During these tumultuous times, the gold price on world markets suddenly soared. Until 1970, the price for one troy ounce of gold had held steady between US$30-40 (see Table 1) but then it started to rise dramatically, peaking at US$615 in 1980. This spike in value meant that anybody in a position to extract gold – legally or not – saw their income rise twenty-fold.
The internal migration of farmers willing to abandon their fields and try their luck as artisanal gold miners picked up dramatically. Areas around artisanal gold mining were transformed to take advantage of the spending habits of the miners. For example, the Congolese researcher Mukohya Vwakyanakazi reported18 how Bunyatenge in western North Kivu sprouted 12 small shops, 8 kiosks, 2 small hotels, 3 private medical dispensaries, 3 small bars offering commercial beverages, 4 bars offering homemade brews, and 1 market, and saw up to 80 prostitutes visiting the village on Sundays. None of these commercial outlets existed prior to the artisanal gold mining boom, except a government-run dispensary and four small shops owned and operated during colonial times by MGL.
The rising value of gold was irresistible. Even soldiers deserted and joined many other employees of state agencies and private companies who absconded from their posts to dig for gold in remote mining areas. Semi-permanent artisanal gold mining camps shot up all over gold-rich, north-eastern Congo, usually encompassing up to 60 miners plus their families. The camps soon resembled traditional villages except that they were much more vigilant in their self-defense. Beating back a police action against a camp in Ituri, one group became so irate about the government’s intervention that they attacked Mongbwalu, the principal mining town of OKIMO. They occupied the town of 30,000 inhabitants until a military force arrived.
Rapacious government agents and soldiers took Mobutu’s System D to heart. It unleashed their worst instincts. Members of the army, police, intelligence and security services roamed and looted gold mining communities freely and with impunity. To defend themselves, many artisanal gold miners acquired arms or formed alliances with armed militias. After the brutal defeat of the Mulele rebellion, it was not difficult to find splinter groups with deep-seated resentments against Mobutu, his military and his young MPR-thugs. Soon, the militarisation of mining regions spiralled out of control.
As allegiance to Mobutus’ state began to make less and less sense to many inhabitants of gold-rich areas in eastern Congo, business-savvy Congolese, armed opponents to his regime and thriving artisanal communities in remote locations congealed into a powerful alliance of shared interests. Gold offered a relatively easy path to cash, prosperity and personal independence. Rebels, even if they lost on the battleground, could still win influence by gaining control over gold production and trade.20 Many artisanal gold miners – already alienated from the state by the abuses of its representatives – s tarted claiming that they were simply exercising their inalienable right as Congolese to extract their country’s gold and other natural wealth. The black market economy and smuggling expanded rapidly. The illegal exploitation and trade of gold was an act of self-defense against the villainous state and its predatory
agents, which liberalised and empowered communities.