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.

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.

But at the same time, there is no question that the Kabila government's suspension of mining operations was a direct response to Dodd-Frank. Neither is there any question that tens of thousands of miners and traders who make a living off of mining – some of it legitimate and non-militarized – in the Kivus and Maniema suffered horribly as their incomes dwindled to nothing. Nor is there any question that the mining ban actually led to increased militarization of some mines that were previously out of military control.

None of this was intended or foreseen by Enough or any advocates or legislators who pushed for the rider. But they nonetheless bear some responsibility for it having happened. It was their advocacy that led to the legislation's passage and that prompted the ban. There's no way around it. Unintended consequences happen. In this case, we likely haven't seen the end of them. As some knowledgeable observers believe, due to the incredible difficulty of actually verifying mineral supply chains in a place with as many smuggling routes, bribe-able officials, and weak institutions as the Kivus, there is a good chance that the legislation could lead to a de facto ban on Congolese mineral exports.

The keys to improving life in the Democratic Republic of Congo involve creating better governance, real security, stronger institutions, jobs, and a state that acts for the common good rather than the self-interest of its rulers. These are complex, elusive fixes that have little to do with the mineral trade and everything to do with governance. As an excellent new Crisis Group report on mineral supply chain regulation efforts concludes,"The control and regulate approaches are complementary, but face serious feasibility, reliability and security problems related to the more general problem of governance in eastern DRC."

Which brings us back to the question of why advocates pushed so hard for the conflict minerals focus in the first place. It was obvious to almost everyone who knows Congo that the mineral trade was not the place to start. Without the basic institutions of governance and security in place, attempting to regulate minerals is very unlikely to affect significant change. This was as clear five years ago as it is today. While I'm certain that advocates chose this path because of it is relatable (Everybody has a cell phone!) and the idea that consumer pressure can make a difference, it still doesn't make much sense to make it the centerpiece of advocacy efforts. Academic experts on the Congo, Congolese-Americans, and Congolese advocates have watched with frustration for years as Enough-chosen witnesses who have very little experience living and working in the DRC (some of whom don't speak French) testify before Congress that conflict minerals are the issue, and that addressing them will improve the lives of the Congolese. The chances that this is true are slim to none; armed groups in the Congo do not need money or weapons to perpetrate violence, and without access to money earned in the mineral trade, they are highly likely to prey even further on the population.

I was emailing back and forth with a friend about this issue this morning when he noted that it would be really nice to have a discussion involving NGOs and advocacy groups about "the extent to which stopping conflict minerals will stop conflict, and why it is they think so." I think this is a great idea. If Enough is as concerned about the unintended consequences of their advocacy efforts as they should be, it seems to me that they would want to explain why they chose this particular path, as well as discuss their efforts to mitigate suffering for people who are becoming unemployed because of the legislation's consequences. Moreover, it would give clear answers to their critics, and might even open the path to some collaboration in the future.

It's long past time that all the players in the Congo discussion sat down at one table to talk about the core assumptions of the the conflict, the advocacy movement, and what the Congo needs. It seems to me that the Great Lakes Policy Forum would be the ideal place to hold such a discussion, but if some other group wants to step up to host such an event, that would be great.

What do you think? Why did one narrative about the DRC conflict take precedence over the others? Would a dialogue between advocacy groups, Congolese citizens, and experts be useful or productive?

Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, blogs at Texas in Africa.

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