Beyond “Conflict Minerals”: The Congo’s Resource Curse Lives On
Beyond “Conflict Minerals”: The Congo’s Resource Curse Lives On
“In sub-Saharan Africa,” a video at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show announces, “there is war that feeds off of global demand for electronics. The place is the DRC—the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The region is ground zero for conflict minerals.” Tech giants including Intel and Apple are now working with NGOs to clean up their supply chains and help promote peace in the region. But will their proposed solutions challenge the deeper patterns of exploitation plaguing the DRC?
January 6, 2014. It’s the opening night of the Consumer Electronics Show, and it seems as if the whole of Silicon Valley has descended on the Las Vegas Convention Center and Venetian hotel to peddle its wares. On the show floor, a company called Sensoria introduces a “smart bra” designed to accommodate fitness tracking technology, while rivals brandish other “wearables.” A startup called Parrot introduces its Jumping Sumo toy drone. Tractive unveils a dog remote. Tech gurus and A-list celebs celebrate the rise of the Internet of Things, with its data-crunching onesies and bottle warmers. As the night wears on, T-Mobile CEO John Legere, wearing a bright pink company T-shirt, crashes a swanky AT&T party, only to be kicked out fifteen minutes later. “I just wanted to hear Macklemore,” he tells a reporter.
But at his keynote in the Palazzo Auditorium, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich strikes a more serious tone, leaving behind the Internet of Things to remind the audience of the things that power the Internet. “In sub-Saharan Africa,” a video behind him announces, “there is war that feeds off of global demand for electronics. The place is the DRC—the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The region is ground zero for conflict minerals.” Grim statistics flash across the screen. But Intel offers a solution: a “conflict-free” microprocessor, which Krzanich promises will contain no minerals whose extraction funds rebel militias in the eastern DRC. The audience responds with tepid applause.
It’s no secret by now that the supply chain feeding our smartphones and laptops is not pretty. Thanks to a flurry of media coverage of Foxconn and other Chinese manufacturers, we know about the dismal conditions at the factories that churn out iPhones. Less is known about what happens to our phones and computers and those clunky old monitors when we throw them away. Many of them are shipped to places like Guiyu, China, or to the slums surrounding cities like Delhi and Accra, where men, women, and children make a living dismantling them with hammers and blowtorches. The metals stripped out of old circuit boards become fodder for new circuit boards, and the cycle continues.
Most of the minerals that go into circuit boards aren’t recycled, however. In fact, a significant portion of the bewildering mix of elements that go into any single smartphone—from exotic-sounding dysprosium and gadolinium to the more mundane-sounding tin—is mined from a select few sites around the world. Of these minerals, a handful—most notably the “three Ts” (tin, tantalum, and tungsten) and gold—have in recent years achieved notoriety as “conflict minerals.”
That’s because many of these minerals originate in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the nation at the center of Africa that, for the past decade and a half, has been home to the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Since 1996 a series of wars there are estimated to have killed upward of 5 million Congolese people, with over 90 percent of these deaths due not directly to violence but to war-exacerbated disease and starvation. In the areas worst affected by the conflict—the provinces of North and South Kivu and the district of Ituri (Orientale province), which border with Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi—over 80 percent of the population reports having been displaced at least once, and hundreds of thousands still live in squalid camps. Nearly fifty women are raped every hour across the country, according to a 2011 study, earning the DRC its reputation as the worst place on earth to be a woman.
The litany of atrocities quickly becomes numbing, and the list of rebel factions involved—from the Hutu-extremist FDLR (Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda) to the Ugandan Islamists of the ADF-NALU to the assortment of Mai-Mai “self-defense” militias scattered across the country—can be dizzying. Little wonder, then, that for the better part of the eighteen years since a Rwandan-led invasion sparked the First Congo War, the world has looked the other way.
