In 1990, Paul Mulangu and his wife were separated in a government crackdown later dubbed “le massacre de l’Université de Lubumbashi”. At the time, such violence was common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then called Zaire).
Fearing for the life of his children, Mulangu set off with his son and daughter for neighbouring Zambia. They walked for two days without food and water until finally arriving at a refugee camp across the border.
After “six very long years”, Mulangu told the Georgia Straight, his refugee claim to Canada was accepted.
“That was the most beautiful time in my life,” he recalled. “When they told me I would go to Canada, I felt like I would be safe.”
Settling in New Westminster, Mulangu founded the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants. Today, with violence in Congo once again catching headlines around the world, Mulangu is one of a growing number of British Columbians asking the Canadian government to take a leadership role in the central African country.
In October 2008, Laurent Nkunda, a rogue Congolese general backed by Rwanda, seized control of much of Congo’s mineral-rich Nord-Kivu province. A humanitarian crisis ensued. On November 16, Nkunda and Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, reached a shaky ceasefire that continued to hold as the Straight went to press. However, Nkunda has repeatedly warned that he is prepared to march on the capital, Kinshasa, if Kabila drags his feet on negotiations. Nkunda claims he is fighting to protect Congo’s Tutsi minority from Rwandan Hutu rebels.
Mulangu was quick to argue against characterizations of violence in Congo as tribal. “It is a war of minerals, a war of resources where people are stealing,” he said. “It is a war of cellphones.”
Mulangu explained that it is Congo’s abundance of minerals like gold, diamonds, and coltan—a metal vital to the production of many electronics—that has long fuelled violence in his home country.
According to an August 2007 report in the international journal Africa Research Bulletin, Congo holds 80 percent of the world’s coltan reserves.
“There are a lot of Canadian companies that are there in the Congo,” Mulangu noted. He argued that if Canada is going to continue to benefit from Congo’s resources, the Canadian government should be willing to take a greater role there.
A group of UBC students shares Mulangu’s cause and has started a letter-writing campaign that calls on the Canadian government to help mitigate suffering in Congo.
The Africa Canada Accountability Coalition is asking for Canada to increase aid to Congo, encourage its partners at the United Nations to contribute troops to the UN’s mission in Congo, and hold its mining corporations operating in Congo accountable to the Canadian judicial system.
Tanja Bergen is ACAC’s executive director. She said that Canada owes Congo.
“Given that we directly benefit from this country’s resources, given that we have a financial stake, and that we are one of this country’s largest economic partners in the mining industry, we think Canada has a responsibility to act,” Bergen said in a telephone interview. “It [coltan] is in every one of our cellphones, it is in every single one of our computers. So this is something that affects every single one of us.”
Daniel Barbarie, a spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Straight from Ottawa that Canada has contributed $60 million in aid to Congo since April 2006. He noted that Canadian forces participated in a French-led operation deployed to safeguard the northeastern Congolese city of Bunia from violence in 2003.
Twelve members of the Canadian Forces are deployed in Congo as part of the UN’s operation in the country, according to the Canadian Department of Defence’s Web site.
Speaking from Ottawa, Liberal MP Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre) said that as a member of the Commonwealth, Canada has a strong role to play in bringing an end to the latest round of violence in Congo.
“We should be working with some of the Commonwealth African nations to move this agenda forward,” she said.
Fry maintained that countries such as Nigeria have signalled that they are prepared to play major roles in resolving problems like those in Congo. “And I think that we should give them as much support and as much training, as much on-the-ground resources, as they need,” she said.
Mumbo Masinda, another Congolese refugee in Canada, is the president of the United Congolese Community of British Columbia. He estimated that there are 1,500 Congolese living in the Lower Mainland. “It is a small community but a growing one,” he said.
According to Masinda, it is these people that the Canadian government should look to if it decides to take on a greater role in Congo.
“The Congolese Canadians who are living here may know exactly how to play around issues in the Congo,” he said. Masinda emphasized that he would only support sending more Canadian soldiers to Congo if the mission were done right, using people who properly understood the situation.
In a separate interview, Mulangu reiterated his belief that it is resources that give Canadians a reason to care about fighting in Congo.
“People should care about this war because they carry computers and they carry cellphones,” he said. “Everybody with a cellphone must be concerned, because it is blood money that they carry and are speaking into.”
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.