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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.

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Having said that, we must be sure not to reduce the conflict to minerals, minerals, minerals. The charcoal trade around Goma alone was estimated to total $30 million a year by the national park, and armed groups benefit from this, as well. Cattle herding plays a key role in the conflict, as the ex-CNDP in particular has deployed its soldiers to protect tens of thousands of cattle, worth $300-$900 each, many of which have crossed the border from Rwanda. And coffee, tea, fuel and timber also play a large role in the local economy. En bref, armed groups can benefit from any profitable trade in the region, not just from minerals.

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Of course, the economy is not the only thing driving the conflict; people don't just fight due to greed. Conflict over land tenure has long antagonized local communities, fueled ethnic divisions and driven youths into armed groups. The immigrations of tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi to Masisi in the 1930-1960 period further poisoned these communal relations and led many to claim that the descendants of these communities are not really Congolese.

Institutional weakness is another important factor in the conflict, as the Congolese army is desperately corrupt and weak, allowing space for small militia groups to form, often buying weapons from the very army that is supposed to get rid of them. Local land conflicts blow out of proportion because the administration cannot deal with them; military abuses go unchecked because the courts do not have the resources and clout to prosecute.

And yet, I do not see how promoting due diligence in the mineral trade will prevent us from addressing these other issues, as well. Instilling accountability in the minerals supply chain can have positive externalities on the Congolese administration in general by helping to promote accountability, strengthen the capacity of the revenue collection agencies and provide an incentive to the government to crack down on the local power barons who benefit from the trade. In order for this to be the case, however, donor efforts need to focus on working with the relevant Congolese state agencies (Ministry of Mines, CEEC, SAESSCAM, Cadastre minier, OFIDA customs agency).

Hence, I agree with Pole Institute and Nick Garrett/Harrison Mitchell of RCS that in the end we need to strengthen the state and make the minerals trade more transparent. But I think that a key way of doing this is by implementing audits that will require Congolese traders and the Congolese state to be more transparent in the way they deal with the minerals trade. Without strong incentives, the trade will continue the way it is.

2. In terms of strategy, promoting supply chain due diligence is smart.

We have been trying for years in the United States and Europe to promote greater involvement in the Congolese conflict. Largely in vain. Donors have thrown money at the conflict and deployed a peacekeeping operation there, but for the most part we just don't care enough.

That has changed with the emphasis on sexual violence and conflict minerals. Of course, some of this focus in unsavory in the way it distorts the facts. Indeed, I think the reason there has been such a backlash against "conflict minerals" advocacy has been due to the way these voices depict the violence. As I have said before, militias in the Congo do not rape women just because they want to get their hands on minerals. Most minerals in cell phones do not come from the eastern Congo. The war did not begin as a conflict over minerals. And so on. I find a lot of this kind of lobbying distasteful - we do not need to tweak the facts to get attention, it's bad enough already, just present the facts.

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