The Great Congo Wars
The story of the Congo wars begins with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. As massacres within Rwanda led to the deaths of some 800,000 people in 100 days, still vaster numbers of both Hutu and Tutsi fled across the border into neighboring Zaire (as the Congo was then known). Among the refugees were Hutu génocidaires—belonging to both the erstwhile Rwandan army and extremist militias—who had been defeated in the conflict by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). With the Ugandan- and U.S.-trained Paul Kagame at its helm, the RPF seized power in July 1994. The new government’s first priority was to wipe out the génocidaires who, having regrouped in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire, sought to carry on their war against the RPF from across the border.
By this point, Zaire’s once-mighty dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was losing his grip on power and could do little to contain the chaos unfolding along the country’s eastern border. Moreover, his longtime support for the Hutu génocidaires put him in the crosshairs of the new Rwandan regime. In mid-1996 the Rwandan government convened Zaire’s four principal opposition leaders in Kigali with the intent of catalyzing Mobutu’s overthrow. The RPF then used the Zairian rebels as a cover for its U.S.-approved invasion of the DRC in October of that year. Atrocities mounted until, in May 1997, the ailing Mobutu was overthrown and replaced by the rebels’ political leader, Laurent Kabila, marking the end of the First Congo War.
Within a year, however, Kabila fell out with his Rwandan backers, who mounted a second invasion in July 1998. Over the course of the following year, a half-dozen regional powers were drawn into the conflict. Rebel factions splintered, leaning alternately toward Rwanda and Uganda for support, even as uniformed troops from both countries continued their own offensives on Congolese soil. Neither an official ceasefire between the six countries involved in the conflict in July 1999 nor the formation of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in November of the same year did much to slow the fighting, and the Second Congo War dragged on into the new millennium.
It was in this context that the Congo’s mining sector came back to life and the phenomenon of “conflict minerals” emerged. A close look at the entry of Congolese coltan into the global electronics supply chain is indicative of the broader patterns that shaped the trade.
Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is an unrefined mixture of two metallic ores from which tantalum is extracted. Tantalum is an excellent conductor of electricity whose primary use is in the tiny capacitors that keep our increasingly miniaturized electronic devices running. Roughly a quarter of the tantalum ore mined in the first decade of the twenty-first century came from the Congo, but coltan itself is a phenomenon specific to the Congo. Most of it sits near surface level in forested areas (including two national parks designated world heritage sites by UNESCO) in and around North Kivu province, which borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Coltan is extracted both legally and illegally by mostly migrant “artisanal” miners who dig it out of the ground with picks, shovels, and their bare hands.
Thanks to economic networks established during the first years of the Congo War, at least three-quarters of the coltan leaving the eastern Congo around the time the price spiked in 2000 directly enriched Rwandan military and political elites.
Around the middle of the Second Congo War (which ended in 2003), speculation in international markets caused a spike in the price of tantalum, which shot up nearly ten times over the course of the year 2000 before dropping back to its initial price by late 2001. These were the heady days of the dot-com boom, and two of the world’s largest tantalum processors—Cabot and H.C. Starck—had set up long-term contracts with their suppliers in an effort to corner the market in gadget-bound tantalum. Other processors frantically sought new sources and found them in the vast untapped coltan reserves of the war-torn DRC. “Thanks to economic networks that had been established in 1998 and 1999 during the first years of the Congo War,” writes Michael Nest in his meticulous study Coltan, “minerals traders and military officials were perfectly placed to funnel it out of the country.”
The primary beneficiary was Rwanda, which was the main transit point for both legal and illegal coltan from the DRC. By some estimates, half of the coltan Rwanda claimed to be producing actually originated from across the border. A 2002 UN Panel of Experts report alleged that as much as 70 percent of the coltan exported from eastern Congo at the time was being mined “under the direct surveillance of RPA [Rwandan army] mining détachés and evacuated by aircraft from airstrips near mining sites directly to Kigali or Cyangugu.” Another 15 to 25 percent was being exported through local comptoirs (trade posts) owned by Rwandan army officers or closely linked to the Rwandan government. At least three-quarters (and as much as 95 percent) of the coltan leaving the eastern Congo around the time the price spiked in 2000 directly enriched Rwandan military and political elites.
