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


Q&A on coltan

One of the most fascinating books I read this year is about one mineral: Coltan. Authored by Congo expert Michael Nest, the book is a comprehensive discussion of an extrodinarily complex issue. Nest does an admirable job of explaining what the commodity is, why it matters, and of dissecting the debates around coltan. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in conflict minerals or advocacy in general as it points to both successes and failures in the DRC-focused movement.

Nest was kind enough to take the time for a Q&A about Coltan:

TiA: What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching Coltan?

: The enormous gulf in communication and understanding between activists and industry. Industry pays little attention to what activists say and are not very aware of academic debates about natural resources and conflict. Yet activists and these debates have an impact of the legislation and regulations that eventually affect them, such as the ‘conflict minerals’ clause in Washington’s recent Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Similarly, activists pay little attention to industry and are often dismissive and cynical about industry views. Yet, industry can be an excellent source of data about mining and of analysis of how the global resources sector works. When I was researching the book I felt like I was going back and forth between different worlds. Both sides could learn from listening to the other, and anyone who wants to understand the political economy of the minerals sector needs to read information from these sources.

TiA: In the book, you mention that the oft-repeated statistic about 80% of the world’s coltan supply being in Congo is incorrect. Can you give a brief summary as to why and how that incorrect statistic became so well-known?

Nest: That is a good question! I still scratch my head about how this figure, which I am positive is incorrect, has been so widely propagated. I think activists and others interested in the link between coltan and conflict do themselves a great disservice by repeating such statistics without questioning them or researching them. Inaccurate statistics can undermine an argument, even if it is motivated by a moral imperative. People in industry and government who might initially listen to what activists or journalists say often switch off when they hear statistics that are not supported by evidence.

As to how the statistic came about…I really do not know the origin of the figure, other than it was probably first produced in either a BBC or Agence France Presse news report from the late 1990s/early 2000s. Possibly the 80% refers to the amount of coltan on the spot market (ie, open market and not tied up in long-term contracts) coming from the DRC. This figure may have then been misinterpreted by others to refer to world reserves or world production. However, most writers about coltan appear unaware of the role of the spot market in the coltan trade, which makes me wonder whether this really was the origin of the figure. I’m guessing that the figure of 80% fitted in with journalists’ desire to dramatise what at first glance appears to be another story of Africans as victims: having a precious resource sought after by rich countries that will do anything to obtain it. The truth is more complicated and nuanced than this.

The DRC’s share of global tantalite production remains unclear. However, the figure is likely to be between 20-30% at the current time. Historically it is more likely to have been around 15-20%. In regards to reserves, there has been no comprehensive geological survey work in the DRC since the early 1990s as a result of war and instability. However, there is certainly no evidence that the DRC has 80% of the world’s reserves.

TiA: What led you to write a book about one specific mineral?

Nest: I was asked to write this book by Polity Press, which is bringing out a series of the geopolitics of six natural resources: oil, food, fish, water, timber and coltan. My previous book focused on the economic dimensions of the Congo War (1998-2003) and this is one reason they asked me to write about coltan.

Writing a book about a specific mineral, especially one linked to conflict and violence like coltan, is a challenge. Solutions to conflict and violence in the DR Congo and other countries where armed groups profit from natural resources, require integrated approaches that take into account all resource exploitation and all minerals. Isolating a commodity and analysing it out of its sectoral context can result in one losing track of its importance and significance relative to other commodities.

However, in order to develop both theories of natural resources and conflict and policy responses to such conflicts, it is analytically important to understand and be able to distinguish the political economy of individual commodities. Because there has been so little good analysis, yet so much debate, on the tantalite global supply chain, I thought it was important to lay out the facts for this particular mineral and not simply lump it together in an analysis of other ‘conflict minerals’. The editors at Polity Press were aware there was a market for such a book that focused on one specific mineral.

TiA: What’s your take on the advocacy efforts surrounding Congolese minerals, including the proposed SEC and OECD regulations? What have advocates, legislators, and regulators gotten right and what have they gotten wrong?

