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


legislating for africa

Something I've been thinking about in light of the all the press about the Conflict Minerals Trade Act and a series of breathless press releases over the passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act: why on earth do advocates think that passing legislation in the United States will end violence in Africa?

In the case of the conflict minerals legislation, the idea is that violence in the DRC can be mitigated by creating an auditing and certification system for the mineral supply chains. I've already explained at length why I think this won't work; the complexity of the mineral trade in the eastern DRC and the lack of accountable political institutions that can enforce auditing and certification systems make it an exercise in futility. In addition, as we've discussed ad nauseum, ad infinitum, the mineral trade is not the root cause of violence in the eastern DRC. What's happening there is not a resource war, and it never has been. Regulating the supply chains and pressuring electronics companies not to use DRC minerals will not solve the disputes over land and citizenship that predate the wars and the Rwandan genocide and that continue to drive violence today.

The LRA Disarmament act has already been signed into law by President Obama. This legislation requires the administration to come up with a strategy for mitigating the effects of the LRA's activities (which, it should be remembered, are currently centered not in Uganda, but in the DRC). It also expresses the "sense of Congress" that aid should be withheld from Uganda's government if it fails to move the reconciliation and reconstruction processes in the north forward.

What both of these pieces of legislation have in common (besides "Africa") is a sense of optimism about the possibilities for American engagement in longstanding conflicts. I don't share this optimism. Why? Because I can't think of a single instance where American legislation actually led to the end of a foreign conflict. The South Africa divestment legislation of the mid-1980's seems like the closest case, but as I understand it, experts on the country are divided on whether the U.S. law itself was the real catalyst for the end of apartheid. (Help me out here, South African readers.)

Pushing for legislation seems to be the "good intentions are enough" motif writ large. After all, horrible things happen in the world. Just as many untrained volunteers assume that their desire to help is sufficient preparation to do so, so do advocates assume that the might and power of the United States, backed by a genuine desire to "help" can actually make a difference.

In some cases it can. Here's what U.S. legislation can do: fund programs, provide humanitarian aid and development assistance, and encourage changes to be made.

But U.S. legislation - especially legislation based on a fundamental misreading of a conflict - cannot mitigate the effects of nonfunctional, extremely weak institutions. It cannot change the fact that some governments may not want to end violence in their territories. It cannot change the problem that foreign governments may not see the threat of losing aid as being nearly as serious as the threat of losing power.

The fact is, even as a global superpower, the United States can't do everything. Legislating to end Africa's conflicts strikes me as something that sounds good on paper, but will do little to help anyone in the end. Instead of wasting time and effort on ineffective legislation, it might be better to undertake a serious process of reforming our entire approach to African conflicts by building institutions and recognizing that, in the end, these may not be our problems to solve.

What do you think? Can Western legislation significantly impact conflicts abroad?


Blogger Karl said...

I think it's great that disarming a foreign militia is a matter of US law, especially when the Supreme Court just moved to strike down local gun laws.

Western legislation barely makes an impact domestically.

Thursday, July 01, 2010 5:59:00 AM

Anonymous todd said...

The pt of legislation like the LRA law is for the Congress to express its views and push the executive branch agencies to be more aggressive with diplomacy, aid, intel, military, etc.

Thursday, July 01, 2010 6:11:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

But what can the executive branch agencies do, really? Everyone knows that a military invasion of the eastern DRC by United States forces is never going to happen (and for good reason). There are limits to what aid and intel can do, especially when intel is needed elsewhere in the world where the US has more pressing security concerns in terms of the national interest.

Thursday, July 01, 2010 7:13:00 AM

Anonymous Rob Crilly said...

Africans don't vote in US elections. So foreign policy is often designed to placate domestic public opinion rather than actually find solutions to foreign problems. Usually politicians are pretty honest about this, and talk about matters of national interest and so on.

Britain dabbled with an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy under the Labour government.