The Ugandan military establishment fared similarly well, but from the gold trade. In a 2005 report, Human Rights Watch established that in 2003, “an estimated $60 million worth of Congolese gold was exported from Uganda, much of it destined for Switzerland.” Some of this gold ultimately went into gadgets, but much of it also went into jewelry, treasuries, and speculative markets; tech companies were hardly alone in profiting from the plundering of Congolese resources by regional powers and their proxies.
Business as Usual
The case of gold mining in the DRC’s Ituri district, bordering Uganda, illuminates the transition to the next chapter in the conflict minerals story. By 2003 all foreign armies—including Uganda and Rwanda’s—had officially withdrawn from the DRC, but both countries supported proxy militias that, among other functions, continued to supply them with minerals. Major foreign corporations entered the equation by collaborating with the armed groups.
In Ituri, competition over land and resources as well as deep ethnic divisions prompted some of the conflict’s grisliest fighting between 1999 and 2007, with the FNI (Nationalist and Integrationist Front, backed by Uganda) on one side and the UPC (Union of Congolese Patriots, backed by Rwanda) on the other. Ugandan, Congolese, and UN peacekeeping troops also entered the fray, and in 2003 so did AngloGold Ashanti, one of the largest gold producers in the world.
After a World Bank–backed revision of the DRC’s mining code led a rash of state-owned mines to be privatized, AngloGold began exploration in Mongbwalu, a remote area near the Ugandan border. The company had no illusions about what it was getting itself into and, far from trying to insulate its operations from the conflict, dove in headfirst. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2005:
Following earlier attempts to make contact with the UPC armed group, AngloGold Ashanti representatives established relations with the FNI, . . . who controlled the Mongbwalu area. In return for FNI assurances of security for its operations and staff, AngloGold Ashanti provided logistical and financial support—that in turn resulted in political benefits—to the armed group and its leaders.
Between 2002 and 2004, battles between the UPC and FNI killed at least 2,000 civilians in the Mongbwalu area alone and led to the displacement of tens of thousands more, many of whom ultimately perished.
AngloGold Ashanti was just one of many corporations implicated in atrocities at the peak of violence in the DRC conflict. The UN Panel of Experts had in 2002 already named eighty-five foreign companies—ranging from Cabot and H.C. Starck to De Beers (the world’s largest diamond company) and Barclays—whose operations in the Congo violated international norms. Tech companies were far enough down the supply chain to avoid being cited in the report, but the smelters that supplied them were not so lucky.
The war economy has set the standard for working conditions in mines throughout the DRC. Children as young as six years old still make up an estimated 40 percent of the mining workforce.
With foreign armies officially out of the picture in 2003, these corporations worked alongside the increasingly sophisticated military and commercial networks that came to dominate the mineral trade. The UN Panel of Experts reported that these networks, still overseen by top military and political chiefs in Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, as well as in the DRC government, had continued to extract mineral revenue through a combination of methods, including “embezzlement, tax fraud, extortion, the use of stock options as kickbacks and the diversion of state funds.” Rebel militias were among several contingents funneling profits from tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold to their foreign patrons. Rogue brigades of the FARDC (the Congolese army), meanwhile, secured their own mines, whose revenues provided troops with a supplement to their otherwise paltry income—many were not paid at all—and provided at least modest insurance against their defection to the other side.
The war economy has set the standard for working conditions in mines throughout the DRC. Over the past few years, media reports have drawn attention to places like Bisie, a massive tin mine in North Kivu where miners scratch ore out of the mud with their fingers, picks, and shovels. Some highly skilled miners lug sacks of ore to the surface through tunnels hundreds of feet deep, only to hand over the majority of their earnings to local toughs. When grim reports started surfacing from Bisie in 2008, the mine was controlled by a renegade battalion of the FARDC. “We provide security for the miners,” said the colonel in charge.
