Congolese president accuses Apple of exploiting his people

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) recently made a minor splash in the international news when, towards the end of last month, it sent Apple a letter bearing a series of questions regarding the company’s possible usage of conflict minerals from the country’s benighted east.

Along with the letter, which hasn’t been made public, Amsterdam & Partners, the law firm acting on behalf of the government of the DRC in the United States, also published a report looking into the networks that sanitise the minerals by smuggling them, mainly through Rwanda, into international markets.

The report, like the letter, accuses Apple and other big tech companies of knowingly abetting, and illegally benefiting from, this exploitative syndicate. By doing so, the accusation continues, Apple and its ilk are ultimately perpetuating the suffering of Congolese people, and the further disenfranchisement of the country as a whole.

Ethical conundrum

The DRC contains the world’s largest reserves, and is the main global supplier, of coltan, the mineral source of tantalum. It also has significant reserves of tin, tungsten and gold. All four elements are crucial to the manufacture of electronic devices; tantalum from Congo is probably inside the computer or phone on which you are reading this article (the cobalt in its battery is probably also from the DRC, though it probably came from further south).

As it happens, these four minerals, often abbreviated as 3TG, are also the main internationally recognised conflict minerals. Publicly traded companies in the United States are required by law to disclose how they source them to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); the European Union (EU) imposes a similar requirement on all companies in the 3TG supply chain.

Apple’s latest SEC filing, covering 2023, states that it had no reason to believe that its supply chain “directly or indirectly financed or benefited armed groups in the DRC or an adjoining country.” The DRC’s letter casts doubt on that characterisation, with Robert Amsterdam, of Amsterdam & Partners, retorting that Apple’s “claims do not appear to be based on concrete, verifiable evidence.”

The DRC gave Apple three weeks to respond to its questions, failure to which the country would explore further “judicial options in the U.S. and France.” It is not clear whether and how Apple will respond (so far, it has only directed journalists to its SEC filing), and exactly what judicial options the DRC intends to pursue.

Empty gesture

What is clear right now is that the DRC’s gambit, though bold and justified, is unlikely to produce, nor even contribute to, a lasting improvement in the lot of the people at the bottom of the country’s 3TG supply chain. And this is not so much because the effort itself is misguided (it probably is), but rather because the government mounting it has proven itself woefully inept at seeing such initiatives through.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

It all boils down to the crippling indecisiveness of Mr Félix Tshisekedi, the DRC’s unimaginative president. Since his first day in office, most of his initiatives to address the country’s deep-rooted injustices have been marked by impulsive initiation, lacklustre planning, and, when they inevitably start falling apart, thoughtless replacement with new, even more grandiose initiatives.

Consider, for instance, Mr Tshisekedi’s halting attempts to quell the conflicts that enable the extraction and smuggling of 3TG minerals in his country’s restive east in the first place. First, in 2022, he tried to sneakily repurpose a regional peacekeeping force from the East African Community into combat operations against M23 rebels, the main menace in the area.

When this didn’t work, he kicked out that force and pivoted to trying to pull off a similar move with another force from the Southern African Development Community. Unfortunately, his hope that the latter force would be more energetic with the rebels hasn’t been rewarded. The M23 rebels continued to advance, and have now encircled Goma, the largest city in the east of the country.


Along the way, he has alienated nearly all of the DRC’s most important regional allies. And by initiating, and then failing to de-escalate, a bitter war of words with Mr Paul Kagame, the president of neighbouring Rwanda and, for all intents and purposes, the main backer of the M23, Mr Tshisekedi has worked himself into a corner from which he cannot negotiate with his worthy foe.

His bumbling has all but ensured that his government no longer has control over most of the territory in which the 3TG minerals are mined, mainly by militant groups, mainly illegally. Things have gotten so sketchy in the area that, in the election that dubiously granted Mr Tshisekedi a second term last year, 1.5 million voters in the region were left out.

With this context in mind, the letter to Apple ceases to be the opening shot in an upcoming epic battle for the dignity of the Congolese people. It becomes, instead, a weaselly wisp of smoke from an ancient, sputtering engine that’s begging to be put out of its misery. It is, in short, a virtue signal.

And that’s why the only real beneficiaries of the action against Apple will be the big Washington D.C. and Paris law firms that have been retained by Mr Tshisekedi to carry it out. They’ll get their fat fees. And then Mr Tshisekedi will pivot to another grandiose scheme.

What, if anything, can be done for the exploited Congolese? Leave your thoughts below.

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


Showing 8 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-05-25 11:04:15 +1000
  • mrscracker
    Thank you for sharing this article Mr. Mathew & for your patience with those who believe they know what’s best for Africa.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-16 17:24:32 +1000
    Income inequality is always a concern. But it only gets worse with a high birth rate. You don’t honestly expect the ultra-wealthy to share their wealth and alleviate poverty, do you? They care more about lying to investors, lying to consumers, and making sure their name remains in the history books.

    Much of Africa is desert, and it’s only getting worse. Food cannot be grown in sand.
  • Mathew Otieno
    commented 2024-05-16 17:19:07 +1000
    I don’t think I said anything about population in the article, my dear sir. And I don’t think population has much to do with the Congolese government’s ineptitude at governing, which is the main thrust of the article… for what it’s worth, if you’re in the business of drawing spurious demographic conclusions, here’s one: the DRC’s population density is 46.3/km2 while Luxembourg’s is 255/km2, six times more (this should mean that more densely populated countries should be richer, not poorer). Oh, oh, here’s another: the DRC is bigger than Western Europe, but has 2.5 times less people; to be richer, it should have more people… I’m not saying demography is not important, but in the context of this article, it is a red herring.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-16 16:38:25 +1000
    Thank you for replying, Mathew.

    Do you really think more people would help the situation? Wages are low because the population is so high. It gives all the power to employers to set wages as low as they wish.

    The easiest job in the world is Tesla CEO. Or any CEO, really. They’re figureheads who would be nothing without all of their laborers working to prop up their corporation.
  • Mathew Otieno
    commented 2024-05-16 16:18:45 +1000
    Hi Paul. I wonder what the birth rates in Russia, Ukraine, Israel and Gaza are. I also wonder whether you actually read my article or just reflexively wrote your comment because the title had something to do with Africa…
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-16 10:52:53 +1000
    High birth rates always lead to poverty, crime, misery, famine and war.

    If there weren’t so many desperate people, there wouldn’t be so much exploitation.

    The birth rate fell in Thailand over the past few decades. The birth rate in the Philippines stayed high during the same period.

    Unsurprisingly, life is much better in Thailand. Less pollution, too.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-16 10:42:59 +1000