Nest: I think these efforts are well-intentioned, but not especially well-thought out. This means they may not achieve their desired goal of bringing peace to the DRC.

Gotten right:
  • Relentless activism by the Enough Project, Global Witness and others have raised the profile of the Congo War and increased governments’ and the public’s willingness to focus on it – a good thing.
  • The push by the SEC and OECD to increase transparency in the commodity chains that go into manufactured goods can also only be a good thing, as I think it is incumbent on us all to be aware of what we consume and where it comes from.
  • Placing the reporting burden onto global corporations – rather than poor governments or artisanal miners – is reasonable.
Gotten wrong:
  • Activist efforts fail to take into account the significant number of conflicts in DRC that are not related to resources, e.g., conflict over land (for agriculture, not minerals) or for local political control. Restricting the export of coltan and other ‘conflict minerals’ might reduce profits to armed groups, but it will not have any effect on groups fighting for other reasons.
  • The SEC regulations focus on minerals that have been handled by armed groups. The flaw in this is that the DRC army, which is one of the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence, is not classified by the State Department as an ‘armed group’. Perversely, this means that tantalite that has passed through the DRC army’s hands could be imported into the US and legitimately labeled ‘conflict free’.
  • Activists in rich countries who advocate for consumer boycotts of products that cannot be 100% verified as being free of coltan from Congo assume that western consumers remain the most important in the world, and therefore have the power to change corporations’ sourcing practices. Markets in rich countries for electronic goods will remain important, but in terms of size they have been overtaken by developing country markets, e.g., there are more mobile phones in Africa than the US, and China has double the number of internet subscribers than the US. Activists of the future must work out how to engage with developing country consumers and corporations (especially metals processing and manufacturing firms from China), and get them to care about the origin of commodities.
Thanks to Michael Nest for taking the time to chat about Coltan. It's well worth your time to read.


in which prendergast and I are (maybe) going to debate

I'll be a panelist at the next Great Lakes Policy Forum on October 5-6, which is a special two day conference on Advocacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As you'll see from the official announcement below, John Prendergast and I are scheduled to be on the same panel (pending his acceptance of the invitation), discussing who speaks for the Congolese along with Mvemba Dizolele and . If Prendergast doesn't come, we'll likely have someone else from the Enough Project in his place, which should make for an interesting discussion.

If you're in the DC area, I hope you'll be able to make it; both of the panels are going to be very provocative and fascinating. I'm particularly excited that the GLPF is able to include so many voices from Congolese civil society at this event. Register to attend here.

Advocacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Stakeholders Conference
October 5th and 6th, 2011
9:30-11:30 am

Day one: How the Story of Congo Gets Told
Rome Auditorium, Rome Building 1619 Massachusetts Ave
Panel Discussion: 9:30-11:30am

In the past several years, voices from the United States have dominated the conversation on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), creating a tension between the complex situations on the ground in the DRC and the simple messaging that works for advocacy movements in support of the DRC in the US. Additionally, there are questions about who is a legitimate voice in Washington, DC on the behalf of the Congolese. Financial and language barriers often prevent Congolese citizens from speaking on their own behalf in Washington, although members of the Diaspora, US based advocacy organizations, academics, and NGOs attempt to fill this void with their own expertise and opinions. Often these opinions do not fully convey the divergent and complicated feelings of the large and multifaceted population of the DRC. As the DRC is discussed in sound bites, a few dominant narratives emerge. How does the narrative of the Congo get told in Washington? Who gets to speak for Congo?