Control of Bisie has changed several times since, and conditions are now said to be improving. But across the Congo, children, some as young as six years old, still make up an estimated 40 percent of the mining workforce. Like the other miners, many of them are exposed to mercury, uranium, and other heavy metals; all of them lift heavy loads, breathe in toxic dust, and wade in murky water, leaving them vulnerable to a predictable assortment of health problems. Protective equipment and medical services are scarce.
Even conservative estimates suggest that the DRC was supplying some 20 to 30 percent of the world’s tantalum in the first decade of the twenty-first century—up to a third at the beginning of the decade—and analysts like Michael Nest affirm that conflict coltan has played a key role in keeping global tantalum prices down. Meanwhile, writes Nest, tantalum has been “partly responsible for the miniaturization of electronic devices and for the growth of markets for these products.” It follows that the increasing sophistication and profitability of the gadgets we buy has depended in part on the brutal regime of accumulation prevailing in the Congo.
If this labor exploitation has failed to put a damper on Silicon Valley’s proclamations about propelling the world economy into the cloud, it has nevertheless attracted a remarkable number of conscientious consumers in the Global North. From the Netherlands and Australia to the United Kingdom and the United States, campaigns linking our cell phones to atrocities in the DRC have drawn an unprecedented amount of attention to the conflict, producing all kinds of laws, industry initiatives, and liberal guilt around conflict minerals.*
In their successes, however, these campaigns have unleashed a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences that many Congolese activists argue have only exacerbated the country’s woes. The increasingly enthusiastic participation of major tech companies has done little to address the deeper causes of the conflict. Even if it outdoes the hollow “solutionism” that Silicon Valley has prescribed for all manner of social ills, the consumer- and corporate-driven approach to conflict minerals has so far fallen short as a strategy for peace in the Congo.
Take the dominant U.S. campaign against conflict minerals, led by the Enough Project. Founded in 2007 as part of the Center for American Progress, the Enough Project is a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group that seeks to “end genocide and crimes against humanity” in Africa. Its reports, publicity, and lobbying efforts around conflict minerals in the DRC have drawn consumers, legislators, and celebrities to the cause—including dozens of A-list “upstanders” highlighted on the Enough website—and created a platform that resonates with tech companies that fear being associated, however indirectly, with warlords, child soldiers, and mass rapes. Now the Enough Project has added to its list of achievements Intel’s “conflict-free” microprocessors, which it claims will pave the way for similar initiatives across the industry.
Along the way, Enough helped shape a seemingly obscure provision in the Dodd–Frank Act that has drastically affected the economy of eastern Congo. Signed into law in July 2010, Section 1502 of the sweeping financial reform bill requires any company registered on the U.S. stock exchange to disclose whether its products might contain conflict minerals from the DRC. The provision, and the 2012 SEC rule meant to enforce it, stop short of banning the use of such minerals, but U.S. companies got the message quickly. The most obvious solution was to stop sourcing minerals from the region altogether.
The backlash against la loi Obama—Obama’s law, as it is known to many in the Congo—has been fierce. “How Congress Devastated Congo,” read David Aronson’s August 2011 column in the New York Times, alleging that the law had placed a “de facto embargo” on the DRC’s minerals and cost thousands, if not millions, of artisanal miners their already paltry livelihoods. Fears quickly arose that some of these miners would join militias out of desperation. It didn’t help that Congolese president Joseph Kabila promptly one-upped U.S. legislators by imposing an embargo on minerals from North and South Kivu, in the form of a moratorium that lasted from September 2010 to March 2011.
This did not prevent continued mineral extraction and smuggling, as Enough noted on its blog; on the contrary, critics allege, it allowed the FARDC to expand its control of mines in the area. In December 2010—when the moratorium was in full force—Sara Geenen, a policy researcher at the University of Antwerp, observed at the Kamituga gold mine in South Kivu that FARDC and police units had installed themselves at a previously peaceful site under the premise of “securing the implementation of the president’s decision.” They allowed diggers to continue their work after paying a hefty “entrance fee,” in flagrant violation of the law. Some skilled miners refused to pay and instead attempted to mine clandestinely at night; one was shot and killed, prompting riots and further repression.
