Congo Calling tells mobile users: break the silence on dirty tech
This is a review of an event which took place at SOAS, University of London on 18th October 2018. More details about the event and its organisers can be found here.
“Every one of us here, including me, is holding a piece of Congo”. Zabu Litambola holds her mobile phone up as she says this. Zabu is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and lives in London. Zabu, also a member of the Congolese Action Youth Platform (CAYP), a collective of activists in UK and in the Diaspora who campaign and raise awareness of of crisis happening in the Congo.
DRC is home to over 80m people, the world’s deepest river, and untold riches and natural resources buried beneath the soil . But despite its natural beauty and magnificent diversity, the country is in crisis.
Fighting over natural resources such as Coltan, a vital component in mobile phones, has resulted in millions of deaths over the last twenty years.
14th-20th October marked Congo week, when people around the world hold events in solidarity with the people of DRC. To mark the occasion, Zabu hosted a panel talk at SOAS, University of London called: #DRC beyond elections: Is there a solution to the crisis?
The talk was well-attended by people keen to hear activists’ and experts’ take on the political situation.
Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, should have left power two years ago when his mandate ended. Instead, he is still head of state and no elections have been held.
Since the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, DRC has endured two brutal wars, from 1996-7 and 1998-2003. The conflicts have been called the ‘African World Wars’ because they both involved six bordering countries and were shaped by the geopolitics of the region.
Even though the war has ended, many rebel groups hang on and continue to fight each other. Attacks on civilians are also common and rape is often used as a weapon. Soldiers on all sides have raped women and men on an appalling scale and the country is believed to be the “rape capital of the world”.
This year, a gynecological surgeon from DRC, Denis Mukwege drew attention to the issue when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Mukwege specialises reconstructive surgery to repair injuries resulting from rape.
As a result, Congo has been making headlines in the international press. In the last week, New York Times, Financial Times and BBC have all run articles on Congo. But, all of these do a wonderful job of ignoring the role of western interests in fueling the violence. The more obvious culprits (ethnic tensions and militia) seem to get all the blame.
Fittingly then, the theme of Congo week this year was “breaking the silence”.
“Breaking the silence” was a call-to-arms for Congo week supporters to speak out against war entrepreneurs, hungry to get their hands on some of DRCs mineral wealth. We all have a stake in the suffering of Congolese people. Mobile phones depend on Coltan, a mineral found in Congo which finances and fuels the fighting. So if you use a mobile phone and keep quiet, Congo’s blood is on your hands too.
The SOAS panel tackled these weighty issues. It comprised the co-founder of human rights watchdog Citoyen Filimbi (the rough translation is ‘citizen watch’), Floribet Anzuluni; and Reader in Development Studies at SOAS, Dr Zoe Marriage.
Dr Marriage used cultural sources like Adam Brace’s play “They Drink it in the Congo” to argue that the ‘white man's burden’ has worsened conditions in DRC. She used historical events to argue that the country was treated as a “playground for ideology” and that like many countries at independence, DRC was “very unprepared to rule itself” considering its exploitation at the hands of Belgium.
Marriage concluded that politics breeds violence, and that elections may not be the immediate solution. Instead, she emphasised the need to put pressure on companies using minerals which fund conflict.
Anzuluni began by talking about a peace deal brokered with the help of the church. He was clear that any post-election transition should not involve Kabila (who he believed puts foreigners’ interests first). Instead, transition should be managed by alternative institutions as much as possible. Anzuluni argued that the minimum standard for a new election should be on that is Kabila-free. He added that the man could not be trusted, given that he betrayed the Congolese public by overriding the powers initially given to him and trying to change the constitution, so he could stay in power.
Audience questions showed how Congolese problems are felt beyond the Congo. One man, who introduced himself as a businessman, quoted Anzuluni’s earlier statement that “Congo is treated like private company” and asked how he could buy a share, drawing laughter from the audience.
In the to-and-fro with the audience, one insisted that transition plans should not involve Kabila, while another pointed to the potential pitfalls of social media activism, which risks forgetting the needs and wants of the rural poor.
Most importantly for those in attendance was a short discussion about what role the diaspora can play in ending the crisis. The panel’s chair, Congo Calling's Bandi Mbubi, pointed out that South Africa’s apartheid government failed as result of both internal resistance and activism. He urged people to use all available avenues, put pressure on foreign government, write to MPs and use social media in a better way, not to vent anger but to propose solutions.