Why recent US 'conflict minerals' legislation may not help in eastern Congo

The advocates arguing that recent US 'conflict minerals' legislation will help bring peace to eastern Congo are operating on a flawed understanding of the violence and the logic that motivates the fighters.

One of the reasons I'm not convinced that the recently signed-into-law conflict minerals provisions of the US financial reform legislation will make much of a difference has to do with the nature of violence and the way violence is funded in the region.

As I understand it, the advocates claim that effect of this legislation will cut off major sources of revenue for the various armed groups operating in the Kivu provinces and Ituri district. The logic goes something like this:

  • Monitoring supply chains and pushing companies to avoid using conflict minerals will cut armed groups off from their primary sources of revenue.
  • Without the revenue gained from mineral extraction and/or taxing the mineral trade, armed groups will not be able to purchase weapons, ammunition, and other necessary supplies to continue fighting.
  • The effects of the lack of revenue will eventually be a factor that forces the armed groups to the negotiating table, where a peace process can be worked out.

If I'm incorrect on the basic logic of the argument, please explain where I've got it wrong.
I believe this logic is flawed for a number of reasons. Taking it point-by-point:

  • The mineral trade is not the only source of revenue for rebels in the Kivus. There is solid data to suggest that the CNDP (which has theoretically integrated its troops into the national army and become a political party, but still maintains a parallel administration in North Kivu) derives about 15 percent of its revenue from the mineral trade. The FDLR gets up to 75 percent of its revenue from minerals, but that mostly comes from gold, which is completely unregulated and almost untraceable. The 85th brigade of the Congolese national army, the FARDC, gets as much as 95 percent of its revenue from the mineral trade.
  • The conflict minerals legislation will not leave the most significant rebel groups destitute. This is key. Elizabeth Allen provided an excellent discussion of this issue a few months back. As she notes, alternative revenue sources will continue to fund the rebels' activity. The FDLR and CNDP, along with some of the Mai Mai groups (which originated as local defense militias), derive revenue from taxing trade and transport through the areas they control, the timber industry, charcoal production, and interests in plantations and cattle ranches. The CNDP and some Mai Mai militias also get some backing from prominent businessmen in the region. All of the armed groups in the region are likely to find other means by which they can support their activities. Without functioning public security institutions, no one can stop them.
  • Even if they lose all funding, armed groups are unlikely to stop terrorizing the population. It's unfortunate but true that armed groups in the Kivus don't necessarily need to buy weapons or ammunition in order to attack the population. They don't necessarily need the revenue from the mineral trade to keep buying weapons, either. The region is super-saturated with small arms. They are cheap and readily available. And the patterns by which violence happens in the Kivus do not always involve guns. Many rapes are committed by groups of men who attack young girls and women as they are on the way to work their fields, or while they're fetching the day's water. This type of violence is likely to continue whether or not the rebels are cut off from their funding stream. Why? Because there's no one to prevent them from doing so.
  • What about the army? Of the Kivu's armed groups, the FARDC's 85th brigade is by far the most dependent on the mineral trade. It is also responsible for a large number of human rights violations. Its soldiers will not be demobilized even if the brigade loses its primary source of income. So what will they do to support themselves? It's very likely that they will become more likely to prey upon the population, which they will now need for all of their sustenance. The 85th brigade of the FARDC is not the only unit that generally fails to act in the interest of the population, but the consequences of a lost revenue stream in the absence of functioning institutions is likely to make for much more violence, especially in the short term.
  • Negotiations are unlikely. Even assuming that the CNDP threat is finally in decline, it's very unclear why anyone thinks the FDLR will ever come to a negotiating table. The FDLR is led by people who participated in the Rwandan genocide. While some fighters have been persuaded to enter the DDRRR process, the hard-core elements of the organization have no interest in negotiating, being integrated into the armed forces, or taking any actions that they perceive might have the effect of forcing them to face justice in Rwanda. It's not at all clear with whom the 85th brigade would negotiate, or how they can possibly be brought under command and control structures when the DRC's government can't regularly pay its soldiers a reasonable salary on a predictable basis.

I believe that the advocates on this issue are operating based on a flawed understanding not only of the nature of violence in the Kivus, but also of the logic that motivates the fighters. Again from Elizabeth Allen:

...many actors fighting in eastern Congo are motivated by ideological concerns that compete with, and oftentimes supersede, economic motivations...

We'll turn to a discussion of these ideological motivations and of the region's history tomorrow. If you're following this issue, you should definitely read Jason Stearns' defense of the legislation.

--- Laura Seay blogs at Texas in Africa.

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