Friday, June 12, 2009

Minerals Are the Problem, but Can they Be the Solution?

The Enough Project, an American advocacy organization, and Resource Consulting Services, a British research firm, recently published dueling papers about the role of minerals in fueling the conflict in the Congo. Enough, which attempts to galvanize a domestic constituency to oppose genocide and mass murder, says there’s a “strong and undeniable” link between electronic devices such as cell phones, whose manufacture requires minerals found in eastern Congo (among other places), and the horrifying level of rape and violence in that region. They call on consumers to demand that electronics companies make sure that their products contain only conflict-free minerals. RCS argues that the proliferation of violence in the region is a manifestation of the Congolese government’s failure to control its territory. They call for a broad-based, bottom-up effort to rebuild the state by incorporating the various stakeholders into a legitimate, formal economy. The RCS report, which appeared a few weeks after Enough’s did, repudiates the American group’s apparent call for a boycott of conflict minerals. It argues that a boycott would harm the region’s million or so subsistence miners while doing little to address the conflict’s root causes.

First, a little background. Africa’s first continental war began in 1998, after the man the Rwandans picked to replace Mobutu, Laurent Kabila, spurned his patrons mere months after they had installed him in Kinshasa. Piqued, Rwandan president Paul Kagame launched a swift and devastating response, and it was only with the timely intercession of Angolan troops that Kabila was able to secure his capital. Years of low-intensity warfare left the country variously bisected, trisected or more, as the two invading powers, Rwanda and Uganda, established and dissolved proxy militia whose opportunistic alliances even experts need flashcards to keep straight. Eventually, Rwanda, the main antagonist, agreed to withdraw, but not before the eastern third of Congo had become virtually ungovernable, as Hobbesian a place as Somalia or the tribal areas of Afghanistan. Although the level of inter-military violence was never particularly high, the disruptions caused by the war brought about levels of mortality unseen anywhere since World War II. The International Rescue Committee’s detailed studies suggest that five million more people have died in the Congo than would have died had there been no war, and that the Congo continues to experience some 45,000 excess deaths each month. Another troubling development has been a sharp rise in the incidence of rape. Exact figures on this are impossible to ascertain, but the UN says that at least 27,000 women were raped in South Kivu in 2006 alone; the NGO Care says that at least 400 women are raped each month; and journalists sometimes estimate that there have been more than 100,000 victims in the last few years. Indeed, violent rape requiring surgical intervention has become the war's signature contribution to the world's litany of horrors.

So how to assess these two organizations’ competing claims? Start with an uncontroversial observation: The wars in the Congo have been fueled by a quest to control the country’s vast mineral deposits. Those deposits include diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, tin, tungsten, coltan, and an array of other valuable minerals—as many as 1,100 others, according to the World Bank. RCS estimates that armed groups, including a wayward offshoot of the Congolese army, pulled in some $180 million last year from the taxation and sale of these minerals. For some of the armed groups the mineral wealth has been fortuitous, a way to provision themselves while they pursue their political agenda; for others, the goal all along has been plunder. Experts continue to debate the proportion of greed and creed motivating the various antagonists. But most would agree that the wars wouldn't be nearly as intense and intractable if eastern Congo were merely a well-irrigated landscape of cassava fields interspersed with tea and quinine plantations, rather than the geographical prodigy that it is.

This observation may not be controversial, but in practice it has often been overlooked. For the past decade, much of the gray literature on the DRC was driven by the “spillover” metaphor. In this view, the ex-genocidaires who took refuge in eastern Congo after Paul Kagame defeated the genocidal Rwandan government in 1994 posed an existential threat to the new regime. Their continuing presence in Congo, and the Congolese government’s failure to contain them, explained and justified the Rwandan army’s repeated incursions into Congolese territory. Few have been more prominent in propagating this view than the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, who reprised it in a recent article about the reconciliation process in Rwanda, but the International Crisis Group, the Enough Project, and the U.S. Institute of Peace have all published analyses of the war that omit any serious discussion of the role that mineral wealth has played in fueling it.