Kabila’s widely despised moratorium didn’t last, but the charges leveled against Dodd–Frank’s conflict minerals provision persist. Opponents of the bill have consistently complained that Congolese voices played no role in its drafting, and that it was the product of a top-down lobbying effort divorced from the interests of the people it was intended to help. Still, several Congolese organizations have come out in its favor—Enough marshaled over forty Congolese women’s and human rights groups in support—suggesting that it has provoked a real debate on the ground. For their part, critics like Aronson and his Congolese counterparts, in their insistence on the “bad jobs are better than no jobs” status quo, have found themselves aligned with U.S. business interests represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, who are fighting the Dodd–Frank rule in court. (You know things are bad when a representative from a respected peace group, speaking on a panel convened by a leading Congolese-American human rights organization, finds himself lamenting that children who used to work in the mines on their vacations are no longer able to.)
There is no question that much needs to change in the “artisanal” mines. But so far, the schemes being pushed by outside groups seem to have done more harm than good. Some of the most damning evidence against the boycott, in fact, has come from its key advocates. In an August 2012 report detailing its achievements, the Enough Project cited a 65 percent drop in armed groups’ profits from the trade in the “three Ts” over two years. But as researchers at the Goma, North Kivu–based Pole Institute have pointed out, Enough’s own figures point to an increase in the proportion of profits going to armed groups over this period. Mining profits are down overall, but legal miners have been worst affected. Those who have lost their jobs have probably found little comfort in Enough’s proposals to “empower miners” through U.S.-, EU-, and World Bank–sponsored development of construction and agriculture.
Perhaps most discouraging, though, is a May 2013 report by the UK-based organization Global Witness, another key advocate of the conflict minerals boycott. Under the mundane title “Putting Principles into Practice,” the report documents a situation that ought to give pause to even the most impassioned advocates of current supply chain certification efforts: an ongoing military smuggling racket at the Kalimbi mine in Nyabibwe, one of the “conflict-free” mines heralded by the Enough Project and U.S. media outlets as an exemplar of progress in the industry. According to the report,
Colonel Shaka, an FARDC commander (101st sector) stationed in Nyabibwe, is siphoning off a portion of minerals produced at Kalimbi before they enter the mineral tagging system. . . . Usually twice a month at night, the untagged cassiterite is smuggled out of the mine site and transported by military vehicles to Goma, where it is sold on for the Colonel’s profit. In December 2012, two tonnes of tin ore from Kalimbi was shipped [sic] to Goma via this network.
Neither the Enough Project nor the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative have addressed these allegations publicly, even though the Kalimbi mine, certified by the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative as part of a pilot “closed-pipe” supply chain, is among those that might supply the tin for Intel’s new microchips. If true, these reports would signal that the conflict minerals campaign has failed to achieve its most elemental goal—cutting off the flow of mineral revenue to armed groups—at one of its flagship mines. What does that say about its broader prospects for building peace?
For all its flaws, the conflict minerals approach has undeniably struck a nerve in a country whose history has exemplified the “resource curse.” Using this framework, groups like the Enough Project have done an impressive job of rallying international attention to the conflict. And the spotlight they have cast on labor exploitation in the electronics supply chain should be heartening to all who consider themselves progressives. Indeed, wages are said to have doubled at pilot “closed pipe” mines like Kalimbi, despite ongoing smuggling.
By painting foreign investors as the good guys in an otherwise bleak landscape of warlords and corrupt officials, even the most well-intentioned NGOs risk exacerbating rather than solving these problems.
The problem, according to Maurice Carney, executive director of Friends of the Congo, is that narrow advocacy around conflict minerals has promoted a convoluted and largely ineffective approach to peace and elided the deeper causes of the country’s misery. “It’s not a conflict-free Congo that this is about,” says Carney. “This is about a free Congo, a free and liberated Congo. The overwhelming majority of the country is not part of the conflict. But the whole country is impoverished and dependent.”
