The perils of rebel gold

Like Bill Clinton and the Starr Commission during the Monica Lewinsky affair, this week’s dispute between AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) turned on what constitutes a relationship. The gold mining giant says that five meetings with the militia that controlled its concession area in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) do not constitute an ongoing relationship. The human-rights lobby group says the relationship was more intimate than AGA is prepared to admit.

HRW’s report on human rights violations in north-eastern DRC, released on Wednesday, analyses the conflict in that region as a struggle for control of one of Africa’s largest goldfields. The report, titled The Curse of Gold, attributes abuses including mass killings, torture, rape and forced labour to militia groups that have remained outside the Congolese peace process.

The report also examines the implications of AGA exploring a mining concession centred on the town of Mongbwalu, which, until recently, was the centre of operations for the Nationalist and Integrationist Forces (FNI) — one of the groups singled out by HRW for committing atrocities. AGA hastily scheduled a press conference in response; the battle of words between the two organisations centred on whether a company can ever meet its stated ethical principles when operating in a zone where warlords rule.

A decade ago, evidence began emerging of complicity between the diamond industry and rebel groups, ensuring that today a “conflict diamond” is something no one wants to admit to owning. The HRW report is among the first attempts bringing similar scrutiny to the gold industry.

HRW documents the meetings between AGA’s local representatives and the FNI between late 2003 and September 2004; it also records a payment of $8 000 by AGA personnel to the FNI, and the occupation of a house in AGA’s Mongbwalu camp by FNI fighters, noted earlier this year by United Nations investigators and reported in the Mail & Guardian.

“If you put the meetings, the financial support and the house together, clearly it’s a relationship,” Anneke van Woudenberg, author of the HRW report, told the M&G. “There is no way AGA could have got access to the Mongbwalu area without developing a relationship with the FNI,” she added. The report quotes FNI leader Floribert Njabu Ngabu as saying: “I am the one who gave AGA permission to come. I am the boss of Mongbwalu.”

AGA’s version, conversely, points to a series of mishaps. The corporation said the $8 000 payment — made in January — was extortion, and will not be repeated; it said the occupation of the house was done without consent. As to the meetings with the FNI, AGA did not deny they happened, but sought to downplay their significance. Corporate affairs officer Steve Lenahan told the M&G that FNI members “had requested meetings to ask about progress — they had a continuing interest [in AGA’s mining operations]”.

He said the AGA staff had agreed to the meeting because they “took the view that they would be ill-advised not to meet”. In other words, they were threatened. Lenahan said AGA knew of reports of human-rights violations, but “it is plausible that operating field staff were unaware of the role being played by the FNI in these events”.

Questioned about AGA having started exploration in Mongbwalu when it was under rebel control, chief executive Bobby Godsell replied: “We believed at the time we could operate in a way which would not require us to break our values and not give support … to the FNI. That was our judgement at the time, and we accept that judgement was debatable, as all judgements are.”

HRW’s Van Woudenberg maintains that working in an area controlled by perpetrators of crimes against humanity is not debatable, and that AGA’s presence bestowed political credibility on the FNI.

“Local warlords use natural resources to support their bloody activities,” she says. “Any support for such groups, whether direct or indirect, must not continue.”

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