless trade.
paradox of plenty
is vastly rich in natural resources but the continent
has paid a terrible price for this wealth. In the past
decade horrendous wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, the
Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Liberia have
been fuelled by fighting for control over diamonds,
timber, gold, minerals and oil.
old joke popular in Sierra Leone is bitter testimony to
this fact: 'When God created the world, He endowed
Sierra Leone with such a wonderful wealth of natural
resources that the angels protested. "Don't
worry," God replied. "Just wait until you see
the people I've put there."'3 In a 10-year-long
horrific civil war, warlords from the armed rebel group
the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) amputated hands to
terrorize the population and sold diamonds to fuel
killing sprees with names like 'Operation No Living
Thing'. Some 75,000 people died in the war and over two
million were displaced. Ibrahim Kamara, Sierra Leone's
UN ambassador, said in July 2000: ' We have always
maintained that the conflict is not about ideology,
tribal or regional difference... The root of the
conflict is and remains diamonds, diamonds and
is the 'paradox of plenty': the more a country is
enriched by the extraction of primary resources and the
more its dependency on them deepens, the lower its
ratings for human development drop. Thus while the soil
is rich with diamonds, the average Sierra Leonean can
expect to live for just 34.5 years.5 Angola, too, has
diamond and oil wealth of enormous value, yet a quarter
of all Angolan children die before the age of five.
Angola's diamonds and oil were used by rebels and the
Government to enrich themselves and to buy arms to fight
one another at the expense of an impoverished,
a quarter of the roughly 50 wars and armed conflicts
active in 2001, resource exploitation has played a key
role.6 These are known as 'resource wars' and with good
reason. A poor country with weak infrastructure, few
options for making money and possessing significant 'lootable'
resources is four times more likely to experience war
than a similar country without them.7
a vicious circle, resource exploitation fuels war, and
war facilitates continued exploitation of the resource.
Groups making money from war have a vested interest in
perpetuating conflict. Thus these wars are less about
one side winning, than about the ability to engage in
profitable crime under the cover of warfare.8
course resources are not the only cause. Conflict comes
from a complex combination of political, social,
economic and military factors. And the states that
descend into chaos are typically weak, repressive,
undemocratic and economically vulnerable. But how do
such states get into this situation? The benefits of
activities such as mining and logging typically go to a
tiny oligarchy of foreign and local business and
government élites. Thus a state heavily dependent on
oil and mineral extraction is statistically very likely
to be highly corrupt, authoritarian and maintaining a
massive military budget - all of which leads to a
heightened risk of civil war. And though there are
exceptions to the rule, such as Botswana, they are few
and far between.9
sub-Saharan Africa many governments are in a state of
decay. Under pressure from Northern governments and
institutions such as the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund to repay debts and
restructure their economies, the public sector and
social infrastructure have been decimated. Meanwhile
leaders and their politically powerful cronies siphon
off state revenues for personal gain.
men typically join rebel groups in these places because
the government provides nothing and there is little else
for them to do. Seizing valuable resources is their
ticket to wealth and power.
factors create a brutal dynamic. Resource wars often
feature 'extreme and conspicuous atrocity' against the
population,10 because corrupt governments' power relies
on large resource revenues not popular support.
Meanwhile fighters are only interested in loot and have
no need to win over local hearts and minds. In fact
quite the opposite is true. Plunderers clear
resourcerich areas they wish to control by terrorizing
civilians through systematic rape and torture. Others
are forced to serve as prostitutes, semi-slave labourers
and child soldiers.
fog of war
the height of the war in Sierra Leone it emerged that
RUF rebels - whose favoured way to terrorize people was
to amputate their hands - were selling diamonds that
were ending up on the world market. A rumour went round
the diamond world that a British industry man was having
nightmares about a famous jewellery advert featuring a
hand adorned by a glinting diamond ring in which the
slogan had been changed to: 'Amputation is forever'.11
what, if any, is the degree of complicity among
consuming nations? How do diamonds get from an artisanal
mine in Africa to a ring on your finger? How does the
mineral coltan get from a mine in the Democratic
Republic of Congo into a mobile phone you might buy in
the local shops?
the two are complex networks of smugglers, fixers and
arms brokers. International commerce is the key to
understanding how these networks operate so effectively.
The illegal economy feeds into the legal economy in this
underworld of crime and high finance.
trafficking is a crucial link in the chain. According to
one source, perhaps only 120 people are responsible for
most of the small arms going to Africa, including those
who armed the genocidal Rwandan militias. Resource
commodities often get sold or swapped for illegal arms
shipments coming in the opposite direction (see pages
13-22 to trace the trail of plundered resources from the
mines to the smuggling networks).
and aviation companies have also played a crucial role.
In October 2002, a UN Expert Panel issued an exhaustive
report on the exploitation of natural resources in the
Democratic Republic of Congo, which alleged connections
between the atrocities committed there and 85 businesses
operating in Europe, Asia and North America. It showed
how coltan, among other substances, was smuggled into
Dubai and then on to other trading zones.
the other end of the trail, traders in places like
Antwerp, Oostende, London and Tel Aviv receive the
conflict loot. The diamonds, coltan or gold, now shed of
their bloody associations, enter the legal economy. The
truth is that the UN has no definition of 'conflict
resources' to help stop the trade and there are no
workable mechanisms for governing the behaviour of
transnational corporations in conflict zones.
