Opinion: US policy on Congo conflict minerals well-intentioned, but misguided

An NGO worker in Congo says of the Dodd-Frank legislation: 'The motivation behind the law is very good – to impose transparency. But the implementation has been the problem.'

By , Congo Siasa

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    In this 2009 file photo, workers dig at a gold mine in Chudja, near Bunia, north eastern Congo. The conflict in the Congo has often been linked to a struggle for control over its minerals resources. The Congo is rich in mineral resources such as gold, diamonds, tin, and cobalt.
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The following is an interview with Eric Kajemba, founder and director of Observatoire Gouvernance et Paix (OGP), a civil society NGO based in Bukavu. Eric's work is focused on improving the accountability of government institutions and has worked extensively on the minerals trade.

Q: What has been your analysis of the export ban on minerals [imposed by the Congolese government between September 2010 and March 2011] and the Dodd-Frank legislation in the US?

In general, these two things are linked. The export ban came as a consequence of the Dodd-Frank law. The government was thinking it had to do something in reaction to the US legislation, so it suspended exports of minerals from the eastern Congo. This has had a very negative impact on the local population. One problem we had was that exporters were stuck with their stock and couldn't get rid of it. Secondly, the negociants [trade middlemen] usually work on credits, but they weren't able to pay their arrears, so they had to mortgage their houses. In sum, the artisanal mining sector employed many, many people - these people lost their jobs over night. Also, many of them were demobilized soldiers, so this had the added effect of producing insecurity.

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But the Dodd-Frank legislation did not explicitly require an export ban.

No. But the government was supposed to render transparent the chain in order to comply with the law. This had perverse consequences. The army kicked diggers out of the mines, only to become diggers themselves! That happened in many mines. The army just took over.

But how did they export the minerals if there was an export ban?

There was fraud. Even today with the embargo, people export. Fraud has increased considerably.

But there have been other consequences as well, for example, with other aspects of the local economy. For example, in places like Shabunda, people relied on planes to bring them goods and merchandise – rice, sugar, and so on. Those same planes then left with minerals back to Bukavu. But now that the planes cannot transport minerals [due to the export ban and embargo] they don't fly there with goods any more. So the impact has been huge in many areas.

Do you disagree with the spirit of the Dodd-Frank law?

No. The motivation behind the law is very good – to impose transparency. But it the implementation has been the problem. We are not in a country with a functioning government, you cannot just assume that certification and due diligence can spring up overnight. Plus, there were efforts under way already by other actors to impose transparency; ironically, the Dodd-Frank law slowed these efforts down, as they were financed by the minerals trade.

No, I agree with the law, but it should have been implemented in stages, over two or three years. It was too strict, too abrupt: no tagging, no sale! But there were initiatives like that of the German Federal Institute for Geosciences (BGR) and the International Tin Research Institute (ITRI) – and other initiatives at the local level that may actually have been undermined in the short term by the law.

It is true that there is no official embargo on the Congo today, and that the Dodd-Frank law did not call for such an embargo. But the truth is that as soon as the Conglese export ban was lifted, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) [an electronics industry body] in the United States imposed a de facto embargo. Traders here only had time to sell their stock and then everything stopped again! Now most of the minerals seem to leak out through smuggling. It is the Chinese who are still buying officially, and we think that the rest of the stuff smuggled out might also be going to China.

There has been speculation that Rwanda has been laundering Congolese minerals and then selling them as their own.

That's difficult to know. Rwanda has also been hit hard by Dodd-Frank, as well. It is true that there is a lot of cassiterite smuggled into Rwanda. I am sure there are parallel structures in Rwanda, a black market. On the other hand, I think there are intensifying efforts to be more transparent – for example, they turned back Chinese trying to export minerals through Rwanda.

What do you think about the ITRI and BGR initiatives

We need a big discussion on the way forward. We need a bunch of things, not just tracing and tagging. We need to sit together to figure out. There are a lot of initiatives that have been proposed, but this has added to the confusion. We need one approach. The centres de négoce and tagging are not enough. Tagging is good – but you can end up tagging dirty minerals, as well! There is a whole bunch of work to do. Let's not confine ourselves to tagging.

What else can be done, then?

What we are trying to is to support local communities to supervise their own mines at a grassroots level. We will try to give them a mechanism to overview the process – to see if soldiers are taxing the minerals. We want to do this as civil society and then make reports that will we publish that will help keep mines clean. This, we hope, will happen in synergy with our Congolese and foreign partners. In general, we feel that these initiatives haven't taken into consideration the contributions of local organization. But we are discussing with them now.

What about BGR?

BGR work on a larger scale, with state for training experts. They associate civil society, but they are very bureaucratic. We share a lot of information, but we can feel the competition between ITRI, PACT, ICGLR – this competition is not good.

What about the advocacy done by ENOUGH in the US?

Unfortunately I think this is the opposite of what we want – ENOUGH has hardened its tone. They only show the negative side of artisanal mining here. This one-sidedness of their advocacy has had negative side-effects. No, we know we can't stop Dodd Frank, but we need to be aware of these negative consequences – we are not very happy with Global Witness or ENOUGH, but we feel they are very influential, and we are ready to work with them. On the other hand, we are also afraid of our government and what they are doing.

Let me explain further. We have documented the links between minerals and armed groups, we know these exist. But minerals were not the initial source of the conflict, as you know. There were many other factors. So we think the emphasis should be on security sector and governance reform, not on an embargo. We need to do more than just biometric IDs [one of the initiatives donors have supported] for the army, we need a real security sector reform.

How do we go about that?

Take the question of military involvement in the minerals trade. The soldiers who are involved in these things are known! There are Congolese generals are involved in this! But there is no real will by the government to clamp down on them. It is true, Umoja Wetu and Kimia II did have a serious impact on FDLR, and we need to consolidate this. The links between minerals and the FDLR was seriously broken during this time. But soon afterwards, the FARDC started to behave like the FDLR, exploiting minerals and taxing people. The real emphasis should be on building strong institutions, not just embargoes and export bans. We need to focus on the army.

Then there is the whole question of zones of exploitation, which the laws in theory have called for - so long as artisanal miners don't have a place to mine, this situation will continue. But they don't, which is a huge problem. A large international company will come and kick them out, then they take up their machetes. This question of artisanal mining zones is absolutely needed.

Is there the political will here in the Congo?

Let me give the example of Katanga – they have local political dynamic that pushed the thing in a good direction, and they will be able to get around this embargo to sell minerals. Even if in the meantime they are giving us in the Kivus a bad name. They have been pro-active, they have started tagging, working with MMR and ITRI. When there is political will, you can do this. But that is just provincial, we need Kinshasa involved. We don't feel that they are.

Do you have anything else you would like to add?

The Securities and Exchange Commission and the State Department need to know that we don't reject their legislation. It is there, we will work with it. But they need to understand that Congolese have suffered. We say: the process needs to be sequenced. We need to work together. There are NGOs here in the East – BEST, Pole Institute, there are many organizations working on this. I agree, we have problems, but some are trying to do good work.

Jason Stearns blogs about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region at Congo Siasa.

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