In the past six months, there’s been a concerted push by the Congo activist community to focus on the exploitation of natural resources by various armed groups and foreign governments operating in the region. Roughly modeled on the campaign to end the use of “conflict diamonds,” the idea is that it’s possible to end – or at least slow – the conflict in the Congo by cutting demand for minerals like tin, cassiterite and coltan in the global market.
Because many of the armed groups rely on access to the mines to earn money to buy weapons, the reasoning goes that if consumers in the West push electronics manufacturers to stop sourcing these minerals for their products, it will choke off the money flow to the armed groups. This will presumably convince the soldiers, rebels and bandits to go to U.N. demobilization camps and turn in their weapons. They return to life as peasant farmers and – voilÃ ! – we have peace.
The worst of these efforts suggest that shutting down the conflict mineral trade will more or less immediately end the use of rape as a weapon of war. Others take a more nuanced approach, recognizing that shutting down the mines or transferring control will create all kinds of livelihood problems for the families who depend on salaries from the mines, among the host of other challenges. What all of these efforts have in common is a view that the resource dimension is a central engine of the Congo conflicts.
I disagree. I don’t view the wars in the eastern Congo as resource wars in the academic sense. Violence over access to resources is one dimension of the fighting there, but the roots of the conflict are much more about land tenure and citizenship questions than they are about who gets access to minerals like tin, cassiterite, coltan and gold. The fight over the minerals is an effect of these underlying crises, not the primary, or even tertiary, cause of most of the fighting.
Compounding the fight over who gets to be a legal citizen and what extremely fertile and therefore valuable land belongs to whom is the total lack of state capacity in the eastern Congo, especially in highly contested territories like Masisi and Rutshuru. It’s not a coincidence that population density is highest in these areas. The land produces harvests up to three times per year and serves as the regional breadbasket when the situation is calm. Ranching operations supply the region with meat, coffee plantations grow the distinctive central African arabica Bourbon coffee bean, and the dairy farms produce the best cheese on the continent, hands down.
There’s no question that the mineral trade finances the operations of some of the armed groups in the region and that some people are getting very, very rich as a result of their involvement with the mines. But fighting would continue even if the mines were empty. Cheap weapons will still flow freely through the region’s porous borders. Women will still be raped.
That’s because the fundamental problem in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is the total breakdown of law and order. Soldiers from every militant group rape and loot and burn down villages because they can. It’s a way of terrorizing innocent civilians. Sometimes the motive is access to minerals, but more often, it’s about land ownership disputes, ethnicity or the fact that when drunken teenage boys are given weapons and not fed regularly, they’re likely to behave badly.
All of the people involved in Congo advocacy are rightfully horrified at what happens to women and girls in eastern Congo. But presenting the solution in stark terms (“If we just end the resource trade, the rapes will end.”) is misleading, inaccurate and dangerous. It suggests that the Congo’s problems are simple. It suggests that there’s a remote possibility of slowing down worldwide demand for the superconductors that power our mobile phones and LCD screens, a prospect I find highly unlikely. And it makes it easier for policy makers and those in positions of influence to continue to ignore the land conflicts and citizenship issues that started the conflicts in the first place. The international community has tried that approach for 10 years now, and it hasn’t worked.
At its heart, the focus on conflict minerals is a Western effort, not a Congolese one. Is another internationally proposed solution that ignores the ideas of the very people whom advocates purport to help really what the Congolese people want and need? I have discussed security issues with hundreds of Congolese individuals over the years. Not one has ever said, “You know, the best way to solve our problems would be to shut down the mines.” No one ever mentions the mines. Instead, they talk about the need to develop effective policing and security forces. Or the fact that trying to secure the World’s Deadliest Spot with 17,000 peacekeepers when 300,000 troops weren’t enough to subdue Iraq is just insane.
Why is it so hard for the international community to listen to these well-informed, local voices?
Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This column is from her blog, Texas in Africa.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.