On 22 May, Mount Nyiragongo, perhaps the most dangerous volcano in the world, erupted in a show of fire. Lava swept toward the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), pushing thousands from their homes and killing dozens. Although the volcano has since settled down, a new flashpoint has erupted at the geophysical observatory that monitors it.
In a 2 June open letter addressed to the DRC’s president, staff at the Goma Volcano Observatory (GVO) have condemned what they say is corruption by the observatory’s Congolese leadership. They also accuse European partners of a “neocolonial” attitude and of depriving them of timely data that might have allowed them to provide early warnings of eruptions.
Signed by union leader Zirirane Bijandwa Innocent on behalf of the dozens of staff researchers and technicians, the letter alleges that GVO leaders squandered money from international donors, failed to pay staff for months, and even had some researchers arrested for complaining about the situation. It also charges that the Royal Museum for Central Africa (MRAC) in Belgium and the European Centre for Geodynamics and Seismology (ECGS) in Luxembourg, long-term partners with GVO, wield too much influence over its leadership. The letter says the observatory “was taken hostage … by a small group of scientific neo-colonialists” who shut out local experts and focused on their own volcanology research at the expense of developing local capacity to monitor geohazards.
In a statement to the DRC Parliament on 9 June, the science minister denied the charges of misappropriation and embezzlement, although in January GVO’s previous director-general was replaced after similar allegations. GVO’s scientific director declined to discuss the allegations, saying he needed “time to discuss with colleagues.” And in a statement to Science written on behalf of the European partners, ECGS Scientific Director Adrien Oth said they were “very surprised” by the charges of colonial science, “which we consider to be very unfair and unfounded.”
Difficulties at GVO came to a head in October 2020 when the World Bank decided not to renew financial support that had been in place since 2015. Without confirming allegations of corruption, the bank cited “weaknesses in implementing such a grant” in justifying its decision.
The cuts left the observatory unable to afford even an internet connection. That deprived GVO of real-time data from a network of seismometers and GPS stations deployed across the region by MRAC and ECGS since 2012. These devices can detect the small tremors and movements of Earth’s surface that can precede eruptions, as magma rises inside a volcano. The sensors send their data directly to ECGS before being returned to GVO.
“We spent about 6 months without receiving the data,” says a GVO staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. In February, ECGS arranged a web repository for the data, although without an internet connection GVO could not access it. Instead, the GVO source says, the team in Goma would buy one-off mobile data packages to keep a stream of day-old readings coming in. In the end, GVO’s internet access was restored in April by the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), a U.S. relief program.
The complaint exposes the fragility of the relationship between observatory staff and their European partners—and the frustrations that result from the data bypassing GVO. A U.S. government volcanologist who works with VDAP but did not have permission to speak publicly, says VDAP’s policy, in contrast MRAC and ECGS, “is to donate equipment to the country, ensuring that the resulting data belongs only to that country.” GVO staff say they are sometimes treated as “field boys,” good for data collection, but no more, says Jonathan Esole, a DRC-born mathematician at Northeastern University who has visited GVO and advocates on behalf of its staff. The U.S. government volcanologist confirmed the impression, saying the Belgians appear to believe “that the GVO and DRC are their ‘turf.’”
In his statement, Oth strongly rejects these assertions, pointing to the collaboration’s long-term commitment to GVO. It has paid for three GVO staff members—including the current director-general—to do Ph.D. work in Belgium and for seven staffers to earn master’s degrees. Oth says the partners have also conducted several training sessions in Goma for staff members. As far as the data are concerned, Oth says it was fortunate that they passed through Europe first, because the arrangement preserved continuity despite the internet interruption at GVO.
Another dispute concerns whether the eruption could have been predicted. In presentations at GVO on 26 April and 10 May after they regained access to the data, staff seismologists highlighted tremor activity that might indicate magma rising through cracks, according to the letter and to Science’s source at the observatory. They urged GVO leadership to send teams out to make field observations, but nothing happened. The complainants allege that GVO leaders deferred to advice from their European partners.
In the statement, Oth denies that he or his colleagues knew anything of these discussions. ECGS’s automatic analysis did not flag anything concerning at the time, he says. An international group of seismologists convened after the eruption “confirmed the absence of obvious precursors,” Oth says. In any case, he adds, “Our contribution cannot and must not be considered as a substitution of the daily work of GVO’s seismology department.”
At the request of the DRC science minister, European scientists have arranged to go to Goma to meet with GVO leaders. In the statement, Oth says the minister confirmed his “full confidence” in the partners and “reiterated the importance of this partnership.” As for the staff concerns, Oth says, “As is generally known, the GVO suffers from structural problems, but these are political problems of lack of resources and of adequate management to be resolved by Congolese authorities.”
Esole acknowledges the institution’s dysfunction and its need for better leadership. But he also reserves criticism for MRAC and ECGS and what he sees as their unequal relationship with GVO. They often refer to their work as “aid,” he says. “But who is helping who? Because there are no volcanoes in Belgium or Luxembourg. So to do their study, they need to go to another country. I believe GVO is helping them big time, and it is not a fair trade.”
*Correction, 18 June, 11 a.m.: A earlier version of this story mistakenly implied that a known number of GVO staffers supported the union complaint and that ECGS processed data before sending it back to GVO. It also used imprecise wording to describe a dispute over whether the eruption could have been foreseen.