Congo fighters hit by slump in sales of mobile phones

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The dapper businessman switches his Ericsson to "vibrate", tweaks the seams of his trousers and sits down. We have barely exchanged greetings when a call on the mobile phone causes the table-top to shudder. But Paul Mpirikanyi Ribakare does not need a clairvoyant to tell him this is not a lucrative call. "The phone rings much less these days. Coltan is dead,'' he says.

The dapper businessman switches his Ericsson to "vibrate", tweaks the seams of his trousers and sits down. We have barely exchanged greetings when a call on the mobile phone causes the table-top to shudder. But Paul Mpirikanyi Ribakare does not need a clairvoyant to tell him this is not a lucrative call. "The phone rings much less these days. Coltan is dead,'' he says.

Goma is in mourning. As the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) marks its third year, this ruin of a frontier town on the eastern border of the country is reeling from the decline of its most lucrative war dividend. The City of London has called off its buying spree in columbite-tantalite – a heat-resistant mineral compound that is used for light bulb filaments and is crucial for mobile phones, Sony PlayStations or any item that requires a capacitor.

The slump in the mobile phone market may have helped change the course of the war. Mr Mpirikanyi Ribakare's phone rings less, he says, "because the world does not need our coltan anymore. It could be because of the slump in the mobile phone market, or just because the buyers have built up their stockpiles and are satisfied with the coltan they can buy from Australia and Brazil.''

War in the DRC, the former Zaire, which began in August 1998 when the late Laurent Kabila ousted the Rwandans who installed him, is as much about resources for the modern world as it is about African ethnic concerns, militia rivalries and hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by fighting. In some remote areas, peasants trapped by the conflict have not seen salt for years. But Congo's valuable minerals – diamonds, gold and, until recently, coltan – always make it through the lines of fighting.

At the end of last year, the coltan price in London stood at a peak of $210 per pound (£146). Coltan is extracted from a pebble, found in enormous quantities in the eastern region of Kivu. At the height of the frenzy, schools were emptied as pupils and teachers became barefoot prospectors overnight, scrabbling with their hands along banks of mud.

Mr Mpirikanyi Ribakare, a former mechanical engineer with e-mail access, joined the rush. He said: "I bought a spectrometer for $40,000 and stocks of hydrochloric acid to do the sampling. I set myself up and waited for the prospectors to come to me.''

Now the price in London of the unlisted compound is down to $40 per pound, almost equal to its value in August 1998 when the Rwandan-led Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) went to war against Kabila's corrupt regime. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe rallied to Kinshasa's cause. Namibia followed. Angola's government, fearful that Rwandan supremacy would boost the Unita rebels it is fighting at home, also entered the fray.

In the north-east, Uganda began supporting rebels opposed to Kabila, so as to create a buffer for its own volatile border. The win-win war became self-funding for all sides and the DRC was divided into three segments, each the size of several European countries.

But Mr Mpirikanyi Ribakare believes the slump in the market for coltan could change everything. He said: "Until 1997, Europe was extracting coltan from reprocessed waste from the colonial days. When it began to run out, just as the mobile phone industry was exploding, there was a panic. It will not happen again."

In April, a United Nations experts' report called for a limited trade embargo against Uganda and Rwanda for their alleged role in pillaging the huge country of gold, diamonds and coltan.

Rwanda's deputy chief of staff, Brigadier-General James Kabarebe, who was named in the report, said the UN findings were "propaganda'' by the Kabila regime. He said: "We fight with our own resources – our taxes and income from our coffee and tea plantations. Our soldiers buy food from the local population with their meal allowances. We do not steal. We have actually improved life for people in the DRC.''

There are those whose reaction to the plundering is a shrug of the shoulders and "c'est la guerre''. They argue that wars all over the world happen for economic reasons and that buying military favours is nothing new. The theft of Congo's resources certainly is not original. It was sales of the country's diamonds and other precious stones, gold, copper, cobalt, coffee, unique hardwoods and even rare birds that sustained Mobutu Sese Seko's extravagant regime until his overthrow in 1997.

The RCD secretary-general, Ruberwa Azarias, admitted that his movement earned $2m (£1.4m) from coltan last November and December after creating a monopoly dealership called SOMIGL with Belgian, South African and Rwandan partners. At least some of the money was used to pay the $10-a-month salaries of Goma's administrators, who had not been paid for years.

In an interview after the recent launch of an anti-corruption unit with draconian powers to search and confiscate goods, Mr Azarias said: "There is no money left in coltan. Now our income, like that of any administration, must be drawn from local taxes and customs duties.''

* Congolese rebels have recaptured a strategic town on the Congo river from tribal militias and Rwandan rebels allied to the government, a Congolese rebel leader said. Moise Nyarugabo, acting chief of the RCD, said Lokandu town, 60 kilometers north of Kindu in eastern Congo, was recaptured following fierce fighting that ended Tuesday.

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