DEC 28, 2000



    The Straits Times, Singapore

Death, war and destruction go on and on in Congo...
All because of cell phones

Tantalum, and its use in cell phones, is fuelling the civil war in Congo as rival groups fight to control ownership of the rare metal

By R. Senthilnathan

THERE has been a massive growth in the use of cellular phones around the world, but since early this year these slick gadgets may have also been a motivating factor in a brutal African civil war.

Just as diamonds have prolonged the war in Sierra Leone, where a rebel group has spread terror by cutting people's arms, the rare metal tantalum, and its increased demand due to its use in cellular phones, is motivating the governments and warlords supporting the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says a recent report by a leading German newspaper.

'The extremely confusing and bloody civil war in Congo is being fought since this year not for the gold and diamond reserves of the country, but for the raw material for the information age,' said the Tageszeitung (TAZ) newspaper.

Capacitors made out of tantalum, which goes by the symbol Ta, are in high demand for cellular phones and digital cameras.

Just last month a leading rebel group in Congo, or Zaire as it was known until recently, gave a company it owns together with some Rwandans the exclusive right to export tantalum from the country's ores.

In return, the rebel group, Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), will receive a US$1 million (S$1.73 million) every month.

Tantalum, which was discovered in 1802, is a hard, malleable, blue-grey metal very ductile and can be drawn into a very thin wire. It is also heat and corrosion-resistant.

The metal is found in a number of African countries, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Spain and Thailand, but 80 per cent of the known resources of about 50 million kg are in Africa.

Of this 80 per cent, most of it is found in eastern Congo, where the country's mineral belt runs alongside the Rift Valley, a geological fault running from the Jordan Valley in the Middle East through the Gulf of Aqaba to southern Africa.

Tantalum, which almost always comes together with another rare metal niobium, was used in lamp filaments in the early part of last century, but tungsten put a stop to that use.

The usefulness of tantalum has come a long way since then, and now it is used in electronic appliances, chemical equipment, missiles, aircraft and spacecraft.

The Pentagon regards tantalum as a strategic material.

In fact, the US military establishment regards it very important that it is part of the so-called strategic defence stockpile, a system under which the US government stocks material needed for its military, industrial and essential civilian need in times of an emergency or war.

However, some reports have linked the communications revolution with the increase in demand for tantalum.

The number of cellular phones worldwide is expected to rise from the 220 million sets in 1999 to a billion by year 2004, and this growth is set to increase the demand for the rare metal.

The Brussels-based Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre reported in 1998 that demand for tantalum will rise by double digits up to 2002, and most of it will come from Africa, Australia and Brazil.

Along with the increased demand, the prices of the rare metal have also risen.

According to the TAZ, a pound (0.454 grams) of tantalum went up from US$75 in February this year to US$350 for the same quantity this month.

Thus, it would appear no wonder that eastern Congo, with its priced tantalum ores, would be a hard-fought region between the forces of Congo President Laurent Kabila, who is supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and the RCD, supported by Rwanda and Uganda.

Both these countries have their own tantalum ores. What is interesting is the links that the warring parties have forged through the tantalum trade.

The Great Lakes Mining Company (Somigl), which received the RCD contract, also handles tantalum from areas under the control of the Laurent Kabila government.

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