In light of the all the press about the Conflict Minerals Trade Act and a series of breathless press releases over the passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, why on earth do advocates think that passing legislation in the United States will end violence in Africa?

In the case of the conflict minerals legislation, the idea is that violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) can be mitigated by creating an auditing and certification system for the mineral supply chains.

I’ve already explained at length why I think this won’t work: The complexity of the mineral trade in the eastern DRC and the lack of accountable political institutions that can enforce auditing and certification systems make it an exercise in futility.

In addition, as we’ve discussed ad nauseum, ad infinitum, the mineral trade is not the root cause of violence in the eastern DRC. What’s happening there is not a resource war and it never has been. Regulating the supply chains and pressuring electronics companies not to use DRC minerals will not solve the disputes over land and citizenship that predate the wars and the Rwandan genocide and that continue to drive violence today.

The LRA Disarmament Act has already been signed into law by President Obama. This legislation requires the administration to come up with a strategy for mitigating the effects of the LRA’s activities (which, it should be remembered, are currently centered not in Uganda, but in the DRC). It also expresses the “sense of Congress” that aid should be withheld from Uganda’s government if it fails to move the reconciliation and reconstruction processes in the north forward.

What both of these pieces of legislation have in common – besides “Africa” – is a sense of optimism about the possibilities for American engagement in longstanding conflicts.

I don’t share this optimism. Why? Because I can’t think of a single instance where American legislation actually led to the end of a foreign conflict. The South Africa divestment legislation of the mid-1980s seems like the closest case, but as I understand it, experts on the country are divided on whether the U.S. law itself was the real catalyst for the end of apartheid.

Pushing for legislation seems to be the “good intentions are enough” motif writ large. After all, horrible things happen in the world. Advocates assume that the might and power of the United States, backed by a genuine desire to help, can actually make a difference.

In some cases it can. Here’s what U.S. legislation can do: fund programs, provide humanitarian aid and development assistance, and encourage changes to be made.

But U.S. legislation – especially legislation based on a fundamental misreading of a conflict – cannot mitigate the effects of nonfunctional, extremely weak institutions. It cannot change the fact that some governments may not want to end violence in their territories. It cannot change the problem that foreign governments may not see the threat of losing aid as being nearly as serious as the threat of losing power.

The fact is, even as a global superpower, the United States can’t do everything. Legislating to end Africa’s conflicts strikes me as something that sounds good on paper but will do little to help anyone in the end.

Instead of wasting time and effort on ineffective legislation, it might be better to undertake a serious process of reforming our entire approach to African conflicts by building institutions and recognizing that, in the end, these may not be our problems to solve.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column was adapted from her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”

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