Argument

From Blackwater to Batteries

Erik Prince has moved beyond mercenary armies. His next project is mining minerals in Congo and Afghanistan to help power electric cars. It’s unlikely to help conflict-ridden countries—and could harm them.

A Congolese man digs through mine waste searching for left over cobalt. May 31, 2015.
A Congolese man digs through mine waste searching for left over cobalt. May 31, 2015. (FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP/Getty Images)

The founder of the military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, has a new project. He’s aiming to raise $500 million to invest in the discovery, exploitation, and delivery of resources required to produce electric car batteries. Minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and copper are mostly found in conflict zones such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.

Speaking recently to CNBC, Prince said that he aimed to end cobalt’s status as a “conflict mineral” in Congo, and his plans included regular jobs and incomes for artisanal miners who toil in in horrific conditions, in “loincloth,” according to Prince. The Congolese Chamber of Mines estimated in 2015 that there may be 2 million artisanal miners in the country digging for gold, diamonds, and minerals such as cobalt. Prince told CNBC that he wanted to create an “ethical mine” so businesses invested in his project could trace the source of the cobalt and know that it was coming from a location without any abuses. Approximately 67 percent of global mined cobalt in 2017 came from Congo.

Corporations such as Apple, the electric car company Tesla, Volkswagen, Samsung, General Motors, and Renault have all pledged to source cobalt from mines in Congo and elsewhere that don’t use child labor, but human rights groups have challenged the feasibility of this project.

It’s an ambitious goal, because Congo has a long history of atrocious mining conditions, including for children as young as 6. In 2018, CNN found that it was still common in Congo to find minors toiling in cobalt mines. Despite companies such as Glencore claiming that it doesn’t use materials from informal cobalt mines, the broadcaster discovered that, “dealers at markets in the DRC were filmed buying cobalt without verifying its source and mining method. They then send it for processing where it is mixed with cobalt from other mines before ending up in batteries that power devices [such as cell phones and car batteries] around the world.”

This is the industry that Prince is now entering, and his controversial history makes many critics cast a skeptical eye on his real agenda.

Some employees of the Prince-founded private military contractor Blackwater committed war crimes against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. Prince has helped provide foreign troops for the army of the United Arab Emirates (whose military is today committing some of the worst abuses in Yemen) and attempted to create a private air force for the repressive government of South Sudan.

The Trump administration reportedly considered establishing a private spy network, designed by Prince and convicted Iran-Contra scandal participant Oliver North, to circumvent the so-called deep state that U.S. President Donald Trump fears is out to get him. Prince is a staunch Republican Party supporter, and his sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s education secretary. He’s facing scrutiny by Robert Mueller’s investigative team into questionable meetings in the Seychelles in January 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration, with the Russians and the UAE to reportedly discuss a back channel between Moscow and Washington.

Prince claims his trip to the Seychelles was for business purposes, that it had no connection to Trump, and that his meeting with the head of a Russian sovereign wealth fund with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin was “incidental.”

Prince is currently the head of a Hong Kong-based company, Frontier Services Group, a logistics, aviation, and security company whose primary investors include the Chinese government-owned Citic Group. Frontier focuses on protecting Chinese enterprises in Africa and Asia when working in the most inhospitable places on earth. It has invested in a copper mine in Congo, won a security contract in war-torn southern Somalia, and invested in a bauxite mine in Guinea.

Prince told Foreign Policy in an email that his plans to source cobalt will involve using “geo science expertise and certainly look to other regions of Africa, south America and East Asia to diversify the supply base of key minerals.” He said that 15 percent of cobalt in the Congo is extracted by artisanal miners and his “strategy includes professionalizing and enhancing those assets and making them compliant. We would also apply new technology to the millions of tons of tailings already existing to further extract copper and cobalt in an efficient and environmentally acceptable manner.” Prince said that he has not discussed his plans with the Trump administration.

China is a key transit point for cobalt, because Chinese companies dominate the supply chain, placing Prince in prime position to capitalize, given his deep ties to Beijing. Many Chinese firms have also been found to buy cobalt mined by children in Congo. Prince told FP that although China already produces around 50 percent of the world’s electric cars, Frontier is not expected to participate in this initiative and instead remains focused on logistics and transportation support, not resource and mining development. Prince said that he anticipates a “geographically diverse set of investors joining us.”

It will be difficult for any company to ethically mine cobalt, copper, and other resources in a nation such as Congo that has a history of mass violence, corruption, and inequality fueled by its rich minerals. Indeed, the Trump administration already sanctioned a wealthy Israeli businessman, Dan Gertler, in 2017 for allegedly corrupt behavior around the sale of Congolese oil and mineral rights. Lobbyists in Washington have been busy over the last few years persuading politicians to ease sanctions against Congo for its flagrant corruption and human rights abuses. The recent election there may only worsen the instability, with massive fraud credibly alleged against the declared winner.

But these resources also exist in Afghanistan, where Washington already has a large and longstanding military footprint. Prince is never hesitant to advocate what most observers regard as mercenaries. Indeed, he recently suggested that withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria should be replaced by private contractors and has stated publicly that he believes in privatizing the entire conflict in Afghanistan. He argues that he can engineer victory against the Taliban with a relatively small number of contractors. He told CNBC earlier this month that China was worried the United States would “abandon” Afghanistan and terrorism would increase as a result.

This is the stated reason given by hawks in Washington and Europe to support an indefinite occupation of the country regardless of the civilian toll. Trump has pledged to withdraw around half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in the country. He eventually wants to remove all of them.

The Blackwater founder is also determined to exploit the country’s largely untapped resources. Prince has met with senior Afghan officials and ministers, opened a Kabul office for Frontier Services Group, and is aiming to build alliances with tribal elders in areas where minerals have been found. (Prince said that his plans to extract resources in Afghanistan have no connection to establishing an electric car battery fund.)

Electric cars or not, the last thing a nation wracked by surging violence and corruption needs is a nascent mining industry without proper safeguards.

Prince’s record in conflict zones provides little reason to believe he has either the inclination or ability to mitigate violence in Congo or Afghanistan. Electric cars may well help the world lessen its carbon footprint, but this benefit seems negligible if thousands of the world’s poorest people will suffer to soothe the consciences of Westerners who want to go green.

Prince is just one player in the global rush to secure valuable minerals in the production of cell phones, electric car batteries, tablets, laptops, and other modern inventions, but he has the potential to deepen the instability that’s an inevitable part of the resource curse in distressed nations.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent investigative journalist who has written for the New York Times and The Guardian. He is the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and a forthcoming book on the global war on drugs. @antloewenstein

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