One of the Belgian legacies that the Congolese had to overcome was the lack of évolués,14 which resulted in a shortage of Congolese with professional training, managerial experience, higher-level financial skills and, most importantly, ownership of well-capitalised and sizeable businesses. Colonial monopolies imposed by the Belgians to maximize the profitability of their investments had barred Congolese from acquiring these skills. They had also reserved all exploration, exploitation and commercialiation of gold for non-Congolese. Even tribal leaders faced severe punishment if they were caught extracting gold. Workers in the mines were body-searched daily.
The government of the independent Congo relaxed these constraints, although in practice nepotism and escalating corruption replaced the old barriers to individual entrepreneurship and left ‘Système D’15 as the only pragmatic way to preserve a business. In addition, under the new Congolese administration, gold extraction continued, in principle, to be restricted to government operators16 – just as it was under colonial rule.
But legal and administrative restraints paled in comparison to the disruptions caused by Congo’s internal tensions. The first five years after independence were marred by the kidnapping and assassination of the first democratically-elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, threats of secession by the country’s richest and most industrialised province of Katanga, and country-wide military mutinies due to the lack of salaries and supplies. The period ended with the Simba rebellion, led by Pierre Mulele, Gaston Soumialot and Christophe Gbenye.
US, Belgian and other foreign mercenaries beat the rebels in bloody battles, paving the way for national elections. When the government again fell into paralysis, Mobutu took control of the country in a bloodless coup. Years later, Mulele was butchered by Mobutu security agents. Soumialot had retreated to rebel hideouts in South Kivu, while Gbenye went into exile with 1500 pounds of gold that he had looted from the safe of the Moto mining operations around Watsa.
The brutal settlement of this internal conflict was the clarion call for a new age in Congo’s gold industry. For rebel sympathizers, loyalty to the government made as little sense as it did under the colonial regime. Widespread political instability, a panoply of rebels and militias, and intensifying criminalisation of the gold mining regions compounded the increasingly calamitous state of the country’s infrastructure. The longer the Mobutu regime was in power, the more the railway lines, riverine shipping services and roads detriorated.
Travelling from the gold mining regions in the east to Kisangani or Kinshasa turned into an intolerably arduous task. While it once took just 2-3 days to travel by road from Goma to Kisangani, by the late 1980s it required 2 weeks – and during rainy seasons, traversing the country became unthinkable.
By end of the 1970s, aging machinery, lack of spare parts and corruption had seriously undermined eastern DRC’s gold production. OKIMO’s industrial production collapsed, followed by the implosion of MLG’s operations. As mechanised gold mining came to a halt, the government liberalised laws to permit artisanal gold mining. The management of OKIMO was now left with no revenues except for the taxes and fees they could extract from thousands of artisanal miners spreading over the parastatal’s vast concessions.