That omission always struck me as unfortunate. During the Rwandan–spearheaded overthrow of Mobutu in 1996-97, the Rwandan army hunted down and exterminated tens of thousands of ex-genocidaires, their kin, and innocent Hutu non-combatants. But after that, Rwanda seemed to lose interest in chasing down the remaining ex-genocidaires, a group comprised mostly of young Hutu who weren't old enough to have participated in the original genocide. From 1998 to 2003, during Rwanda’s quasi-official occupation of eastern Congo, the Rwandan army rarely engaged its former enemies in combat, and sometimes even collaborated with them on mining operations. In 2000 and 2001, Rwandan forces waged pitched battles against the Ugandan army for control of gold mines on the outskirts of Kisangani, a river town in north-central Congo. Thousands of Congolese civilians died in the crossfire. Uganda was Rwanda’s erstwhile ally in the war against Kabila, and Kisangani is a thousand kilometers from any population of ex-genocidaires. So it would be as if the United States, having invaded Iraq, started cutting business deals with al Qaeda but killed thousands of Iraqi bystanders in a battle against the British for control of the oil fields of Kirkuk. For their part, the ex-genocidaires launched only a handful of derisory attacks on targets inside of Rwanda after 1997, and to my knowledge haven’t launched any since 2001. They do, however, continue to prey on Congolese civilians, and are among the worst of the militia terrorizing the innocent in eastern Congo.

It is a measure of the continuing guilt that some Westerners feel about the genocide—or more accurately, that they believe the West incurred for failing to prevent the genocide—that there is still such a reluctance to call out the Rwandans for their activities in the Congo. (The Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who as commander of the UN troops in Rwanda in 1994 is one of the few Westerners to have genuinely experienced remorse, has not hesitated to criticize Rwanda's actions in the DRC.) It is surprising, too, that some research and advocacy organizations took so long to recognize the salience of mineral wealth to the ongoing strife in the region. The information was certainly available. The definitive research on Rwanda's role in trafficking Congolese minerals and supporting rebel groups has been done by UN panels of experts in a succession of reports dating from 2001. In 2001 Blaine Harden published a vivid story in the New York Times magazine detailing the travails of a Congolese madam catering to coltan miners, and Global Witness, a British advocacy group that focuses on conflict resources, produced its first report on the DRC in 2004.

Meanwhile, in a series of papers beginning in 1999, Paul Collier and his colleagues at the World Bank pioneered the intellectual framework for a political economy approach to Africa’s civil wars. Collier’s insight was that the likelihood of a civil war in any given African country depends on the feasibility of rebellion. Like any good scientific thesis, this one came with confirmable hypotheses--for example, that countries with weak states and plenty of dispersed pockets of wealth are more likely to experience civil war. Another was that the grievances of the rebel (or invading) militia would be largely pretextual. If you accept, as I have argued here (and elsewhere for much of the last decade), that Rwanda's incursions since 1998 have been driven more by greed that grievance--more by the lure of minerals than the desire to protect itself from the remnants of the ex-genocidaires--then the Congo would seem to be a perfect illustration of Collier's argument. The clarity of this line of thought persuaded many of us (including myself), to look into ways of closing off or sanctioning the rebels' financing. Endless rounds of diplomacy would accomplish little, we argued, since the differences between the various antagonists weren't the main reason they were at war; but if we cut off their source of income the rebellions would shrivel up.

Enough, along with the International Crisis Group, was one of the laggards in focusing on the mineral connection; for years it largely promoted the spillover view of the conflict. As recently as December, 2008, for example, Enough was writing that "Dismantling the FDLR [ex-genocidaires] would force the CNDP, the Congolese government, and the Rwandan government to negotiate solutions to the other major tensions driving the conflict." (It never explained how: a bogeyman doesn't have to be real to be frightening.) Their current position, that “the deadly nexus between the worst violence against women in the world and the purchase of electronics products containing conflict minerals from the Congo is direct and undeniable,” may not explicitly contradict their earlier analysis, but it constitutes a welcome and overdue change of emphasis.

That said, there is something disproportionate between the rhetoric the Enough Campaign uses to discuss the Congo’s woes and the recommendations it makes to help resolve them. I noted earlier that RCS framed its paper in opposition to Enough’s apparent proposal to boycott Congolese conflict resources. It is easy to see why RCS believed a boycott to be Enough’s principal recommendation. Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of their Activist Brief:

The time has come to expose a sinister reality: Our insatiable demand for electronics products such as cell phones and laptops is helping fuel waves of sexual violence in a place that most of us will never go, affecting people most of us will never meet. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the scene of the deadliest conflict globally since World War II. There are few other conflicts in the world where the link between our consumer appetites and mass human suffering is so direct.
This reality is not the result of an elaborate cover-up, either. Most electronic companies and consumers genuinely do not appreciate the complex chain of events that ties widespread sexual violence in Congo with the minerals that power our cell phones, laptops, mp3 players, video games, and digital cameras.
[N]ow that we are beginning to understand these linkages, we need to do all we can to expose them and bring this deadly war fuelled by “conflict minerals” to an end. As a start, the Enough Project has worked with other like-minded groups to create a conflict minerals pledge that commits electronics companies to ensure their products are conflict-free.