UN Expert Panel tried to use the voluntary OECD
Guidelines for Multinational Corporations to enforce
investigations into the corporate role in the conflict
in the Democratic Republic of Congo; but governments of
the OECD - the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, the world's most industrialized nations -
have thus far taken no action.
the International Criminal Court may prove more robust.
Its Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, has intimated
that foreign business people who knowingly supplied cash
or weapons in exchange for conflict resources to people
guilty of war crimes could be prosecuted: ' Follow the
trail of the money and you will find the criminals. If
you stop the money then you stop the crime,' he said
last year. A probe into possible war crimes, genocide
and crimes against humanity in the Congo begins soon, in
what Ocampo has called 'the most important case since
World War Two'. He added that among the countries where
links to the purchase of blood diamonds had been found
were the US, Canada, Britain, Russia, Finland, Zimbabwe
despite the horror stories, there is hope. In 1999, a
fifth of all Africans lived in war-torn countries.
Today, for the first time in five years, no major
conflagrations are taking place, though fighting
continues in some hotspots. The brutal conflicts in
Sierra Leone and Angola ended with peace deals in 2001.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a negotiated peace
deal in 2002 has resulted in a ceasefire except in some
pockets in the east. Liberia's war ended officially in
August 2003. In Sudan peace talks are ongoing, as are
talks in Burundi and in Côte d'Ivoire. Perhaps most
positive of all, the African Union has agreed a new
peacekeeping mandate to intervene in members' conflicts.
The complex problem of disarmament is ongoing and many
of the countries that are officially at peace are
plagued with instability while fighting and economic
barely have the peace deals been signed than the
investors begin circling. The talk among the extractive
industries is of a new 'African gold-rush', with the
World Bank granting concessions in the Democratic
Republic of Congo and Liberia. The idea that the
exploitation of natural resources will bring '
development' to shattered economies, however, has been
thoroughly discredited - not least by the World Bank's
own recent report into the extractive industries.13The
question must be asked: has anyone learned the terrible
lessons of Africa's resource wars?
peace in these countries to hold, for poverty to be
eliminated, for societies to be rebuilt, the underlying
causes of the conflicts that tore them apart need to be
resolved. Opening the floodgates to international
investment before the original exploitation has ended,
let alone been investigated and justice brought, is
likely to sow the seeds of further corruption and war.
strategy repeats the pattern of plunder rather than
breaks the cycle of war. As Patrick Alley of the NGO
Global Witness confirms, ' Resource exploitation and
conflict is a cyclical thing. If we can stop the cycle,
we can begin to talk about war prevention.'
resource wars in some areas die down, Global Witness is
currently mapping the contributing factors of possible
future conflagrations. To take just one example, the
West is keen to tap energy sources outside the volatile
Middle East. The Gulf-of-Guinea countries in West Africa
- Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe,
Chad, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo- Brazzaville and Angola -
form a region dubbed the 'New Middle East Gulf' because
of its immense untapped petroleum resources. The United
States has declared African oil a 'national strategic
interest' that is predicted to provide 25 per cent of US
oil by 2015. 'The carrier battle groups of the future
and the expeditionary strike groups of the future may
not spend six months in the Med[iterranean Sea], but
I'll bet they'll spend half the time going down the west
coast of Africa,' said NATO Supreme Commander, US
General James Jones in April 2003, announcing plans to
boost US troop presence there.14
new African 'Middle East' is already a hotbed of
instability which, as Diarmid O'Sullivan of Global
Witness points out, has already provided two case
studies of oil revenues that have split society and fed
civil wars: namely, Angola and Congo-Brazzaville. How
can we avoid seeing these oil revenues fuel corruption
and conflict in the future? Some ideas for ending the
resource wars cycle are presented on pages 26-27.
building long-term peace ultimately means building
democracy, reducing vulnerability to the 'resource
curse' by moving away from dependence on primary
commodities, and creating political systems that are
accountable to the rightful owners of Africa's wealth -
its impoverished populations. The alternative is a
future in which resources continue to be the stake of
bloody power-struggles between ruthless plunderers and
M Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars: the
Merging of Development and Security, Zed Books 2001.
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed,
Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Pan 2002.
As told by Elijah Zarwan, 'Coming Through Slaughter: an
interview with Sierra Leonean journalist Philip
Neville', World Press Review online, www.worldpress.org
21 March 2002.
Quoted by Barbara Crossette, 'Singling Out Sierra Leone,
UN Council Sets Gem Ban', New York Times, 6 July 2000.
Human Development Index, UNDP Human Development Report
2003, Oxford University Press.
Michael Renner, 'The Anatomy of Resource Wars',
Worldwatch Institute, October 2002.
Paul Collier, 'Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and
their Implications for Policy', World Bank, 15 June
Tim Raeymakers, 'Targeting Business in Conflict: Beyond
the Plunder Logic', Paper presented at the Conference on
Curbing Human Rights Violations by Armed Groups, UBC
Centre of International Relations, Vancouver, 13-15
Michael Ross, 'Extractive Industries and the Poor',
Oxfam America 2001.
Mary Kaldor quoted by Michael Renner, 'The Anatomy of
Resource Wars', Worldwatch Institute, October 2002.
Greg Campbell, Blood Diamonds: tracing the deadly path
of the world's most precious stones, Westview Press
Reuters, 'War Crimes Court Eyes Blood Diamond Buyers',
23 September 2003.
See Extractive Industries Review www.eireview.org
Jim Lobe, 'Pentagon's 'Footprint' Growing in Africa',
Foreign Policy in Focus www.fpif.org, 12 May 2003.