Despite a strong foothold during the Cold War, Washington has since fumbled on the continent.
In April 1997, toward the end of the protracted demise of the United States’ longtime Cold War client Mobutu Sese Seko, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, flew to the capital of what was then called Zaire to try to persuade the besieged dictator to step down.
As I stood outside the drawing room of the palace where Mobutu and Richardson met in the morning, an aide to Richardson sidled up to me and whispered an invitation in my ear. If I, as the New York Times bureau chief for the region, would like to fly with them to the southern city of Lubumbashi to meet Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader whose Rwanda-backed forces were taking over Zaire, I should walk toward Richardson’s parked motorcade and stand there and stand by, not saying a word to anyone.
In the golden sunshine late that same afternoon, I was aboard Richardson’s jet as it approached Lubumbashi low over the surrounding scrubland and landed. The ongoing civil war had long ago interrupted commercial air traffic into Zaire’s second largest city, but Lubumbashi sits in the heart of the mining region of a country so richly endowed in minerals that it has been called a geological scandal, and because of this there was hardly any space to park on the airport’s aprons. In anticipation of Kabila’s victory, which indeed did not lie far into the future, private jets that had flown in the executives of Western mining companies seeking new deals for themselves occupied almost every spot.
A lot can happen in a quarter of a century, though—especially when you’re not paying attention, as has largely been the case with the United States regarding Africa. Back then, there was so much talk about the enormous profits that lay ahead for Western companies in the business of extraction, once the corruption and chaos of the Mobutu era was put in the past, that many people in Zaire (now renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and throughout Central Africa thought the United States had sponsored Kabila’s takeover of the country in order to dominate its mineral wealth into the indefinite future.
Just how utterly differently reality has played out was brought home to me in recent days by an article in the New York Times asking whether the United States could ever compete with China in the economically strategic area of battery production, which will unavoidably serve as the foundation for a transition to electric vehicles and is key to any hope of meeting the Biden administration’s ambitious goals for limiting climate change.
Although Congo’s portfolio of valuable minerals is broader and deeper than that of almost any country, two sentences in particular from the story stood out for me: “China owns most of the cobalt mines in Congo, which has the majority of the world’s supply of this scarce material needed for the most common type of battery. American companies failed to keep up and even sold their mines to Chinese counterparts.”