Since any mineral emerging from the eastern DRC almost certainly makes profits for one or several of the militias on its way from a Congolese pit to a port on Africa's Indian Ocean, most readers might assume that Enough is calling for a boycott of all of eastern Congo's minerals. That was certainly my first impression. Enough insists, however, that it is aware of the pitfalls of a boycott and is simply calling for greater due diligence. “This is not something that can happen overnight,” said David Sullivan, one of Enough’s analysts. “We are committed to ending conflict minerals down the road, but we think a lot can be done by companies leveraging their purchasing power and expertise to bring greater transparency to the supply chain.”

The challenges a group like Enough faces must be considerable. It can’t be easy to arouse public indignation over events that occur in obscure places. To find ways of channeling that concern into productive political action must be harder still. Yet I can’t help but feel that after issuing such a roar, Enough has given birth to something of a mouse. What do we want? Greater transparency in the supply chain linking the minerals produced in eastern Congo to consumer electronic companies! When do we want it? At some point in the future, provided that the transparency we seek doesn’t have the inadvertent effect of dampening demand for Congolese minerals or contributing to the further immiseration of Congolese miners! Hard to put that on a bumper sticker; harder still to imagine how such a modest, finely threaded recommendation could have a major impact on the situation in Congo. In the end, I’m left wondering if Enough would have made consumer electronics their principal focus had they found more promising ways of personalizing the issue and galvanizing public concern.

Resource Consulting Services is in the happier position of having to draw up its recommendations for a much narrower group, the professionals in the NGO and government communities whose remit the Congo is. Their primary recommendation is to convene “an independently facilitated, solutions- and action-oriented multi-stakeholder dialogue,” whose purpose would be to “ground policy makers in the reality of what can and cannot be achieved, and ensure [that] interventions are aligned with local stakeholders’ priorities and perspectives.” If all that sounds like a mouthful, it is. RCS has done some excellent, even outstanding, research on the sociology and economics of mining camps in eastern Congo, but its language in this report can be labored, as in its call for a “political process that will inspire the creation of political institutions that can transform the incentive systems for economic actors.” The report also has a disconcerting, lapel-grabbing habit of assuring its readers that it is “grounded in reality,” or that its proposed reform process “can be achieved.”

The premise of the report is that the Congo’s resources can become a force for development, “both because they sustain livelihoods, and because they are the principal source of revenue for states to finance security, social services and infrastructure.” They argue that the way to harness these resources is to formalize the mineral trade. And the way to do that, they say, is to bring stakeholders together, help them recognize that there are more profitable ways to arrange their relationships, and then help them forge those new arrangements through a joint, consensual process.

This strikes me as optimistic. Only a few developed states, where the rule of law was already well-entrenched, have been able to use their resources for the public’s benefit. (Botswana being, as always, the notable exception.) Most third world states endowed with natural resources have become corrupt and dysfunctional, as elites, liberated from constituent political pressure, compete among themselves for a piece of the state’s “windfall” resource revenues. Political scientists have developed a wealth of terminology for such states: patrimonial, prebendal, parasitic and predatory, to mention only the "P"s. The Congolese state under Mobutu was the poster child for this sort of dysfunction, and there is little evidence that the current Congolese government is much of an improvement.

This, in the end, is the reason I find RCS’s proposals unconvincing: they rest on an overly benign view of the Congolese government. Nicholas Garrett, one of RCS's researchers, thinks the jury is still out on Kabila. “The development of the Congo could go either way,” he wrote to me. “One thing for sure is that the Congolese state will remain ineffective if the international community shies away from developmentally effective engagement.” I think this formulation gets it backwards. Some eight years after Kabila fils took power, the Congo remains a dysfunctional mess, incapable of the minimal functions of a state. It can’t gather taxes; it can’t retain, account for, or expend the taxes it does collect; and it’s done nothing constructive on the development front, despite one of the great boons in global commodity prices. Above all, it’s proven utterly incapable of fielding an army willing to take on the enemy rather than its own defenseless citizens. Stipulate that the Congolese government is an impediment to progress, at least in its current incarnation, and the question becomes: What can we do to help the many Congolese who are working to improve their lot if their own state is more of an adversary than a partner?

