"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


a resource war by any other name...

In the past six months or so, there's been a concerted push by the Congo activist community (it does exist, believe it or not) to focus on the exploitation of natural resources by the various armed groups and foreign governments operating in the region. Roughly modeled on the campaign to end the use of "conflict diamonds," the idea is that it's possible to end (or at least slow) the conflict in the Congo by cutting demand for minerals like tin, cassetterite, and coltan in the global market. Because many of the armed groups rely on access to the mines to earn money with which they buy weapons, the reasoning goes, getting consumers in the West to push electronics manufacturers to stop sourcing these minerals for their products will choke off the money flow to the armed groups, which presumably will convince the soldiers/rebels/bandits to go to UN demobilization camps, turn in their weapons, and return to life as peasant farmers. Et voila! Peace.

The worst of these efforts suggest that shutting down the conflict mineral trade will more-or-less immediately end the use of rape as a weapon of war. Others take a more nuanced approach, recognizing that shutting down the mines or transferring control will create all kinds of livelihood problems for the families who depend on salaries from the mines, among the host of other challenges. What all of these efforts have in common is a view that the resource dimension is a central engine of the Congo conflicts.

I disagree. I don't view the wars in the eastern Congo as resource wars in the academic sense. Violence over access to resources is one dimension of the fighting there, but the roots of the conflict are much more about land tenure and citizenship questions than they are about who gets access to minerals like tin, caseterite, coltan, and gold. The fight over the minerals is an effect of these underlying crises; not the primary, or even tertiary cause of most of the fighting.

Compounding the fight over who gets to be a legal citizen and what extremely fertile and therefore valuable land belongs to whom is the total lack of state capacity in the east, especially in highly contested territories like Masisi and Rutshuru. It's not a coincidence that population density is highest in these areas. The land produces harvests up to three times per year and, when the situation is calm, serves as the regional breadbasket. Ranching operations also supply the region with meat, coffee plantations grow the distinctive central African aribica Bourbon coffee bean that should be a hot commodity on the world market because it's freaking delicious, and the dairy farms produce the best cheese on the continent, hands down.

There's no question that the mineral trade finances the operations of some of the armed groups in the region and that some people are getting very, very rich as a result of their involvement with the mines.

But fighting would continue even if the mines were empty. Cheap weapons will still flow freely through the region's porous borders. Women will still be raped. That's because the fundamental problem in the eastern D.R. Congo is the total breakdown of law and order. Soldiers from every militant group rape and loot and burn down villages because they can. It's a way of terrorizing innocent civilians. Sometimes the motive is access to minerals, but more often, it's about land ownership disputes. Or ethnicity. Or the fact that when you give drunk teenage boys weapons and don't feed them regularly, they're likely to behave badly.

Nicholas Garrett and Harrison Mitchell explain the problem that develops when there's too much of a focus on the resource conflict in the Congo quite nicely in this piece. As they write, "the fundamental problem in Congo is governance failure." Little things like the fact that soldiers in the national army aren't regularly paid tend to complicate matters.

All of the people involved in Congo advocacy are rightfully horrified at what happens to women and girls in the east. But presenting the solution in stark terms ("If we just end the resource trade, the rapes will end.") is misleading, inaccurate, and dangerous. It suggests that the Congo's problems are simple. It suggests that there's a remote possibility of slowing down worldwide demand for the superconductors that power our mobile phones and LCD screens, a prospect I find highly unlikely. And it makes it easier for policy makers and those in positions of influence to continue to ignore the land conflicts and citizenship issues that started the conflicts to begin with. The international community has tried that approach for ten years now, and it hasn't worked.

Maybe these efforts will help. Belgian mineral merchant Traxys announced earlier this week that they will avoid buying minerals from the D.R. Congo. But there are a myriad of problems. How Traxys will manage to actually avoid buying Congolese minerals is unclear. Congolese minerals have a way of acquiring new states of origin en route to the international markets in Dubai and Hong Kong. That's why you probably own something that was cut using Congolese industrial diamonds, despite the fact that those "conflict diamonds" are supposed to be off the market.

What will happen to families who lose their jobs because of Traxys' move is another question. Enough says that there have to be alternative livelihoods programs, but it's not at all clear what these would be. As Garrett and Mitchell note, the international community can't tell poor Congolese people that they just need to change jobs. There aren't any other jobs. Then there's the issue of what happens to the mines. Enough proposes having MONUC secure them until the governance and security situations improve. But given MONUC's track record on issues involving peacekeepers and corruption, I'm not convinced that's a good idea.

