Everyone who cares about African development has surely heard both sides of the Kony2012 debate by now, and frankly the sight of another #stopkony hashtag is enough to make me close my browser tab at this point. Thus, this is not a post about Kony2012! It is, however, a post about an analogous phenomenon: the way in which the Enough Project used an oversimplified and inaccurate narrative about the conflict in eastern Congo to “raise awareness” in the West, and translated that awareness into harmful policy on the ground. Laura Seay recently wrote an excellent report [PDF] on this topic for the Center for Global Development. It’s a timely reminder that this type of poorly informed Western activism can have very real consequences for ordinary Africans.
The central problem with Enough’s narrative about conflict minerals is this: whilst rebel groups in the eastern DRC were profiting from mineral sales prior to the September 2010 ban on exports, minerals certainly weren’t causing the ongoing conflict, and they weren’t the rebels’ only source of funding. Cutting off one source of funds has done nothing to resolve many rebels’ underlying grievances about land use and citizenship, or to fill in the great vacuum of state authority in the Kivus which is so conducive to armed violence. Furthermore, most rebel groups have access to funds from other activities, including logging, agriculture, and informal taxation of local populations. (If anything, they’ve probably increased their levels of extortion from Congolese citizens since the mineral export ban in an effort to compensate for revenue shortfalls.) Whilst mineral exports were one of the factors perpetuating the conflict, the belief that they were its linchpin is clearly inaccurate. Effectively banning mineral purchases from the DRC has thrown hundreds of thousands of miners out of work, with few prospects for alternative employment, for the sake of a policy that has done little to reduce levels of violence in the region.
Interestingly, mineral exports may have actually facilitated the event that did significantly reduce the frequency of violence in the Kivus: the January 2009 arrest of Laurent Nkunda, leader of the CNDP militia and a key political actor driving the conflict in eastern DRC. Laura notes that President Kabila’s seemingly inexplicable decision to ban mineral exports (an activity from which many top Congolese politicians profit) ahead of the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act was likely driven by two factors: a desire to convince eastern voters that he was paying attention to the region’s problems, and an interest in consolidating FARDC control over mines to ensure Rwanda’s continued access to minerals. This latter consideration appears to be a key element maintaining the continued cooperation between the DRC and Rwanda. This same detente, of course, led to Nkunda’s arrest.
Laura also makes several other points about the political economy of Congolese mineral exports which I hadn’t heard before.
- The much-cited figure about how the DRC has 80% of the world’s coltan supplies is likely inaccurate; the real statistic is probably less than 10%. However, mining revenues (from all minerals) still play an outsize role in the country’s economic life. They “[account] for 80% of the exports, 72% of the national budget and 28% of GDP according to the latest available statistics.”
- “If minerals cause or drive conflict in a failed state, then we would expect to see most, if not all, of the Congolese mineral trade to be militarized and/or the object of competition between armed groups. This is far from true, however. The mines of Kasai and central Katanga are completely free of violence, as are many mines in the heart of the conflict regions in North and South Kivu and Ituri.”
It’s a report that’s well worth reading, for a contextualized take on the conflict minerals narrative as well as a pointed reminder of the dangers of misguided Western activism.