The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did cutting access to mineral wealth reduce violence in the DRC?

One of the most underreported stories about conflict in Africa of the past few months involves the demise of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebel movement.  M23 (started by a group of disgruntled Congolese army soldiers who used to be part of another rebel movement called the CNDP) was led by mostly ethnically Tutsi Congolese and had as its stated aim protecting Tutsi interests and civilians in the DRC’s eastern Kivu provinces. Though Kigali disputes the claim, the U.N. Group of Experts on DRC, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch gathered large bodies of evidence showing that M23 rebels received substantial financial, logistical, and manpower support from the Rwandan government. But in November 2013, the rebels, who just a year before had been powerful enough to take a major eastern city, Goma, collapsed.

Why? What explains the sudden dissolution of a major rebel movement in a country known for its proliferation of armed groups? Why was the notoriously incompetent Congolese national army, the FARDC, able to decisively defeat a rebel movement for the first time since the current regime came into being?

Writing for Foreign Affairs, Enough Project founder John Prendergast examines what he believes to be the reasons M23 stopped fighting.  Prendergast attributes the M23’s demise to three factors: the creation of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a well-trained, 3,000-soldier peacekeeping force with the authority to kill armed actors who threatened civilians, ongoing efforts to stop the trade in Congolese “conflict minerals” (minerals from the mining, sale, or transport of which armed actors finance their activities), and international pressure on Rwandan President Paul Kagame to stop supplying the M23 with troops, arms, and other forms of assistance.

Predergast’s first and third claims are somewhat accurate: The FIB’s presence in particular was the key to success as it could engage in offensive military action against M23. However, this point underemphasizes the fact that the FIB did not fight alone. It was joined by FARDC troops who were better trained (some by U.S. AFRICOM forces) and far more disciplined than many of their comrades, and MONUSCO’s force commander interpreted the FIB’s mandate to require cooperation between the two forces rather than allowing the FIB to go it alone. There is no question that Congolese forces, alongside their FIB counterparts, were the deciding factor, and M23 was significantly weakened when diplomatic pressure forced Kagame to cut support to the rebels.

Prendergast’s second claim, however, lacks similar supporting evidence. He writes:

Numerous corporations, including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Motorola Solutions worked to reform international supply chains that had allowed illegally extracted minerals to trade on global markets and end up in cell phones and computers everywhere. Congressional legislation and corporate initiatives have dramatically reduced the money available to armed groups such as the M23, which previously financed themselves by smuggling minerals and other natural resources.

It is not surprising Prendergast would make such a claim; since 2009, he has led a campaign centered on the narrative that cutting armed movement access to mineral wealth by requiring corporations to trace the presence of Congolese conflict minerals in their supply chains is one way to get fighters to stop fighting. Prendergast’s efforts led to the passage of section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank financial sector reform bill, which requires just that. The logic behind this argument is that without the revenue from mineral wealth, armed groups will have trouble financing their activities and will therefore be weaker and/or decide to stop fighting altogether.

There are several problems with Prendergast’s narrative that scholars of the region have identified, including Severine Autesserre’s point that most DRC conflicts are driven by local interests over land rights and citizenship, identity, and belonging, Cuvelier, Vlassenroot, and Olin’s work showing that there is little empirical evidence or theoretical consensus as to how rebels use resource wealth, and my work arguing that rebels will draw on other sources of revenue in the absence of mineral wealth because the absence of government control allows them to move freely.

The biggest problem for Prendergast’s argument, however, is that the M23 never controlled mining areas. His claim that Dodd-Frank 1502 contributed to an end to the M23 violence is simply false.

More importantly, however, Prendergast’s underlying idea that any Congolese rebels would stop fighting if they lost access to mineral revenue was never substantiated. As Yale PhD candidate Jason Stearns notes in a forthcoming paper in Peacebuilding, Eastern Congo’s wartime economy is militarized in virtually every sector:

The flipside of this trend is the militarization of the economy, which has been on the rise at least since the influx of weapons and soldiers into the region during the civil wars in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s. Illegal protection rackets have emerged, centered on the most lucrative and vulnerable parts of the economy: mineral trade; cross-border smuggling; and the illegal trade in cannabis, charcoal, and precious hardwoods. These rackets are not just indicative of a weak state, but of privatized governance of key resources through violent means. (Vlassenroot and Raeymaekers 2009)

M23 thrived not just because it was able to benefit from Rwandan support, but also because its members engaged in all sorts of other illicit economic activities, including trading some of the commodities listed above, taxing traffic at the Bunagana border crossing into Uganda, and taxing civilians in the areas under their control. The United Nations Group of Experts has documented this diversification of rebel movement financial interests in great detail in each of the four years since Dodd-Frank’s passage. As Stearns points out in another paper forthcoming in International Affairs, the Congolese conflict cannot be understood in simple dichotomies of greed or grievance; both motivate violent actors, and both require political engagement:

The conflict in the Congo did not begin because of natural resources, and the current proliferation of armed groups there is largely due to competition for power and patronage, not mining wealth. While natural resources play a key role in that conflict economy, the terms of these battles over power are set by political and social dynamics. The failure to address these underlying relations — reducing conflict to economics to the exclusion of politics — will hobble attempts to end the ongoing violence in the Congo.

Moreover, most scholars of Congo agree that the effects promised by Prendergast and other supporters of his narrative — a reduction in violence caused by reduced mineral revenues — has not actually happened. Although the provisions of Dodd-Frank 1502 have not yet fully gone into effect, a series of actions by the country’s president, Joseph Kabila, and a subsequent decision by a major smelter to stop buying Congolese minerals mean that the volume of minerals being exported from the eastern DRC dropped dramatically between 2010 and today. In other words, we’ve gotten a glimpse of what a world in which Congolese groups benefit less from the mineral trade looks like. As Lauren Harrison has noted for Aid Data, violence actually increased in mining areas after 1502’s passage.

As Harrison notes, this data, of course, does not mean that there was a causal relationship between the passage of Dodd-Frank 1502 and an uptick in violence in the DRC. Certainly a map updated to include 2013 data would present an even more complex picture.  Instead, it appears that the relationship between militarized mining and violence is a correlation rather than a cause.

This is true in the case of M23 as well. Congo’s deeper problem is that it lacks the basic condition of modern statehood required under Westphalian norms of sovereignty: a monopoly on the legitimate use of force by government. The hard work of reestablishing Congolese state authority will require more military activity to root out rebel movements that refuse to negotiate, delicate political negotiations to reach a settlement upon which all Congolese can agree, and continued high-level diplomatic engagement to force Congo’s neighbors to stay out of the country’s territorial affairs. Defeating one rebel group took an enormous amount of engagement, political will, and cash. Whether the international community will be willing to do the same for the country’s other rebel movements remains to be seen, but there is a strong case to be made that, at this stage, military action and diplomatic pressure are far more important than economic reforms.