One evening in 2014, a police officer in Kolwezi, a dusty mining city of a half-million people in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo, decided that his family needed a new latrine. He picked up a shovel and started digging a pit in his yard and soon stood transfixed at the shimmering black dirt he’d unearthed: Before him was a pile of cobalt, one of the world’s most important minerals.
Cobalt is an essential component of rechargeable batteries in cars and mobile phones, and Congo is by far the world’s largest producer, with about half of all known reserves. In Kolwezi, the cobalt is often found with vast deposits of copper: After a rainstorm, some of the ground in the city turns as green as the Statue of Liberty. With the electronics boom worldwide, demand for both minerals has exploded.
In the days that followed the policeman’s discovery, he began digging up his living room, his bathroom, his bedroom, his kitchen. Within weeks, his neighbors followed suit. By mid-2015, when I started visiting that area of Kolwezi, known as Kasulo, the place looked as if it had been bombed.
Kasulo was once a quiet hillside neighborhood, home to the families of the cooks and cleaners, mechanics and drivers who worked for the mining industry. Now its small brick and concrete houses were crumbling and the streets were pockmarked with cavernous holes.
Technically, Congolese property owners don’t own the minerals beneath their land. But when government officials came to stop the diggers, they were attacked with stones and crowbars, one of the diggers, Mike Tshiamb — a.k.a. Magic Bar, because of his digging prowess — told me. “We’re in Congo and we’re Congolese,” Mr. Tshiamb told the officials. “This is our land.”
Yet Congo’s citizens have rarely controlled their land. The mineral riches that should make the country wealthy have funded governments whose corruption has undermined the young democracy and left its people desperately poor. The copper and cobalt boom has brought Congo steady economic growth, yet its per capita income remains among the lowest in the world.
From the time of colonialism through more than three decades of dictatorship, unelected rulers looted Congo’s resources for their personal enrichment. The plunder continued during civil wars between 1996 and 2003.
In 2006, the first free, multiparty election since independence was supposed to change all this. The winner, Joseph Kabila — who first became president in 2001, after the previous president, his father, was killed — promised to end corruption. The international community invested heavily in his administration, providing several tens of billions of dollars in aid and debt relief. The United Nations’ largest peacekeeping force, Monusco, is deployed in Congo, helping to protect the government from repeated attempts at rebellion.
But right under the nose of the international community, the theft of the country’s mineral wealth has continued, and nongovernmental and international organizations say Mr. Kabila’s government has manipulated elections to remain in power.
Pointing to “numerous irregularities,” monitors from the European Union challenged the credibility of the official results of the 2011 presidential vote, in which Mr. Kabila was re-elected. Yet his government suffered little condemnation from African neighbors and no sanctions from the United Nations or Western countries: stability over democracy.
Under constitutional term limits, Mr. Kabila was supposed to step down in December 2016. Instead, he postponed elections, and his security forces killed several dozen democracy advocates. It was only last summer, with international pressure finally mounting, that he agreed to leave office and scheduled a vote for Dec. 30.
But his two most prominent opponents were barred from running (one had been convicted by the International Criminal Court of witness tampering in a war crimes case). Just days before the election, the electoral commission, citing security concerns and an Ebola outbreak, postponed voting in several opposition strongholds — effectively disenfranchising more than 1.2 million people among the 40 million registered to vote.
Mr. Kabila’s handpicked successor still proved too unpopular to win. The surprise victor was Felix Tshisekedi, nominally a member of the opposition, whose father was once Mr. Kabila’s top rival. But Congo’s Catholic Church, among others, believes that another opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, actually won, and easily.
The Financial Times obtained data from the electoral commission representing 86 percent of votes cast nationwide: It suggests that Mr. Fayulu won more than 59 percent of the vote, and Mr. Tshisekedi only 19 percent. Mr. Tshisekedi was sworn into office on Thursday.
Supporters of Mr. Kabila will make up a large majority in the legislature. One of his advisers has said that the departing president’s camp will “still retain power.” Mr. Kabila has suggested that he might seek re-election.