Laura Seay, Morehouse College and Texas in Africa
Mvemba Dizolele, Stanford University
John Prendergast, The Enough Project (invited)
Kambale Musavuli, Friends of Congo

Day two: Advocacy and the Way Forward
Kenny Auditorium, Nitze Building, 1740 Massachusetts Ave
Panel Discussion: 9:30-11:30am

The DRC presents a complex situation with as many angles as there are stakeholders. In the absence of Congolese voices, stories of the DRC are told by advocacy organizations, NGOs, academics, and the Diaspora. These stories cannot represent the whole, multifaceted reality on the ground, yet they are the basis on which policy makers must rely when deciding on priorities and legislation. Perspectives on the DRC, as they are seen in Washington have had numerous effects in the DRC, both good and bad. Controversial legislation on conflict minerals in Eastern Congo has been said to make living conditions for many people worse while others insist that it has improved the situation for most. The constant focus on rape as a weapon of war in Eastern Congo has dramatically increased services available to survivors but has perverted incentives and prevented women from receiving holistic care. The overall focus on the East has done a great deal to make the DRC into a policy priority, but ignored the failures of Congolese governance that are the root of many of the DRC’s problems. What is the way forward? How can advocacy organizations and all stakeholders work for the best outcomes and avoid unintended negative consequences? Should there be a “Do no harm” policy for advocates on behalf of the DRC?

Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International
Rick Goss, Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC)
Eric Kajemba, Observatoire Gouvernance et Paix (OGP)
Claudine Tsongo, Dynamique de Femmes Juristes


guest post: explaining Burundi

Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Cara Jones. Cara is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Florida. Cara is quickly becoming the U.S.-based expert on Burundi; she is one of a very few foreigners who speak Kirundi and has extensive experience in the region conducting research into the behavior of rebel groups and their transitions to governance. Cara weighs in on Sunday's massacre in Burundi:

As reported by the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, at least 36 people were killed in the bar Chez Les Amis Sunday night in Gatumba, Burundi. At around 20:00 local time, gunmen armed with guns, knives and other small arms came in dressed as policemen with the intention “to leave no survivors,” according to one witness. In the wake of the massacre, the largest in recent memory in Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza of the ruling CNDD-FDD (a former rebel group turned somewhat authoritarian state) has declared three days of national mourning. The bar’s owner and patrons are said to be CNDD-FDD supporters.

So who is behind the violence? The media and the government of Burundi point the finger, and perhaps rightly, at Agathon Rwasa and his rebel FNL, formerly Palipehutu. This is not the first time the FNL have been accused of committing violence in this undergoverned border town near the DRC. In 2004, 160+ were killed in massacres committed against Congolese Banyamulenge (ethnically considered Tutsi). It certainly seems that this is the handiwork of the group- there have been a number of attacks on bars and murders since elections broke down mid-cycle last year. The opposition parties, including the FNL, protested the results of the communal elections in late May 2010, withdrawing from the subsequent Presidential and parliamentary elections. I was there last year during elections, and, in my estimation, there were at least 60 grenade attacks during the election cycle and an average of 3-4 politically motivated murders a week throughout Burundi, even a year after the final vote.

The CNDD-FDD government sees Rwasa’s FNL (there are other factions, but they are less politically salient and/or violent) as the only real challengers to their regime. The FNL stayed out of negotiations to end the civil war far longer than CNDD-FDD. They remained an active rebel group until the last peace agreement was signed in 2009- although this was not without a four year period of back and forth: disarmament, demobilization, and then returning to violence. By 2010 though, most observers were hopeful that the FNL would participate peacefully in the upcoming election. The FNL in particular contested the May 2010 communal election results, because provinces (Bujumbura Rurale) and parts of Bujumbura (Kamenge and Kinama) that heavily favored FNL showed to be voting CNDD-FDD. Since then, violence has been constant between FNL and CNDD-FDD members, particularly in Bujumbura Rurale, although there has been notable violence in Bubanza and Cibitoke as of late, both provinces which border DRC.

It’s this proximity to Congo that some observers have picked on- the Huffington Post reporting that “Burundi Pub Massacre: Congo Gunmen Kill 36 in Bujumbura Bar “. Most regional observers would know that this headline is, to put it kindly, misleading. The FNL may have some bases in Congo. Like so many other rebels in the immediate region, they take advantage of porous borders, small arms markets, and ungoverned territories in North and South Kivu. But the perpetrators of the violence are, in my estimation, not Congolese. So who is directing the activities of the perpetrators of Sunday’s murders and others in Burundi? Interestingly enough Rwasa left Burundi in August 2010(because of ‘security threats’), with no sign of resurfacing. It has long been suggested by analysts in Burundi that he is in Eastern Congo, and the assumption is that he is calling the shots on these attacks from there.

