Why recent US 'conflict mineral' legislation is a good thing for Africa
Some point out that most Africa conflicts are about much more than a mad scramble for minerals. Others say new US legislation against 'conflict minerals' will cramp some countries' economic progress. But here are some reasons why it's a good thing.
There has been some debate of late in the blogosphere about the US legislation on improving supply chain due diligence with regards to Congolese minerals. See here for an interesting debate on Texas in Africa on this topic. The main criticisms can be boiled down to this:Skip to next paragraph
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- Minerals are not the main issue. Land conflict, communal tensions, state weakness and failed demobilization programs are more important. (Texas in Africa, Pole Institute)
- By tarring the whole mineral trade with the brush of conflict minerals, we could end up in a boycott of a sector that provides livelihoods to up to a million people in the region. (Resource Consulting Services, Dan Fahey)
- The way advocates like ENOUGH portray the role of minerals in the conflict is simplistic and often wrong. That kind of advocacy can be dangerous. (All of the above sources)
I have been a critic of the sensationalism of the "conflict minerals" lobby in the US. But I do support the bill (as do many other advocacy groups) both on principle and because it could contribute to rendering the Congolese state more accountable. Here are my responses to some of the criticisms.
1. Minerals were not the origin of the conflict, and many other factors are important.
However, proceeds from minerals are a key pillar in financing these groups.
I myself have often chided pundits for reducing the conflict to a spectacle of savage Africans raping the country in order to get their hands on minerals. The conflict began more or less in 1996 (although the roots are much deeper) following the collapse of the Zairian state, the arrival of a million Rwandan refugees after the Rwandan genocide, and as local conflicts over land, identity and power got out of control. Minerals did not play a major role in this initial phase.
Minerals have, however, taken on a large role in the local economy and the conflict since then. In 2008, at the height of conflict in North Kivu, official statistics record around $30 million in tin, wolframite and coltan exports from the province. The real level of exports were probably at least two to three times as high due to smuggling, and this is without accounting for extralegal gold trade, which the Congolese senate estimated to be around $1,2 billion a year, mostly from the eastern Congo.
In 2008, I was the head of the UN Group of Expert. It was clear that the FDLR, Congolese army and the CNDP all benefited from this trade to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Talking with members of armed groups, it was very clear that minerals trade was important to the CNDP, FDLR, some Mai-Mai groups and the Congolese army. While some of this has changed since then (ex-CNDP and other Congolese arm units have taken over many mines previously controlled by the FDLR), minerals still play an important role in the conflict economy. If we assume that access to resources and power plays a key role in the Congolese conflict, then we have to assume that the minerals trade is at the core of the conflict.