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Conflict minerals and Kony2012

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.

Jean-François Bayart on globalization & the state

There’s a new interview up at Theory Talks with Jean-François Bayart, author of the seminal work The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly.  Money quote:

Not only does neoliberal globalization not undermine the state, but more fundamentally, for two centuries, it is indeed globalization that spawned the universalization of the nation-state as a mode of political organization.  …  [For instance,] the integration of the former Soviet economies into the global capitalist system has not occurred in par with the dissolution of the Soviet space in I don’t know what kind of political and non-state no man’s land, but rather with the creation of a whole series of states which vindicate their nation-statehood, even though we know that these nations are very recent and by-products Stalinist theories of nationalities at that.

One might even go further than this and point out that not only has globalization supported the spread of the Westphalian state, but it’s also spread very specific forms of governance, such as multi-party democracy.

Violence and agency in the DRC

In yet another bit of backdated conference blogging, the Great Lakes Policy Forum held an excellent session on “Telling the Story of the Congo” last October. (Notes aren’t up at their site, but Wronging Rights lived-blogged the session.)  The first day of the two-day event (which was all I was able to attend) focused on the partial and often inaccurate narrative about the conflict in eastern Congo which has gained currency among policymakers in the West.  One of the first speakers opened with a striking exercise: he pulled a map of the DRC up on the overhead and pointed to a variety of cities throughout the country, asking the audience how many people had visited each.  A healthy number had visited Kinshasa, and nearly as many had been to Goma or Bukavu, but very few had been to Lubumbashi or Kisangani, let alone Mbuji-Mayi or Mbandaka.  This is a very real result of the way in which our collective imagined geography of the DRC has shrunk to the extreme west (Kinshasa) and extreme east of the country, rendering the rest of the country not as no-man’s land, but as non-existent land.

As the same speaker noted, the current Western framing of the DRC as a land torn by sexual violence and mineral-fueled conflict tends to pass over questions of domestic politics and governance, stripping the Congolese of political agency within their own country.  By way of example, he noted that a recent case of rape in North Kivu drew criticism of MONUSCO for their failure to prevent it; however, few commentators asked who committed the rapes, or where the army or police were at the time.  Sexual violence is clearly a symptom of the eastern DRC’s broader security problems, but the international community appears more interested in topical solutions aimed at reducing rape rates than in sustained engagement with the larger issue of security sector reform.

Several speakers were similarly critical of the Western narrative around minerals and conflict. One pointed out that mining is in fact not the only revenue source for many armed groups, and that it’s unclear whether cutting off this particular source of funding would decrease or exacerbate violence. Another speaker, more accepting of the idea of a positive correlation between mining revenues and violence, said that the international community’s exclusive focus on eastern Congo overlooked continued conflicts over natural resources in the center of the country.  In his words, places like Kikwete and Mbuji-Mayi are “more like war zones” today than Goma is.  Ultimately, the canonical view of conflict minerals in the eastern DRC appears to have been created largely by Western activist groups such as the Enough Project, with very little input from the Congolese, and without sufficient attention to the contextualized and ultimately local ways in which violence plays out.

What to read on Burundi

Burundi is a fascinating place.  It’s one of the few nations that survived the transition from pre-colonial polity to Westphalian state with its original territory mostly intact, which could be a history lesson all by itself; its pattern of ethnicized access to resources and resultant political violence is just as heartbreaking as Rwanda’s; it’s utterly beautiful.  (Check out the second photo here.) And it’s an excellent case study in the ways in which our Western gaze towards Africa is pulled towards the topics we find it easy to understand: natural resources & wildlife, unusually large-scale or savage violence, apartheid, piracy.  Lacking much by the way of resources and unique fauna, its civil war somehow deemed less interesting than the Rwandan genocide, and (happily) free of “whites only” signs and pirates, Burundi is turned into a blank spot on our imagined map of Africa. This came through quite clearly when I was researching post-conflict ethnic reconciliation in Burundi for my independent study last semester.  There’s nowhere near the richness of the literature on Congo or Rwanda.  That said, there are still a few good books to start with.  (I’ve continued updating this list, most recently in June 2015.  In retrospect it’s a major problem that there aren’t any works by Burundian or other African authors on this list.  I’ll prioritize those works for a future update.)

Corruption narratives in Burundi

I wrote a short paper on corruption in post-conflict states, with a case study of Burundi, for one of my development classes last fall.  Like “empowerment,” “corruption” is a famously slippery concept, and even the standard definition of “use of public resources for private gain” may be read in more or less normative ways which can support widely varying analyses of the same situation.  Studies of post-conflict corruption seem to be especially affected by this lack of analytical rigor.  Most of the literature I found was written by development practitioners, and was characterized by a normative view of corruption and an unsupported assumption that corruption could delegitimize fragile post-conflict governments and create grievances that could spark a return to conflict.  By contrast, social scientists tend to follow J.P. Olivier de Sardan in seeing “corruption [as]…socially embedded in ‘logics’ of negotiation, gift-giving, solidarity, predator authority and redistributive accumulation” (source). The best writing on Burundi takes this approach, and views its endemic corruption as part of the broader process of legal and extralegal distribution of state monies that’s the main thing holding the country’s political class together right now.  (Rene Lemarchand has an up-to-date analysis of this phenomenon in The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa.)

That said, I definitely thought the most interesting article I came across was Simon Turner’s “Corruption Narratives and the Power of Concealment: The Case of Burundi’s Civil War.”  It’s a chapter in a book called Corruption and the Secret of Law, and focuses on the way in which discussions of corruption reflect broader concerns about the Burundian political cosmology.  More concretely, allegations of corruption are often used to convey the sense that an unworthy person has gained political power through secretive and illicit transactions – even if there’s no evidence of actual corruption.  Viewed in this way, corruption can be seen as analogous to witchcraft, which also grants “illegitimate” and “immoral” types of power to its practitioners. More troubling is the perception that power built on the tenuous base of corruption or witchcraft can easily crumble when its illegitimacy is brought to light, perhaps leading again to conflict.  There’s also a profound symmetry here with Peter Uvin’s assessment that Burundians tend to view politics in terms of people, and not of institutions.  When he asked ordinary Burundians about the changes they’d like to see in the country’s political life, almost all of them expressed a desire for more upright and moral people in office, rather than, say, better enforcement of anti-corruption laws.  (This and any number of other fascinating observations can be found in Life After Violence.)

In other words, one could conceivably argue that corruption may have differential effects on Burundian political stability at the national and popular levels of analysis.  Lemarchand writes in Dynamics of Violence that “the [Burundian] government is not meant to govern; its purpose is to offer an attractive alternative to rebellion” by institutionalizing interethnic access to state resources.  Given that up to 20% of the country’s GDP was lost to embezzlement in 2006, corruption presumably plays a large role in the distribution of state resources across ethnic lines (source, PDF).  However, at the popular level, the perception of official corruption does seem to lower the legitimacy of political actors, but for moral reasons rather reasons of illegality or breach of the social contract.