Other scholars and analysts have also commented on this story- see Rene Lemarchand’s insightful commentary in the New York Times piece - and I tend to agree that the violence comes as result of CNDD-FDD and FNL tensions. But what will this mean for the future of Burundi? This is a serious increase in the intensity of conflict ongoing since the elections, which is worrisome for the fragile post-conflict and seriously poor nation. The CNDD-FDD could decide to crack down harder on suspected rebels and civilians associated with FNL and FNL strongholds, although to date political killings seem to take place at local and individual levels. And the FNL is not an incapable force- this massacre shows their particular capabilities. But it remains to be seen if they can truly threaten the CNDD-FDD regime and incite mass violence. Although the statement is incredibly trite, Burundians are incredibly tired of war and violence and probably unwilling to support a rebel movement unless the CNDD-FDD government ramps up the repression and the economy worsens. The ability to subsist remains much higher on the priority list- although Rene and others have pointed out that the level of unemployment could lead to increased banditry among youth. If Rwasa and FNL could provide material incentives to these youth for rebellion, there could be a viable threat.

If anything, the attacks raise the awareness level of the many internationals, non-governmentals and crisis prevention groups on the ground that ‘ntivyoroshe’- in Kirundi, it’s not easy going here- and we should be paying more attention to the ‘tit-for-tat’ between CNDD-FDD and FNL that no longer fits that categorization.

About the author: Cara Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. She studies rebel movements and their transitions in post-conflict governance in Burundi, Rwanda and DRC. She is currently writing her dissertation at the University of Rochester and can be reached here.

Into Darkest Austria

HT: @stephanfaris



Calm is the morn without a sound,
calm as to suit a calmer grief,
and only through the faded leaf
the chestnut pattering to the ground;

Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
and on these dews that drench the furze,
and all the silvery gossamers
that twinkle into green and gold;

Calm and still light on yon great plain
that sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
and crowded farms and lessening towers,
to mingle with the bounding main;

Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
these leaves that redden to the fall,
and in my heart, if calm at all,
if any calm, a calm despair;

Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
and waves that sway themselves in rest,
and dead calm in that noble breast
which heaves but with the heaving deep.

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., 11


shameless self-promotion

Back in May, I got to wondering how the DRC was managing to pull off such massive, successful vaccination campaigns when most other public health initiatives (or, really, any kind of initiatives) there tend to be unsuccessful at best and disasters at worst. Luckily, the kind folks over at UNA-USA's The InterDependent were kind enough to give me space to explore this question. Click over to read what I learned and how we can apply these lessons to other challenging public health situation.


books you should read: Rebel Rulers

With the NTC taking over in Libya, interest in how rebel movements govern is perhaps at an all-time high. Lucky for all of us, Vassar political scientist and my friend Zachariah Cherian Mampilly has a book on precisely this topic out today. Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War is a fascinating exploration of three rebel movements: Sri Lanka's LTTE (aka, the Tamil Tigers), South Sudan's SPLM/A, and DRC's Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).

I cannot recommend Mampilly's book enough. If you are studying, thinking, and/or formulating policy about insurgency, governance, and state reconstruction, Rebel Rulers is a must-read. Mampilly did insane fieldwork behind rebel lines with all three of the movements during their wars. The book is an incredible work of comparative study and you're not going to find anyone better-informed on how rebels govern anywhere else.

Even better? You can get 20% discount for a limited time by buying the book at the Cornell University Press site. And, yes, there's a Kindle edition available for the e-book fans.

I had the opportunity to ask Zachariah a few questions about his book and its relevance for today's questions about Libya:

TiA: What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching Rebel Rulers ?

