Is Congo's mineral trade really the key to the country's conflict?
While conflict minerals are certainly an important factor in Congo's conflict, guest blogger Laura Seay is not convinced they're the most important factor.
When people who study the Congo for a living get together, one of the questions that inevitably arises has to do with how the conflict minerals narrative was created. Nobody disputes that minerals fuel part of the violence perpetrated by some of the armed groups operating in the eastern Congo. But we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how conflict minerals became THE story about the multilayered conflict.Skip to next paragraph
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I think it's fair to say that after a couple of UN reports on mining during the wars came out, this narrative was picked up on and strengthened by advocacy groups, in particular, the Enough Project and Global Witness, the latter of which spent most of the last decade researching mineral trafficking in the Congo and the former of which was at the forefront of efforts to get a rider on the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed that will eventually require American electronics companies to identify whether they are using DRC-sourced conflict minerals in their products. Enough's leaders believe that this legislation will play a significant role in reducing the use of conflict minerals from the DRC, which in turn will cut off a source of financing for Congolese armed groups, which in turn will lead to less violence in the region. While their latest advocacy materials acknowledge the need for more significant reform in other sectors, there's no question that the bulk of Enough's efforts have been focused on the mineral issue.
Most scholars of the DRC would agree that the mineral trade is one dimension of the conflict, but that it isn't the entire story, and most of us are very perplexed as to from where the idea that minerals are the central story originated. Why is Enough so committed to this one facet of the conflict when few, if any, regional experts believe that addressing the militarized mineral trade will stop the region's violence?
It seems I'm not the only one who is wondering why Enough pursued this path:
“We don’t understand why President Obama would want to cut off Congo’s minerals,” said Idrissa Assani, expressing a sentiment clearly shared by his fellow miners who sat together in the dark office of their mining cooperative. “It is the innocents who are vulnerable” and who will suffer most from 'Obama’s law',” he said.
In the simple wooden structure with dirt floors, illuminated by late afternoon sunlight coming through the open door and through spaces in the paneling, Assani pulled out a pristine copy of “Obama’s law,” as the conflict minerals provision of the Dodd-Frank bill is locally known. People are already suffering from the “embargo” imposed by President Obama and expecting conditions to only get worse, he said.
Leafing through the pages of the legislation, Enough analyst Fidel Bafilemba noted to the French and Kiswahili speakers that nowhere in the US bill is there any mention of an embargo or a ban on Congo minerals. Rather, the law calls for companies to conduct due diligence on minerals from Congo to ensure that armed groups and military units do not benefit from these resources. The group of miners was surprised, admitting that it has been difficult to understand the details of Obama’s law since none of them speak English and they’ve never seen a translated version of the bill.
The post goes on to point out that Kabila, not Obama, imposed the mining ban that affected mining operations in the Kivus and Maniema for about six months starting last September. Enough goes on to claim that people who understand the traceability system support it, though of course right now they can only provide a theoretical discussion of what it would be like.
This is an interesting situation. It is true that Enough never called for a ban on Congolese mineral exports. The Dodd-Frank rider contained exactly the provisions the organization wanted; I would not be at all surprised to learn that Enough staff were responsible for writing most of the provisions. These provisions stress the importance of traceability and companies knowing from which mines their minerals are sourced. In that sense, the mining ban is not Enough's fault.