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DRC says Rwandan mineral smuggling costs it almost $1bn a year

The Democratic Republic of Congo said it was losing almost $1bn a year in minerals that were being illegally smuggled into Rwanda, as it restated its call for international sanctions to be placed on the Kigali government.

Nicolas Kazadi, the DRC’s finance minister, said that Rwanda last year exported close to $1bn in gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten, even though the country has few mineral deposits of its own. “It’s all coming from DRC — that’s obvious,” he told the FT’s Commodities Global Summit in Lausanne. “It’s not only allegations, it’s evidence.”

Kinshasa has long accused Rwanda of plundering its natural resources by supporting M23, an armed group that resumed fighting in late 2021. DRC president Félix Tshisekedi recently urged visiting French leader Emmanuel Macron to take economic measures against Rwanda for its alleged backing of M23, which has waged a brutal insurgency across eastern DRC.

“We’re still waiting for those sanctions,” Kazadi said, adding that M23’s main objective was to take DRC minerals and siphon them over the border. “We’re very surprised to see there‘s no sanction [for Rwanda], not even the beginning of sanctions.”

US secretary of state Antony Blinken told Rwandan president Paul Kagame in December that any “external support to non-state armed groups in the DRC must end, including Rwanda’s assistance to M23”, according to the US state department.

Rwanda has repeatedly denied the allegations that it supports M23. M23 also denies being backed by Rwanda.

Yolande Makolo, a spokesperson for the Rwandan government, said: “The minister [Kazadi] is delusional. Rwanda cannot be responsible for state failure in the DRC and the cannibalisation of their economy by over 100 illegal armed groups whose activities the government allows, and even supports.”

Workers prepare coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo © Michael J Kavanagh/Bloomberg

The DRC has some of the world’s most abundant natural resources. The rich seam of minerals that runs along the DRC’s border with Uganda and Rwanda holds vast amounts of gold and some of the world’s largest deposits of tantalum, also known as coltan, which is mined by hand and used in the manufacture of electronic devices.

DRC exported 2,220 tonnes of coltan last year, up 54 per cent from 2021. Official gold exports fell 11 per cent to just over 28 tonnes, although the true gold exports are thought to be much higher.

The US Treasury has estimated that more than 90 per cent of DRC’s gold was “smuggled” to countries including Rwanda and Uganda, where it is refined and exported, mainly to the United Arab Emirates. The US last year imposed sanctions on the owner of a Ugandan gold refinery for his alleged involvement in the illegal trade, which analysts say is a significant driver in the long-running conflict in eastern DRC.

In an effort to address the problem, the DRC government in January launched a joint venture with a UAE-based company to export DRC gold mined by hand to a refinery in the Gulf.

Kazadi said the venture, Primera Gold DRC, which ultimately aims to export a tonne of certified DRC gold each month, had exported 454kg of gold since it began operations in January.

“What we’re trying to do now with the Emirates is one of the responses we’re giving [to the conflict] on the economic side,” he said, adding that “we still need other responses, including sanctions”.

Kagame has often maintained strong bilateral relationships with western partners, including the UK, despite leaked evidence from UN investigators of his country’s involvement in fighting in the DRC.

The British government agreed to pay Rwanda £120mn to take asylum seekers for resettlement in an effort to deter them from travelling to the UK, a plan widely criticised by opposition politicians and rights groups.

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