Mampilly: As an undergraduate in the late 90's, I was regularly confronted by works on the "collapse" or "failure" of the African state. By the time I arrived at UCLA for graduate school, Paul Collier's work had initiated a boom in scholarship on the criminality of insurgent organizations. The problem with both literatures was that they didn't conform to the reality of what I was witnessing on the ground but were more a fantasy of how the West perceives post-colonial countries, i.e. weak and corrupt governments overtaken by violent criminal warlords.

But on my first trips to to DR Congo, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, I was struck by the relative normalcy of towns under insurgent control. Despite the difficult conditions which ebbed and flowed with the rhythm of the conflict, civilians continually tried to return to something resembling their normal lives. Instead of looking to the state to provide support, they turned to a variety of non-state actors and networks to meet their basic needs, sometimes effectively. What I came to realize is that the Hobbesian assumption that only the state can stave off anarchy continues to underlie academic understandings of social and political order. But in many other societies, there are various sources of social order-- religious groups, traditional authorities, NGOs, corporations, armed groups, etc.-- that become especially relevant in times of war. Arguably, these should be the focus of our analysis (versus simply documenting the many ways in which post-colonial states fail to live up to their Western counterparts).

TiA: In the book, you note that rebel governments must consider the needs and positions of civilians as well as their group’s internal divisions and the role of transnational actors. In this respect, what makes one rebel movement more successful than another?

Mampilly: There is a complex interplay between the actions and capacity of rebel leaders and the realities of contemporary battlefields. We've swung from one model that interpreted everything through the ideological orientation of the leadership to a more recent focus on the economic, political and/or geographical conditions that seem to predetermine civil war outcomes. The reality is somewhere in between. Rebel leaders do face a number of constraints initiated by a variety of actors and circumstances beyond their control. But they also make consequential choices.

Take for example the LTTE under Prabhakharan. At several points during the conflict, he seemed to misread the degree the international situation had changed after 9/11 and how this had direct impacts on the viability of the insurgency. Due to restrictions on diaspora fundraising and limits on rebel mobility outside of Sri Lanka, the LTTE leader probably should have accepted an autonomy offer in the early 2000s that would have been celebrated by the Tamil community, especially in contrast to the bloodbath that ended the war (and the Tigers) in 2009. But these calculations can be extraordinarily complex to make, especially since as I describe in the book, rebel leaders are engaged in so many negotiations (violent and non-violent) with so many different actors each operating according to its own logic.

We also shouldn't underestimate the role of chance, personalities, and other seemingly random events that can have determinative impacts on civil war outcomes. Again to take the LTTE, most analysts agree that the military tide turned following the defection of his number 2, Colonel Karuna, along with almost half of the LTTE cadre. If you look back at what happened, Karuna wasn't initially inclined to leave the organization but wanted an audience with Prabhakharan to discuss what most would consider legitimate concerns about the structure of the insurgency. Instead of listening to the concerns of Karuna-- a war hero with deep credibility among cadre especially in the eastern part of the country-- Prabhakharan ordered him killed, directly leading to his defection to the government side.

TiA: In the case of the SPLM, a rebel movement spent the last six years transitioning into the government of an internationally-recognized state. Why was the SPLM successful in this effort while most rebel groups so often fail to achieve this goal? What dangers and difficulties is the South Sudanese government likely to face now that it is fully independent?

Mampilly: This is a question I often get when talking to activists from around the world, but especially Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamils and South Sudanese activists actually met many times during their respective peace talks during the early 2000s in Norway. Indeed, they have long studied and professed sympathy for each other's struggles and strategies. Both communities were facing similar crises (state oppression of a minority community never accepted as an equal part of the nation) and conditions on the ground (long standing insurgencies fighting conventional wars from territory under their control). If you had asked me or many others which insurgency seemed more likely to achieve its goals, based on the capacity of their militaries and those of the incumbents they were fighting, the LTTE seemed more likely to succeed. But we know what happened in both cases. From my perspective, the key difference was American patronage for the South Sudanese struggle which the Sri Lankan Tamils never had. Without it, I doubt the SPLA would be where it is today.