At its heart, the focus on conflict minerals is a Western effort, not a Congolese one. Is another internationally-proposed solution that ignores the ideas of the very people advocates purport to help really what the Congolese people want and need? I have discussed security issues with hundreds of Congolese individuals over the years. Not one - not ONE - has ever said, "You know, the best way to solve our problems would be to shut down the mines." No one ever mentions the mines. (Even when I lived next door to a casseterite processing plant, no one ever mentioned the mines.) Instead, they talk about the need to develop effective policing and security forces. Or the fact that trying to secure the World's Worst Spot with 17,000 peacekeepers when 300,000 troops weren't enough to subdue Iraq is just insane.

Why is it so hard for the international community to listen to these well-informed, local voices?

(Image via: Africa is a Country)

UPDATE: David Sullivan, one of the authors of the Enough report, informs me that I misunderstood their call to have MONUC secure the mines. They're actually calling for joint security that would involve MONUC but that would also include the FARDC. My apologies for the error.


Blogger Alexis said...

"Soldiers from every militant group rape and loot and burn down villages because they can. It's a way of terrorizing innocent civilians."

That was the most disheartening part of writing my thesis about N. Uganda...it was like the LRA thrives on the chaos created by raping and looting. I kept asking myself- how do you get peace when one side demands nothing?

Thursday, May 07, 2009 7:53:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post! So what would you do if you were Barack Obama or Ban Ki-moon?

Thursday, May 07, 2009 9:22:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Alexis, exactly.

Anon, putting in more peacekeepers for the short term seems to be the most obvious solution. Nothing will get straightened out until there's a basic level of public order throughout the territory. Then we've got to make a real effort at getting the army and police forces into shape, pay salaries, and force the soldiers to act under civilian command structures. In my view, it would be much better if there were some effort to weed all the war criminals out of the army rather than legitimating every two-bit warlord by giving his troops the national uniform. But there might not be anyone left...

Thursday, May 07, 2009 10:08:00 AM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

Great post.

I feel like the international community always has to find a way to simplify bad situations so as to make them more palatable for our weak sensibilities.

Even in cases like Somalia where there were clear reasons for the beginning of piracy, whether it be the dumping of nuclear waste in the coastal waters or the influx of illegal/commercial fishing, now it comes down to the fact that the pirates pirate because they can. They're making a ton of money from ransoms and they have no incentive to stop. But even there, people try to simplify the situation for an easy solution.

Alexis hit it spot concerning the LRA. While the ICC hasn't helped matters in attaining a peace agreement, we're fooling ourselves if we think that the ICC dropping Kony's warrant will stop anything. With the current setting in the Great Lakes Region, he has no reason to stop.

Again, great piece.

Thursday, May 07, 2009 1:06:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, Dustyn.

My co-author and I are actually working on a piece on the pirates that argues that though piracy is a result of the breakdown in governance, it's also a means of creating order. That gets into Tilly's theories about violence and war being the means to create a state. It all comes down to what happens to money, be it from a ransom or from a mine. If it's used exclusively for personal enrichment, then it's pretty clear what they're up to. But if the revenues are "taxed" by local authorities and used for community development projects (eg, digging a well, building a health clinic), then it's more complicated.

Thursday, May 07, 2009 1:20:00 PM

Blogger Charlie Mac said...

I had to write something just to use the "Word Verification"
for this comment. "cussee"

As in who is the cussee and who is the cussor?

Huh? So dumping waste and illegal fishing now leads to lawlessness (piracy)? OMG, Alabama is next and in deep dodo. There are people dumping trash everywhere down here. They empty their ashtrays at stop lights and dump garbage anythere along country roads. The first time I went fishing we fouled our prop in an illegal (unattended) gill net.

Maybe we still have an outside chance to avoid the piracy industry because of our short shore line. Also the redneck pirates would likely be easy targets from shore based SEALS because they would try to board ships in the turning basin or ship channel because they would not have to travel so far out to sea.

Questions: Why wasn't there more lawlessness during the depression?
Is it lack of morals or poverty which breeds lawlessness?

Mac in Lower Alabama

Saturday, May 09, 2009 7:21:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Mac, I would fully support an anti-redneck pirate initiative. No question.

Are you sure there wasn't more lawlessness during the Depression? A lot of folks at that time lived in areas that were mostly outside the reach of the law. Or maybe there just wasn't anything to steal.

Saturday, May 09, 2009 9:24:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should be duely noted that there are in fact many Congolese(including Congolese orginally from eastern Congo) in the diaspora that are writing and otherwise emphasizing heavily the focus on conflict minerals as one one of the primary causes of the war in the DRC.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009 10:01:00 AM


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