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Why recent US 'conflict mineral' legislation is a good thing for Africa

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There has been some debate of late in the blogosphere about the US legislation on improving supply chain due diligence with regards to Congolese minerals. See here for an interesting debate on Texas in Africa on this topic. The main criticisms can be boiled down to this:

  • Minerals are not the main issue. Land conflict, communal tensions, state weakness and failed demobilization programs are more important. (Texas in Africa, Pole Institute)
  • By tarring the whole mineral trade with the brush of conflict minerals, we could end up in a boycott of a sector that provides livelihoods to up to a million people in the region. (Resource Consulting Services, Dan Fahey)
  • The way advocates like ENOUGH portray the role of minerals in the conflict is simplistic and often wrong. That kind of advocacy can be dangerous. (All of the above sources)

I have been a critic of the sensationalism of the "conflict minerals" lobby in the US. But I do support the bill (as do many other advocacy groups) both on principle and because it could contribute to rendering the Congolese state more accountable. Here are my responses to some of the criticisms.

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1. Minerals were not the origin of the conflict, and many other factors are important.

However, proceeds from minerals are a key pillar in financing these groups.

I myself have often chided pundits for reducing the conflict to a spectacle of savage Africans raping the country in order to get their hands on minerals. The conflict began more or less in 1996 (although the roots are much deeper) following the collapse of the Zairian state, the arrival of a million Rwandan refugees after the Rwandan genocide, and as local conflicts over land, identity and power got out of control. Minerals did not play a major role in this initial phase.

Minerals have, however, taken on a large role in the local economy and the conflict since then. In 2008, at the height of conflict in North Kivu, official statistics record around $30 million in tin, wolframite and coltan exports from the province. The real level of exports were probably at least two to three times as high due to smuggling, and this is without accounting for extralegal gold trade, which the Congolese senate estimated to be around $1,2 billion a year, mostly from the eastern Congo.

In 2008, I was the head of the UN Group of Expert. It was clear that the FDLR, Congolese army and the CNDP all benefited from this trade to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Talking with members of armed groups, it was very clear that minerals trade was important to the CNDP, FDLR, some Mai-Mai groups and the Congolese army. While some of this has changed since then (ex-CNDP and other Congolese arm units have taken over many mines previously controlled by the FDLR), minerals still play an important role in the conflict economy. If we assume that access to resources and power plays a key role in the Congolese conflict, then we have to assume that the minerals trade is at the core of the conflict.

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.

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.

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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.

But, for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, this lobbying has prompted a substantive push by legislators in the US. We now have a meaningful piece of legislation asking the Security and Exchange Commission to regulate the supply chain. This will be difficult to implement, but in the end should do something that I applaud: render companies accountable for the conditions under which their product is produced. As a consumer, I do not want my sneakers to be made by 9 year-olds , I do not want my sweatshirts to be produced in abusive workshops. If we can introduce legislation to promote accountability in the business sector in the eastern Congo, it is a good thing.

Yes, I wish we could have greater engagement in strengthening the Congolese judiciary and police. I wish there could be meaningful land reform and that disputes over farming rights could be settled by expert mediators (UN Habitat is beginning to do this). I wish we could have transparent democratic institutions throughout the country. But none of those issues stand necessarily in contradiction with due diligence in the minerals trade. I can't tell you how often I have been in meetings with officials at the State Department, insisting that they help in security sector reform and in paying attention to the return of Congolese Tutsi refugees. Nothing much came of that. Now that we have a chance to help promote meaningful reform in the minerals trade, I think we should seize the opportunity.

Of course, we should remind our interlocutors in Washington, New York, Kinshasa, Kigali, London, Addis and Paris at every step of the way that we want greater engagement on strengthening state capacity, promoting checks and balances, enhancing judicial capacity and independence and reforming the army.
But this does not stand in contradiction to due diligence in the minerals trade.

--- Jason Stearns blogs at Congo Siasa.