Maybe it's a good thing that governments are taking an apparently more altruistic approach. Or maybe it leads to more hypocrisy.

Thursday, July 01, 2010 7:28:00 AM

Blogger بنجامين گير said...

How about legislation to control the arms trade?

Thursday, July 01, 2010 7:55:00 AM

Anonymous Savina said...

Agree with above (sorry, can't read your name!). Also partially renounce national sovreignty in favour of international institutions and regulatory bodies such as the international court of justice, and give weight to and invest resources in international police and peacekeeping operations.

Thursday, July 01, 2010 11:05:00 AM

Blogger Elizabeth Allen said...

The executive branch can do a lot, especially when it comes to military training. US troops don't need to "invade" a territory themselves. In Somalia, the United States is fighting a proxy war with Ugandan (and some Burundian) troops. In Uganda, the newly minted Africom is heavily involved in the training of Amisom soldiers.

With regard to the LRA Disarmament Act, I suspect that that law has more to do with Southern Sudan than anything else. (Btw, the rebels have been spending more time in western Sudan and CAR, supposedly.) Kony's value will go up next year, when the South votes to secede from the rest of the country. The extent to which the LRA threatens the viability of the new state, the urgency of eliminating the group's leaders will increase.

With regard to your general question, though, it's true that much American legislation doesn't address the root political causes of conflict. But it's not clear to me that it has to, if the focus of the legislation is security sector reform. Perhaps the issue isn't resolving certain conflicts so much as trying to prevent parties from resorting to mass violence as a substitute for other kinds of political engagement. Of course, the extent to which this can work depends on the country and the context -- security sector reform isn't one-size-fits-all. But it's not necessarily a futile endeavor, either.

Thursday, July 01, 2010 11:57:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Elizabeth, I get your points. But the US engagement in Somalia so far is a disaster, and I'm not convinced it will make much of a difference in Uganda. If we're not addressing root political causes (and I would argue that in most cases we can't), it's hard to see how US legislative action really changes the incentives for the actors who can effect change.

Thursday, July 01, 2010 2:22:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand why there isn't a clear link between the minerals and the war. Granted, the conflict is driven by many things beyond the minerals, but doesn't the mineral trade provide much, if not the bulk, of the financing for the conflict?

Saturday, July 03, 2010 8:45:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some people *do* believe that the violence in DRC is incited (at least in part) by Kagame et al as a front for keeping control over minerals/mining in the DRC. So why do you think mineral verification information would not be helpful in ending conflict?

At the very least, let all electronics say where all of their contents are from and let *consumers* decide if they want to buy the products. It may be that people would ignore the information, but they may not. Why wouldn't you want the information to be out there, and for people to make an informed decision, if you believe at all in democracy?

Saturday, July 03, 2010 10:17:00 PM

Anonymous manyfactors said...

I don't get why you think that history/events are mono-causal. You ask "what was the catalyst of the end of apartheid"? Clearly the catalyst was the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But what were the many factors that went into it? As an activist I am always frustrated by beginners searching for the magic bullet and THE key, strategic factor.

It is difficult to see how the sanctions weren't important. Why did Mandela thank people for working for divestment when he visited Oakland, CA in June 1990?

Sunday, July 04, 2010 1:38:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Hi, anons from Saturday pm. I'm guessing you arrived here via Andrew Sullivan; thanks for stopping by. So this is an ongoing conversation on this blog; you might want to read the post linked to above ("ad nauseum...") to get a fuller sense of my views.

Long story short, yes, of course the minerals are used to finance some of the fighting. However, they are not the cause of the fighting. Violence did not break out "for control of the mines" - it's a far more complex story involving land tenure rights, Mobutu's manipulation of the citizenship status of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese, the end of the Cold War, and, later, the effects of the Rwandan genocide.

As for the proportion of fighting that's financed by the mineral trade, there's not any good systematically-collected data on that that I'm aware of. Again, it's a far more complicated story involving wealth from the regions' plantations and business interests (just about every journalist who comes to Goma to write a story about conflict minerals indirectly finances the fighting because almost all of the Western-standard hotels in Goma are owned by businessmen who finance the various armed groups).

