the playstation war: wireless tech creates genocide in africa

by Tim Freccia, originally published in chronogram magazine

Africa’s third-largest country in terms of area, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire) lies northeast of Angola. With 68 million people, it is the continent’s fourth most populous country, the 18th most populous in the world. The DRC is home to over 200 different African ethnic groups, the average life expectancy is 54 years, and 1.1 million Congolese have AIDS. Located in Central Africa and straddling the equator, the DRC holds the promise of enormous wealth for its people with its abundance of natural resources, including cobalt, copper, niobium, tantalum, petroleum, industrial and gem diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, uranium, coal, hydropower, and timber. However, a conflict that began in August 1998 that involved seven foreign armies devastated the country and drastically reduced national output, revenue, and foreign investment, leaving the DRC with the lowest GDP in the world according to the International Monetary Fund. What has been called Africa’s World War has caused the deaths of 5.4 million people from violence, famine, and disease; sexual violence is also widely employed as a tool of war. Although a peace accord was negotiated in 2003, the violence continues in eastern DRC.

More than 100 years ago, Belgian colonialists, under the order of King Leopold, who had set up “Congo Free State”—a personal fiefdom he privately controlled through a dummy nongovernment organization—began cutting the hands off of local workers who didn’t meet rubber collection quotas.

coltonInfografYears later, after the fall of the infamous US-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997, eastern Congo devolved into a seemingly endless cycle of conflict, most of it over its rich natural resources. Numerous militias have rampaged through the east (and still do), funded by businessmen who reap enormous profits in the uncontrolled trade of minerals including cobalt, copper, tin, gold, diamonds, and coltan. Coltan is a key mineral that, once refined, becomes tantalum—a significant ingredient of capacitors, which are used in an expansive array of small electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops, pagers, and other electronic devices.

Eighty percent of the world’s supply of coltan lies in DRC. The recent conflict there has been referred to as “The PlayStation War,” with the activist website “Towards Freedom” claiming “millions of dollars worth of coltan was stolen from the DRC to satisfy the West’s insatiable appetite for personal technology,” with Rwandan troops and rebels using prisoners of war and children to mine for the “black gold.”

In addition, there have been incursions into eastern Congo by its neighbors—Angola, Uganda, and Rwanda—and the dense forests provide shelter for numerous and notorious psychopaths, including Uganda’s Joseph Koney (Lord’s Resistance Army). In roughly a decade, Congo’s conflicts have killed an estimated four million—more than any other since World War Two—displaced millions more, and given rise to commonplace massacres, forced abductions, child soldiers, and rape as a weapon of war. On the fringe, the Mai Mai—a witch doctor militia that is a hybrid mafia local constabulary—perpetrate routine slaughter, rape, and abductions.

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What is Coltan?

coltonColtan or columbite-tantalite is a metallic ore that that is highly essential in electronics today. Once refined coltan becomes a heat-resistant powder, called metallic tantalum, capable of holding a high electrical charge. Because of these properties coltan is used to create the tantalum capacitors used in pretty much all cell phones, tablets, laptops and other electronics.

What is Coltan used for?

  • Laptop computers
  • Cellular phones
  • Jet engines
  • Rockets
  • Cutting tools
  • Camera lenses
  • X-ray film
  • Ink jet printers
  • Hearing aids
  • Pacemakers
  • Airbag protection systems
  • Ignition and motor control modules, GPS, ABS systems in automobiles
  • Game consoles such as playstation, xbox and nintendo
  • Video cameras
  • Digital still cameras
  • Sputtering targets
  • Chemical process equipment
  • Cathodic protection systems for steel structures such as bridges, water tanks
  • Prosthetic devices for humans – hips, plates in the skull, also mesh to repair bone removed after damage by cancer
  • Suture clips
  • Corrosion resistant fasteners, screws, nuts, bolts
  • High temperature furnace parts.
  • High temperature alloys for air and land based turbines

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The Rwandan military has profited $250 million USD from the sale of Coltan in less than a year and a half. This is despite there not being any Coltan in Rwanda. Soldiers watch over slave laborers digging colton out of the mountains of the Congo.

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