RCS and Enough both gesture in the direction of answering this question, and their answers are similar--but sketchy. Both recognize that the Congolese government’s inability to control its territory is a basic system failure, and both insist on the need for security sector reform. Neither group, however, provides much detail on how to accomplish that goal, and I for one can't see it happening. The Congolese government doesn’t care enough to make the effort, and would probably view it as a threat more than an opportunity. (I am reliably told, for example, that the chief of the police and security forces is a flat-out psychopath.) Both groups argue that MONUC—the 18,000-soldier UN peacekeeping mission to the Congo—should consider seizing the more significant mines and placing them under international administration. I’ve been advocating that idea for years; in 2005 I pressed then-MONUC chief William Swing about its feasibility during one of his visits to DC. He was reluctant to pursue the idea, perhaps because it would have greatly expanded the burden on his troops, never particularly competent to begin with. In any case, I have since learned from RCS that many of the mines are small, artisanal pits, easy to construct and abandon, and correspondingly difficult to police. This is especially true of the gold “mines” operated by the ex-genocidaires. So the perverse effect of seizing some mines might be increase the relative strength of the most negative forces in the region. Both, finally, endorse the notion of conducting an extensive mapping operation to provide a full picture of the region’s mineral trade.

There has been a plethora of work recently on Congolese minerals. I mentioned the UN, which has documented the extent of Rwandan involvement in the trade in one damning report after another, most recently in a much-lauded report published in December 2008. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued reports focused on specific instances of abuse arising from conflict minerals. Other groups that have done excellent work on the topic include Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) out of South Africa (but funded by Soros), Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), and the Belgian International Peace Information Service (IPIS). As far as I know, however, none of these groups go as far as Enough and RCS have in attempting to conceptualize how the minerals could be 'instrumentalized" for peace.

In testimony to Enough's lobbying power, a handful of US senators sponsored a bill in May that would require U.S. companies to track and disclose the country of origin of minerals used in common electronic products. If the bill passes, companies will face an unpleasant choice: either disclose that they are helping fund militia groups operating in the DRC, or demand that their suppliers purchase minerals from more expensive sources. It will be interesting to see if Enough has the strength to take on the consumer electronic industry and move this bill through to passage.

I have been insisting for so long on the importance of the mineral trade that I feel ungrateful for wondering, now that attention is being paid, if the focus on minerals provides the best way of addressing the Congo’s problems. But thinking about these two papers makes me question whether we've taken a hold of the right end of the bat. Unlike RCS, I don’t believe that local actors can ever incorporate themselves into an effective administration; their interests are too kaleidoscopic and contradictory. Unlike Enough, I don’t believe that a focus on the supply chain will take us very far. It may not be what they intended, but by thoughtfully laying out the opposing strategies for confronting the mineral trade, the Enough and RCS papers suggest the limits of a mineral-centric strategy for rebuilding peace in the Congo.

But if neither restricting nor engaging the trade is likely to help, then what is? Collier’s observation that the incidence of civil war reflects the feasibility of rebellion led many of us to foreground the mineral trade. But while resources may make rebellions feasible, it is weak states that make them possible. It is routinely noted that the Congolese government lacks the capacity and will to effectively control its territory and maintain a monopoly of violence. Until it starts behaving like an effective state, the Congo cannot be at peace. No amount of calling upon, enticing, or bullying the Congolese government will convince it to transform itself from a patrimonial, rentier, state to a modern, development-oriented state. The Congolese government is what it is; until a new administration comes to power, not much is likely to change.

That leaves the international community. It already has a substantial presence in eastern Congo in the form of the 18,000 MONUC troops. The total bill for maintaining those troops exceeds one billion dollars a year, of which the United States contributes over a quarter. That is a tremendous amount of money, but it is magnitudes less than what the US spends on Iraq or Afghanistan, countries whose main claim on our attention is that they harbored potential enemies. A cynic might wonder if Congolese are destined to suffer because their people never hated us enough, despite our having imposed on them a dictator who robbed them blind for thirty years. Surely our historical responsibilities--and the sheer magnitude of their distress--dictate a larger response. My main recommendation, then, is simply this: for the international community to leverage MONUC into an international gendarmerie, with troops capable of enforcing order as well as peace. And my second recommendation would be to establish a bureaucracy that auctions the region's mineral wealth on the open market and uses the revenues to fund infrastructure projects and social services.

Are these realistic recommendations, in the sense of having a good chance of being adopted? Probably not, at least at the moment. The Obama administration appears no more willing to expend political capital on purely humanitarian concerns abroad than any previous presidential administration. And the Europeans rebuffed Ban Ki Moon's request for 3,000 additional troops for MONUC in December 2008. But it seems to me to be a mistake to calibrate your recommendations to what you think is politically feasible. How useful is it to propose "enactable" recommendations if they're not enough to get the job done? Better to say what’s needed, without considering the politics involved, and then work to convince the world that what’s necessary is worth the effort and expense. There are no shortcuts, no royal roads, to peace in the Congo. And there’s just no substitute for a state.

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