It’s difficult to draw a direct line between mining money and electoral tampering, but it’s even harder not to see the dots between them.
The government recently revised Congo’s mining code to increase revenue from the industry. Gécamines, the state-owned copper and cobalt miner, has been renegotiating some of its private partnerships, pushing back against foreign companies. In theory, those changes should benefit the Congolese state and then the Congolese people. But history suggests that they won’t.
In 2009, a World Bank report described the country’s failure “to harness its mineral wealth for economic development” largely because of “corrupt management and political interference.”
Between 2010 and 2012, Gécamines and other state companies sold stakes in several of Congo’s most valuable mines for at least $1.36 billion less than their market value, according to the Africa Progress Panel, a policy foundation previously headed by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general. (Several of the foreign companies involved in these deals have denied any wrongdoing.)
Separate investigations by the United States Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission have also revealed that around the time of the 2011 elections, another foreign company paid millions of dollars in mining-related bribes to Congolese officials. According to a 2017 report about Congo’s copper industry by the Carter Center, deals multiplied before both the 2006 and the 2011 elections.
A similar pattern seems to have taken place before last month’s vote.
Gécamines has been selling mining rights, often to Chinese companies, for the past few years. According to the Carter Center, Gécamines did not publish the details related to some of the transactions, in violation of Congolese regulations. (Gécamines has said that it is under no such obligation.) Some $750 million due to Gécamines by corporate partners between 2011 and 2014 could not reliably be traced to the company’s accounts, the Carter Center also found. The anticorruption watchdog Global Witness said that more than $750 million in mining revenues paid to Congolese state entities were lost between 2013 and 2015. Gécamines published a fierce 60-some-page denial in November, rebutting the two groups’ accounting and accusing them of “modern colonialism.”
But in Kolwezi, the impact of corruption is obvious. Not far from Kasulo’s barren hillside are two mining projects that should have propelled the country’s development. Instead, one seemed to lie fallow for years, partly because of controversial ownership changes, and the other went about $9 billion into debt.
The first project, known as Kolwezi Tailings, was taken over by Eurasian Resources Group (formerly Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation) in several transactions beginning in 2010 — a deal the British government is investigating for possible fraud, bribery and corruption. Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation bought the project from the Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, who also is being investigated. The company has denied any wrongdoing.
Mr. Gertler’s company has said that his business dealings in Congo “are entirely proper and appropriate.” Mr. Kabila agrees. Yet in December 2017, the United States imposed sanctions on Mr. Gertler after finding that he had made “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals” in Congo.
The other major project in Kolwezi is run by a unit of Katanga Mining Limited, which is largely owned by Glencore, a Switzerland-based commodities trader and major producer of cobalt. Katanga Mining recently paid more than $21 million to the Ontario Securities Commission in a settlement regarding the company’s failure to disclose to regulators and investors information material to the business, such as the risk of public corruption in Congo. (Glencore has said that it was “disappointed by the conduct” that led to the settlement.)
Congo was in the middle of a war when Mr. Tshiamb, the Kasulo digger known as Magic Bar, finished school in 2000. There were no jobs, so he began digging. One day in February 2015, he was 60 feet beneath one of the houses in Kasulo, chipping at the black earth around him, with a friend nearby, when the shaft collapsed, trapping and killing his friend. A local official told me in June 2016 that officially 90 people had died digging in Kasulo since the policeman first found cobalt in 2014. “But unofficially, we’re at around 250,” he said.
In 2017, the Congolese government made a deal with a Chinese mining conglomerate to relocate many of Kasulo’s remaining residents and bulldoze the land so that it would be safer for digging. From the sky, that part of Kasulo now looks like a bald spot in the middle of the city. There are few reminders of the deadly pits, or the houses that once stood there, or the people who lived in those houses and fought to control their land and its bounty.
Michael J. Kavanagh is writing a book on global finance, poverty and the Democratic Republic of Congo.