The challenges for the newly independent Government of South Sudan (GoSS) have much to do with the SPLA's governance performance during the war, which was lacking in many ways. Specifically, SPLA administrators working through a body known as the Civil Authority of New Sudan became heavily dependent on religious groups and international NGOs to provide services like education and health, and on traditional authorities to develop a system of justice and ensure social order. As a result, the South Sudanese population became accustomed to looking towards non-state actors to meet their daily needs. If you look at the actual governance performance of GoSS today you can see many of the same dynamics as leaders continue to focus on the admittedly challenging security situation while ignoring basic service provision. As I argue in the book, these patterns of governance can be sticky and will undermine the legitimacy and authority of a new government if not transformed systematically. Unfortunately, thus far, the SPLA has not proven up to the task.

One other thing to think about is what might have happened had the North African revolutions swept through a non-divided Sudan as they did in neighboring Egypt. It is at least possible that instead of two Sudans today, a unified Sudan might have succumbed to the pressures from protesters and begun a process of democratic reform. Ironically, this was more in tune with what the SPLA and its late leader, John Garang, had always called for.

TiA: What does your research tell us about likely outcomes for the success or failure of the NTC in Libya? Based on what we know today, do they strike you as more similar to the RCD-Goma, the SPLM, or the LTTE?

Mampilly: The National Transitional Council in Libya is a somewhat unique case in that it faced much more acute international pressure as a result of fighting a war in an oil rich economy, with NATO support, and against a dictator seemingly designed for cable news networks. Still, they faced many of the same challenges in ensuring a degree of social and political order in Benghazi and other towns that they controlled over the past six months. Reports from rebel held territory were initially discouraging, but over time, rebel leaders recognized the importance of projecting governance competence to the international community. Proving they could rule became an important component of their claim to be the authentic Libyan government and hence worthy of international recognition.

Of the three insurgencies that I studied, the NTC resembles both the RCD in Congo and the SPLA. It resembles the RCD in that the rebellion was initially ill-prepared for the tasks of governance. Like the RCD, the political wing of the NTC only came together after the fighting had already begun, a weakness the RCD was never able to overcome. In addition, both groups faced questions about who was really calling the shots-- the political leadership of the insurgencies or their foreign patrons. However, the NTC shares with the SPLA a close relationship with the Western powers which pressured both groups to improve their civilian governance performance in exchange for tangible rewards. In addition, it appears that as with South Sudan, the new Libyan leaders continue to look to the West for guidance which may bode well for their post-conflict transition.

At the same time, as with the SPLA, its important not to let our contempt for figures like Qaddafi and Sudan's Omar al Bashir to cloud our judgments of their challengers. Throughout its rule in South Sudan, the SPLA faced considerable pressure from both local and international activists concerned about their often brutal treatment of civilians. This was a good thing and led to important changes in its behavior. But following the outbreak of the conflict in Darfur, Western activists in particular were more concerned with demonizing Bashir than scrutinizing the anti-Bashir rebellions. Similarly, in Libya the NTC has not always treated denizens of their territory fairly, a fact often ignored by their advocates. For example, the NTC has continually faced accusations of collective punishment targeted against Black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans who were falsely presumed to all be mercenaries in Qaddafi's employ. Even after taking power in Tripoli, accusations of black African being rounded up have continued. This partially explains why many sub-Saharan African countries and AU members have been reluctant to recognize the NTC as the sovereign government of Libya. Ultimately, while it did make strategic sense for the rebellion to align with the NATO powers to win the war, the former rebel rulers will need to reconnect with their own neighborhood, particularly south of the Sahara, if they are going to survive. Improving governance performance for all Libyans is a good place to start.

Thanks to Zachariah Mampilly for taking the time to chat with me about his new book, Rebel Rulers. Be sure to get your copy while it's on sale - it is a fascinating read!