Africa’s min­er­als a global conflict ig­niter

Zululand Observer - Monday - - OPINION -

I’VE al­ways be­lieved the next global conflict will be over wa­ter, and that it will orig­i­nate in Africa.

Al­ready Ethiopia and Egypt are hav­ing words over the Re­nais­sance Dam which will siphon off wa­ter from the Nile, a river Egypt re­gards as her birthright.

The Nile is the ar­te­rial blood of both na­tions, and any stran­gling of sup­ply is a mat­ter of life and death.

Ethiopia’s pop­u­la­tion is sched­uled to soar to more than 200 mil­lion within 30 years, in a coun­try that is al­ready un­sus­tain­able.

De­spite that, I now think dif­fer­ently. Wa­ter is not the next point of no re­turn. In­stead it will be rare earth min­er­als.

The rea­son is sim­ple. Cell­phones and com­put­ers - as much a lifeblood to the First World as the Nile is to Egypt and Ethiopia - are pow­ered by min­er­als mined in West Africa.

Of course wa­ter re­sources will be cru­cial, but in the First World wa­ter sup­ply is as re­liant on com­put­ers as the Third World is on rain.

If some­one hacked Amer­ica’s main­frames, the dams will be emp­tied, pumps in­ca­pac­i­tated and taps run dry.

Hy­dro­elec­tric power would be dis­abled. We would not all die of thirst, but it doesn’t need fer­vid fan­tasy to vi­su­alise the en­su­ing chaos.

That’s why con­trol, proxy or other­wise, of rare earth min­er­als es­sen­tial to tech­nol­ogy and dug out of the mud by sweat­shop labour­ers in the rain forests is the next flash point.

Ah, but you say, why this talk of war? Aren’t we fur­ther down the road to liv­ing in har­mony than ever be­fore? Aren’t strangers just friends we haven’t hugged?

I wish it was true. But con­sider the re­al­ity. As I write this, Chi­nese and Rus­sian forces are do­ing joint ma­noeu­vres on the Siberian bor­der, com­bin­ing the aims of the world’s most am­bi­tious su­per­power with the most bel­liger­ent one.

In re­sponse, Amer­ica and In­dia are now dis­cussing com­bined mil­i­tary ex­er­cises. To me this is ex­tremely sig­nif­i­cant.

I have long be­lieved In­dia will be a greater su­per­power than China be­cause it is a democ­racy, and pos­si­bly also be­cause the many In­dian-South Africans I worked with are some of the best peo­ple

I’ve met.

How­ever, even with­out my grossly un­sci­en­tific de­duc­tions, the con­cept of com­bin­ing

Amer­ica’s tech wiz­ardry and

In­dia’s de­mo­graphic might must give Moscow and Bei­jing sleep­less nights.

Min­er­als are money

But back to Africa, the world’s most re­source rich con­ti­nent.

South Africa’s re­sources are well doc­u­mented, but the true un­tapped gi­ant is the poverty-stricken DRC.

I come across this fre­quently in re­search as I am cur­rently writ­ing a book with con­ser­va­tion­ist ex­traor­di­naire Grant Fowlds, who is, among other things, do­ing go­rilla work in the DRC.

Ev­ery time I type a Google SEO phrase con­tain­ing ‘Congo’, the vast min­eral wealth of the coun­try comes up.

Not only that, I also com­pleted my fourth ‘fact-fic­tion’ novel ear­lier this year, which I plan to pub­lish once I fin­ish Grant’s book.

Most of the ac­tion takes place in West Africa, which - again thanks to Google re­search - is no co­in­ci­dence.

I chose it de­lib­er­ately be­cause the area is a grow­ing bat­tle­ground for in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism, through no fault of the in­dige­nous peo­ple.

It’s be­cause of the afore­men­tioned re­sources. Apart from rare earth min­er­als, gold, di­a­monds and oil, West Africa is also rid­dled with ura­nium, a key nu­clear in­gre­di­ent. The ura­nium for the Hiroshima bomb came from Katanga.

Nu­clear fis­sion is mind-bog­glingly com­pli­cated, but ba­sic ura­nium ‘yel­low­cake’ is not.

Ura­nium is the most mon­i­tored me­tal in the world — ex­cept in the vast jun­gles of West Africa.

So, while some bomber with a dirty yel­low­cake de­vice would not cause much loss of life, he would ren­der a city ra­dioac­tive for decades.

It’s al­ready been tried by Chechen in­sur­gents, but for­tu­nately the bomb didn’t det­o­nate.

How­ever, de­spite me shame­lessly plug­ging my book, the key conflict rare earth min­eral is not ura­nium, but coltan; a dull-black ore used in most so­phis­ti­cated de­vices, in­clud­ing in­dus­trial com­put­ers and jet en­gines. In other words, the lifeblood of mod­ern gadgets.

It’s es­sen­tial to First World economies. It’s also a blood min­eral and has al­ready funded one conflict - the Great African War of 1995-2003 which sucked in nine na­tions and cost five mil­lion lives.

Will it fund more?

That’s one of the ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions of the 21st Cen­tury.

Gra­ham Spence

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