As Carney points out, conflict minerals only go so far toward explaining why a country that is arguably the world’s richest in terms of natural resources, holding an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral reserves, is instead the poorest: the IMF estimates that the average Congolese person makes about a dollar a day. A comprehensive approach to peace and justice in the Congo, for Carney, would require combating the structures that prevent the Congolese people from controlling their own affairs, including the foreign powers that have played the most consistent role in perpetuating the violence—starting with the military elites of Rwanda and Uganda and their international backers. Such an approach would also need to place more emphasis on building stronger Congolese social and political institutions from the grassroots up, rather than foregrounding the benevolence of a select few international actors.
If the criteria for “conflict-free” mines is merely that their profits not go to armed groups, then this framework sets the bar for accountability not too high—as critics on the right have argued—but far too low. “Conflict-free” does not mean free of child labor, which is ubiquitous throughout the country, including in the copper belt to the south. It certainly doesn’t mean free of health hazards, environmental damage, and poverty wages. Nor does not it mean free of corrupt privatization deals and land grabs, like the one that granted Arizona-based copper and gold giant Freeport-McMoRan an extremely generous concession to the massive Tenke Fungurume mine—a site twice the size of Kinshasa—in the copper-rich province of Katanga in the early 2000s.
By painting foreign investors as the good guys in an otherwise bleak landscape of warlords and corrupt officials, even the most well-intentioned NGOs risk exacerbating rather than solving these problems. The Enough Project is eager to work with corporations seeking to increase their stake in the Congo, provided they insulate themselves from the conflict and forego the worst abuses of some of their predecessors in the area. Enough’s senior policy analyst, Sasha Lezhnev, touts that Congolese minerals are still the cheapest around even if you “check every box in terms of due diligence,” and he would like to see more investors seize the opportunity.
One of the group’s main corporate partners is Banro, a Canadian firm with four major mining concessions in South Kivu that has no doubt been diligent about checking all the boxes. The company’s 2012 Corporate Sustainability Report portrays its signature project, the Twangiza industrial gold mine, as a resounding triumph for the local community, providing not only jobs but also new schools, health care services, and roads, thanks to the Banro Foundation. A closer read of the report suggests that less than half of the 3,000 jobs the project generated were permanent, and few of the permanent positions, although most went to Congolese citizens, benefited the local population. Meanwhile, the company is struggling to push back some 3,000 artisanal miners who continue to dig on the perimeter of the concession.
Still more illuminating than Banro’s 2012 brochure is its 2009 Feasibility Study of the Twangiza project, which conceded that the mine’s profitability hinges on a ten-year tax holiday and exemption from import duty, granted when Banro acquired the concession in 1997. (Banro’s entry into the region at this stage, like AngloGold Ashanti’s a few years later, landed it on the UN Panel of Experts’ list of companies violating OECD guidelines. Neither company has faced sanctions for its wartime abuses.) In addition, Banro has the uncommon advantage of owning the Twangiza mine outright, while most other foreign miners continue to cede at least a nominal ownership stake to one of the DRC’s three major state-owned mining companies.
Maurice Carney is not impressed with Banro’s—and Enough’s—promises for the Congo. Even if the conflict minerals campaign does not simply provide “a cover for U.S. allies and Western mining interests” in the DRC, as he and his colleagues have argued, Enough’s corporate partnerships underscore the neoliberal assumptions that undergird the campaign. Echoing Silicon Valley’s “companies over countries” ethos, Enough prioritizes corporate-driven reform schemes at the expense of the kinds of systemic change that the DRC needs. As the Pole Institute’s Dominic Johnson notes, industry-led supply chain transparency initiatives inadvertently provide a way for the Congolese state to further deflect responsibility for the protection of its people. With the Kabila regime already relying on what the International Crisis Group has called “governance by substitution”—wherein UN peacekeepers prop up the army, Western NGOs provide social services, and corporations, along with the Chinese, build infrastructure—this is the last thing the DRC needs.
