Monday, August 8, 2011

The New York Times Op-Ed

For an even more critical view of the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals provisions than mine, see TexasinAfrica.

For a good interview with Eric Kajemba, the NGO leader mentioned at the end of this editorial, see CongoSiasa.

It is probably worth mentioning that while I and a lot of other scholars and students of African affairs are deeply concerned about Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, regarding conflict minerals, we generally favor Section 1504 , which requires American companies to disclose the payments they make to foreign governments.

How Congress Devastated Congo

IT’S a long way from the marble halls of Congress to the ailing mining towns of eastern Congo, but the residents of Nyabibwe and Nzibira know exactly what’s to blame for their economic woes.
The “Loi Obama” or Obama Law — as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act of 2010 has become known in the region — includes an obscure provision that requires public companies to indicate what measures they are taking to ensure that minerals in their supply chain don’t benefit warlords in conflict-ravaged Congo. The provision came about in no small part because of the work of high-profile advocacy groups like the Enough Project and Global Witness, which have been working for an end to what they call “conflict minerals.”
Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank law has had unintended and devastating consequences, as I saw firsthand on a trip to eastern Congo this summer. The law has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in the region, including tin, tungsten and the tantalum that is essential for making cellphones.
The smelting companies that used to buy from eastern Congo have stopped. No one wants to be tarred with financing African warlords — especially the glamorous high-tech firms like Apple and Intel that are often the ultimate buyers of these minerals. It’s easier to sidestep Congo than to sort out the complexities of Congolese politics — especially when minerals are readily available from other, safer countries.
For locals, however, the law has been a catastrophe. In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.
The pastor at one church told me that women were giving birth at home because they couldn’t afford the $20 or so for the maternity clinic. Children are dropping out of school because parents can’t pay the fees. Remote mining towns are virtually cut off from the outside world because the planes that once provisioned them no longer land. Most worrying, a crop disease periodically decimates the region’s staple, cassava. Villagers who relied on their mining income to buy food when harvests failed are beginning to go hungry.
Meanwhile, the law is benefiting some of the very people it was meant to single out. The chief beneficiary is Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is nicknamed The Terminator and is sought by the International Criminal Court. Ostensibly a member of the Congolese Army, he is in fact a freelance killer with his own ethnic Tutsi militia, which provides “security” to traders smuggling minerals across the border to neighboring Rwanda.
All this might be a price worth paying if the law were having its intended effect of economically asphyxiating the warlords who turned eastern Congo into the deadliest conflict zone since World War II. As Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat for whom the act is partly named, memorably put it, “The purpose is to cut off funding to people who kill people.”
But by the time President Obama signed the law last summer, the conflict had moved into a different phase. Most of the militias that wreaked havoc between 2003 and 2008 have since been incorporated into the Congolese Army. The two or three of any significance that remain get their money from kidnapping and extortion, not from controlling mining sites or transport routes. The law has not stopped their depredations.
The people of eastern Congo agree that it would be beneficial to bring greater clarity and transparency to the mineral trade. A variety of local and international initiatives to do so were under way when the embargo hit. Those efforts may now become a casualty of the Dodd-Frank law.
The Chinese have recently opened a trading post in North Kivu; they make cellphones as well, and don’t feel the need to participate in transparency schemes the way Western companies do. And because they know they’re the only market in town, they are buying at a steep discount.
Rarely do local miners, high-level traders, mining companies and civil society leaders agree on an issue. But in eastern Congo, they were unanimous in condemning Dodd-Frank. The Rev. Didier de Failly, a Belgian priest who has lived in Congo for 45 years, insistently warned Western advocacy groups of the dangers posed by their campaign. He told them it was no defense for them to claim that they weren’t proposing an embargo, since what they were doing would inevitably lead to one.
But once the advocacy groups succeeded in framing the debate as a contest between themselves and greedy corporate interests, no one bothered to solicit the opinion of local Congolese.  As the leader of a civil-society group, Eric Kajemba, asked me, more in confusion than in anger, “If the advocacy groups aren’t speaking for the people of eastern Congo, whom are they speaking for?”

David Aronson is a freelance journalist and blogger focusing on Central Africa.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Why didn't you mention that the Congolese government, not Congress, banned the mineral trade? That was the key causal factor, but it didn't fit with your analysis of blame the NGOs, so you left it out. Incredibly sloppy. It was not a de facto embargo--it was de jure!

  3. Dear Mr. Aronson,
    Your op-ed from the NYT was sent to me by my friend in Brazil--what a small world.

    I collect anecdotes that I call "Unintended Consequences," and would like to write about them, seriously, at a later time.

    To use your topic as an illustration, could I quote your article upon proper attribution?

    Please let me know.

    Thank you. R. Peterson, Kansas City

  4. Author Peter Eichstaedt concurs exactly with your argument in his book CONSUMING THE CONGO: WAR AND CONFLICT MINERALS IN THE WORLD'S DEADLIEST PLACE (

  5. Mr. Aronson,

    This was a terrific read. I work for a satellite radio show in NYC. We focus on international issues and am interested in having you appear on our program. Please email me at We would like to have show on the unintended consequences of aid.

  6. Dear Mr. Aronson,
    Thank you for raising these important points about the negative effects uninformed foreign policies can have on the poor. I recently raised many of the points that your article highlights at the OECD - essentially that if you have a top down approach like Dodd-Frank, (or soon the OECD's version) then the small miner will be the one who pays because they are the least capable to follow any kind of due diligence... My presentation is available on the OECD web site: ( I direct an organisation called the Artisanal Gold Council - we are a field based operation trying to help poor miners capture the development opportunity that mineral wealth provides.

    Kevin Telmer, Artisanal Gold Council

  7. To R. Peterson: yes, no problem.
    To Susan and Kevin: Thank you for those references. I look forward to reading them.
    To Scott: It's true that the Congolese government banned the trade in minerals in October 2010, and didn't lift it until March 2011. But Congolese mineral traders were pretty much ignoring the ban by December 2010. It wasn't until the smelting companies stopped buying in April or May as a result of Dodd-Frank that they really hit a brick wall.

  8. Great job, David. This oped was long overdue.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments. Please see the Global Witness website for the latest from us on this debate: