Congo Cobalt Mining
Muongo Tshiondo Kuta, then 19, carries an empty bag, after working in the Shinkolobwe Cobalt mine on Saturday, the mine is situated, 35km from the town of Likasi, in South Eastern, Democratic Republic of Congo, April 10, 2004. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

You might think that the recent New York Times series on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo was inspired by the overdue need to report on the awful conditions in one of the poorest and most exploited nations on earth.

You would be wrong. Instead, theseries, now 12 articles long, seems largely motivated by the fear that China is cornering the global market on cobalt, a mineral used in the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries. The Times apparently regards the cobalt miners, and the rest of the 93 million Congolese people, as a sideshow to the supposed U.S.-China struggle. Anyone with firsthand experience in Congo will be disappointed at how the articles downplay what experts regard as the greatest ongoing humanitarian crisis anywhere since the end of World War II.

The Times series launched on November 20, with a huge article that jumped off the front page to cover four entire pages inside. The paper’s concentration on the alleged China threat was clear from the start. The report said that “the race for cobalt has set off a power struggle in Congo,” and summarized: “At least here in Congo, China is so far winning that contest, with both the Obama and Trump administrations having stood idly by as a company backed by the Chinese government bought two of the country’s largest cobalt deposits over the past five years.” The next article reinforced the theme with the headline “How the U.S. Lost Ground to China in the Contest for Clean Energy.”

Howard French, a veteran Africa correspondent and writer, has just published Born in Blackness, a brilliant look at how Africa’s contributions have been written out of the history of how the modern world developed. He is skeptical. “It’s an irony to see Congo regarded as a pawn in a latter-day great power competition, while overlooking 500 years of Western involvement in the region,” he told me. “In the late 1400s, the Portuguese established relations with the Kongo kingdom [a strong state that ruled over what is today western Congo]. Kongo sent diplomatic representatives to Europe. The trade in metals dates to the 16th century.”

The Times reports include a detailed discussion of alleged Chinese corruption in dealing with the DRC government—but the paper nearly ignores decades of Western bribery and malfeasance. A well-placed source who spends time in Congo and knows its mining industry well told me, “The Times’s biggest failure is that it barely mentions this long history of Western corruption.”

Most recently, the heart of this Western exploitation of the Congolese is an allegedly criminal partnership between a Swiss-based multinational and an Israeli businessman—with help from a huge New York hedge fund. Glencore, the mining and commodity trading corporation, teamed up with Dan Gertler, the businessman, to allegedly steal at least hundreds of millions from the Congolese people; part of the racket allegedly included paying bribes directly to Joseph Kabila, the former DRC president. Glencore is not a small player in the cobalt market; it owns the world’s largest mine, Mutanda, which accounts for one-fifth of global production.

Glencore is being criminally investigated in at least three nations: the U.S., Britain, and Switzerland. Gertler is already under U.S. Treasury Department sanctions for corruption. In 2017, Treasury called him “an international businessman and billionaire who has amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” As for the hedge fund, Och-Ziff, which once had $50 billion in assets, it snared itself in the bribery schemes. It got caught and had to pay the U.S. government a $412 million settlement; one of its top officials was sentenced to federal prison; and it had to hide by changing its name (to Sculptor Capital Management).

Chinese mining companies had nothing to do with these several-decade-long criminal enterprises. But Glencore and Gertler only made cameo appearances in the long Times series, and Och-Ziff was missing entirely. (By contrast, the Bloomberg Business reporters Michael Kavanagh, William Clowes, and Franz Wild have spent years covering corruption in the DRC in detail.) Anyone who worries about the global cobalt supply should at least question whether Glencore and Gertler sound like dependable sources.

The Times does expose how a Chinese company, China Molybdenum, mistreats its workers at the big Fungurume copper and cobalt mine that it bought from the U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan corporation in 2016. (Copper and cobalt deposits are often found together.) The paper reported that, among other problems, “Chinese ownership had led to a drastic decline in safety and an increase in injuries.” The well-placed Congo source does give the Times credit for this reporting, and agrees with the paper’s finding that China Molybdenum employs fewer Congolese in the mine. “Under Freeport’s management, 95 percent of the workers were Congolese,” the source said. “That’s dropped to 75-80 percent, not a good sign in a country with such high unemployment.”

Even so, Freeport-McMoRan was not a model employer. I visited Fungurume back before the Chinese took over, and I heard plenty of criticism of how the U.S. company managed the mine. Local people were angry that Freeport operated as an enclave, with few connections to the local economy, and failed to train Congolese for the more skilled jobs. In 2009 and 2010, hundreds of Congolese protested by blocking the highway and briefly shutting off mineral exports. 

What’s more, the Times’s warning of a global cobalt crisis is arguably exaggerated. Recycling used cobalt will increase supply. A company is opening a mine in Idaho. Electric vehicle makers are already starting to replace cobalt with other materials. World mineral markets are notoriously volatile, and one expert even predicted an eventual cobalt price bust.

Howard French, who has also written a book on Chinese involvement in Africa, doubts that Chinese companies are buying mines in the DRC for strategic reasons. “It’s simple,” he told me. “China has a huge manufacturing sector that needs a growing supply of metals. That’s their first thought—not some kind of competition with the U.S.” French, who knows Congo well, adds, “China has made rapid gains in mining there because Western companies had stopped investing, stopped doing anything ambitious.” 

Mostly left out of the Times series are the Congolese themselves, and their desperate struggle to survive decades of violence, hunger, and disease. In May, the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, sending half a million Congolese fleeing for their lives; the most recent refugees added to the 5.5 million people who are already internally displaced. The billions of dollars that are draining out of the country, whether to Western multinationals or, more recently, to Chinese companies, could instead be used to fight hunger, improve the skeletal health system—and start to build a professional army to replace the unpaid bands of criminal looters who steal, murder, and rape, particularly in the country’s east. The DRC’s total government budget for 2021 is only $6.9 billion, smaller than the state budget of Oklahoma ($9 billion, for a population of only 4 million).

The Democratic Republic of Congo should not be poor. Big copper mines that opened in the southeastern Katanga region way back in the 1920s, then owned by Belgium, the colonial power, have steadily exported minerals. (The uranium used in the first atomic bombs was also mined in the region.) But if you travel along the highway that links Katanga to the export ports, as I did a few years before the Chinese bought the mine at Fungurume, you will see little sign of development. Trucks rumble along a road that is unpaved for long stretches, kicking up dust as they pass. You do see huge pylons alongside the highway, stretching into the horizon, supplying electricity to the mines. But there are no wires connecting the current to the simple ochre mud-brick homes that line the road. 

James North

Follow James on Twitter @jamesnorth7. James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.