With neither a labor movement to guide them nor a responsible government to keep them in check, industry-led reform schemes risk providing an even greater foothold for corporate interests in what remains a crisis zone. If the current trend continues, tech companies like Intel and Motorola will continue to reap the good press from supply chain reform, while the less visible players—mining corporations, politicians, and the savviest of the smugglers and military elites—will take home the lion’s share of the profits. Armed groups, if they are not thwarted by political or military means, will turn to other sources of funding. And the vast majority of Congolese people will once again get left behind.
There’s a long way to go before phrases like “resource sovereignty,” championed by advocates like Carney, will have any substance for Congolese miners. Decent models of mineral extraction exist—for example, “fairmining,” modeled on Fair Trade, which seeks to foster cooperatives of artisanal miners and train them in sustainable practices rather than replacing them with mechanized strip mines—but it is easy to understand why they have fallen low on the DRC’s list of priorities. By virtually all accounts, strengthening legitimate government institutions is the most fundamental first step toward any measure of justice in the DRC.
That might sound daunting. And with Kabila set to remain in power until 2016 after his fraudulent reelection in 2011, few Congolese are holding their breath. But a few clear demands would go a long way toward setting the country—from the halls of power in Kinshasa to the artisanal mines of North Kivu—on the right track.
The first step toward justice is peace, which, for the first time in several years, seems within reach—not because of advocacy around conflict minerals but because of tougher UN peacekeeping and new diplomatic pressure on Rwanda from the Global North. The suspension of U.S. military aid to the Kagame regime as of 2012 has been central to this, but it has not reversed two decades of impunity. If young people in the Global North hope to help sustain the fragile peace in the DRC, says Kambale Musavuli, a student organizer with Friends of the Congo, they would be better off using their cell phones to call their representatives and demand further sanctions on Rwanda than fretting about the minerals inside them.
With peace on the horizon, it’s also time to revive the topic of reparations for the DRC, a proposal that has been floated periodically by international authorities and the Kabila government but has as yet amounted to nothing. A comprehensive reparations program would implicate not only Rwanda, Uganda, and other regional powers but the corporations that have taken advantage of Congolese resources throughout the conflict. It might start with those who have allegedly racked up some $3.7 billion in unpaid taxes and fines over the past five years for their operations in the province of Katanga alone.
The sums owed to the Congolese government by both foreign and national elites—not to mention the funds siphoned off by its own power brokers—make the $1 billion loan granted by the World Bank last May look paltry. Even without tackling all corruption, a renewed push for reparations could help steer Congolese development away from reliance on foreign capital—whether in the form of loans or private investment—and toward collective self-determination. Carney points to Latin America for examples of successful resistance to privatization and efforts at collective resource management that could provide a model for the DRC.
Ultimately, though, the momentum for such a transformation can only come from the Congolese people themselves. “Congo is in dire need of a civil rights movement,” says Musavuli. And here, again, technology has a role to play. Perhaps the crowning irony of “conflict minerals” is that, in a country that supplies the materials to keep so many of us connected, less than 2 percent of the population has access to the Internet. Through new community and tech centers across the country, Congolese youth groups are seeking to change this and foster the kinds of awareness, communication, and solidarity that social movements demand. Could they help spark the kind of radical change that the DRC needs? As long as they don’t forget the miners, they just might.
Colin Kinniburgh is an editor at Dissent.
*The number of supply chain monitoring initiatives alone—from the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidelines to the Ger-man BGR’s Certified Trading Chains to USAID’s Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade to the electronics industry–based EICC/GeSI Conflict-Free Smelter Scheme to the ICGLR’s Regional Certification Mechanism to Motorola’s Solutions for Hope—has become almost as dizzying as the list of armed groups involved in the conflict.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece attributed the phrase “governance by substitution” to a blog post by the International Rescue Committee, when the post was in fact published by the International Crisis Group.