Anon @10:17pm, my view is that it's a joke to pretend that these minerals can be verified. You're talking about a country that lacks a functioning police force, customs authority, border patrol, air traffic control system, etc. Employees of the Congolese state can (and must, if they want to survive) be bought off, because the state doesn't pay their salaries. That means that the likelihood of consumers having real, verifiable information about any product coming out of the DRC is close to nil. The system is more likely to end up working like the diamond certification schemes in areas like this. Congolese diamonds are shipped on direct flights to Hong Kong and Dubai, mixed in with diamonds from other parts of the world, certified as conflict-free, and sold on the global market. Why? Because the institutions to guarantee otherwise aren't in place, and creating them is almost impossible as long as the DRC is a non-functioning state.

I do have an issue with what I think is an oversimplified narrative that's been sold by the Enough Project and others, namely, that pursuing certification schemes will be some kind of a panacea for the violence here. They've moderated their public statements on that recently, which is good, but have still pushed for an economic solution to a violence problem. It's not going to work, and nobody who knows the region well will tell you it will.

Sunday, July 04, 2010 1:43:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be great if you could forward this information on to Nick Kristof/the NY Times Editor and the ENOUGH team. I believe that you've been involved in dialogue with Kristof before, but judging from recent On the Ground posts, this stuff needs to be reiterated. It is so exhausting/depressing to keep reading misinformation about DRC on those sites, and you clearly have the expertise to set them straight. It seems unlikely that they would be open to constructive criticism, but it can't hurt.

Sunday, July 04, 2010 10:12:00 PM

Blogger dcat said...

TiA --
I would say that American policy toward South Africa is almost the great outlier in these debates. Yes, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act had an effect on South African policy. As did banks in the US and UK refusing to roll over their loans. As did the attempt to "Make South Africa Ungovernable," as did the National Party's seemingly suicidal intransigence in the face of world opposition.
But the big X factor was that the ANC, UDF and other activists on the ground explicitly called for US action knowing that many black South Africans might suffer. And the other X factor, which I think is easy to understate, is that despite its intransigence, despite claiming not to care what the world thought, The Nats and white South Africans generally actually did see themselves as part of the western world -- did even see themselves, in an other-side-of-the-looking-glass sort of way, as being a country of laws. And so once the economic walls started collapsing and the entire edifice of the South African economy threatened the nice little lives South African whites had built for themselves, the rules of the game changed.
How much effect did American legislation have? The answer is not especially satisfying for those who want to see world affairs as a math equation where we can explain things perfectly, but the right answer is "some."
Beyond that, what were the conditions that allowed for that legislation to have some effect? And are those conditions in effect elsewhere, such as the DRC? I would argue that the Kimberley Process has been a modest success, but it has been most successful in precisely those areas where there is the most stability and security. It's easy for South African mines to adhere to the KP. It gets more muddled elsewhere.

dcat (FPA Africa Blog)

Monday, July 05, 2010 6:23:00 AM

Anonymous congoboy said...

Your posts are vague when it comes to what your actually think is happening in Africa. I was born and raised in central Africa, and I don't think you have a clear grasp of the situtation. It is clear to most folks who have studied and lived in central Africa that manipulation of civil wars by outside countries, bent on garnering plundered wealth for themselves, plays a central role in exacerbation of the violence. I also find it hard to believe that you think there is even a question about the effect of the global economic boycott on the liberation of South Africa. The pressure that put on the economy there, especially as helped by black South Africans' willingness to take on the ensuing poverty towards a greater end, liberation, clearly was a major factor in bringing forth a free and independent SA. Every serious commentator on SA expected that liberation would only come after a bloodbath. The South Africans proved them wrong and even with all its problems, South Africa remains one of the most free, rich and democratic countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Monday, July 05, 2010 9:16:00 AM


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