LUNTUKULU, Congo — When his father could no longer make enough money from the tin mine, when he could no longer pay for school, Bienfait Kabesha ran off and joined a militia. It offered the promise of loot and food, and soon he was firing an old rifle on the front lines of Africa’s deadliest conflict. He was 14.
But what makes Kabesha different from countless other child soldiers is this: His path to war involved not just the wrenching poverty and violence of eastern Congo but also an obscure measure passed by American lawmakers.
Villagers call it “Loi Obama” — Obama’s Law.
The legislation compels U.S. companies to audit their supply chains to ensure that they are not using “conflict minerals” — particularly gold, coltan, tin and tungsten from artisanal mines controlled by Congo’s murderous militias. It was championed by influential activists and lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, and tucked into the massive Wall Street reform law known as the Dodd-Frank Act.
The law’s supporters argued that it would weaken the militias by cutting off their mining profits.
But the legislation, signed by President Obama four years ago, set off a chain of events that has propelled millions of miners and their families deeper into poverty, according to interviews with miners, community leaders, activists, and Congolese and Western officials, as well as recent visits to four large mining areas.
As it sought to comply with the law, Congo’s government began by shutting down the mining industry for months. Then, a process was launched to certify the country’s minerals as conflict-free. But the process is unfolding at a glacial pace, marred by a lack of political will, corruption and bureaucratic and logistical delays.
That has led foreign companies to avoid buying the minerals, which has driven down prices. Many miners are forced to find other ways to survive, including by joining armed groups. Meanwhile, the militias remain potent threats.
“The intention of the law was good, but in practice, it was not well thought-out,” said Eric Kajemba, director of the Observatory for Governance and Peace, a regional nonprofit group. “This is a country where the government is absent in many areas, plagued by years of war and bad governance, where the economic tissue has been destroyed. The American lawmakers didn’t appear to take this into consideration.”
Requests for comment were made to former senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a key backer of the conflict-minerals measure who is now the U.S. special envoy to the Great Lakes region, which includes Congo. But his office said he was not available. The State Department also did not reply to several requests for comment.
As of June, the government had certified just 25 mining sites out of hundreds in South and North Kivu provinces as “green” — meaning there was no presence of armed groups and there were no children or pregnant women laborers — according to U.N. monitors. As of October, there were only 11 mines out of more than 900 here in South Kivu where minerals were “tagged” as conflict-free, said Adalbert Murhi Mubalama, the province’s minister of mines.
Government and international mine certification agencies, he said, have been unable to audit most mining areas because of their size, poor roads and insecurity. Shabunda territory, where most of South Kivu’s mines are located, is almost as big as Belgium and is controlled mostly by a ruthless militia. The government, he said, “can’t go there.”
The United Nations estimates that Congo has untapped mineral reserves worth $24 trillion. Since the late 1990s, militias, rebel groups and armies have plundered these riches, using them to fuel a string of wars that have caused more deaths than any conflict since World War II.
In the United States, the furor over conflict minerals intensified with revelations that multinational firms such as Apple, Intel and Motorola were unwittingly buying conflict minerals to make products such as smartphones and laptop computers. Activists pressured lawmakers to pass the measure in the Dodd-Frank Act.
It quickly had an effect. In the fall of 2010, two months after the law’s signing, Congo’s government halted mining for six months — even at facilities not controlled by armed groups. The move had tremendous repercussions in a country where, by some estimates, a sixth of the 70 million inhabitants depend on artisanal mining.
In Luntukulu, a mineral-rich region nestled in rocky hills near the border of Shabunda territory, more than a dozen out-of-work miners joined the Raia Mutomboki militia after the government imposed the ban, village elders and mining cooperative leaders said.
“If we were earning more money from mining, I would not have entered the militia,” said Kabesha, now 16, as he sat in a grass hut.
When he joined, he was handed a rifle and taught to shoot. Within months, he was looting villages and fighting government forces and other militias.
Last year, he fled and entered a program to rehabilitate child soldiers. But he’s still not attending school.
In 2010, before the law passed, miners were selling a kilogram of tin — about two pounds — for $7. The world market price averaged $18 a kilo. Scores of buyers came to Luntukulu for minerals. They were exported to smelters around the world, from which American companies purchased them.
Now, the miners get only $4 for a kilo of tin — even though the global market price this year has averaged $22 per kilo. None of the 15 mines in Luntukulu that produce tin and gold have been certified as conflict-free.
This year, only 12 buyers showed up, miners and community leaders said.
Some of the untagged minerals are bought by Chinese and Indian firms that are not subject to the Dodd-Frank law. But the loss of American and other Western clients has been keenly felt.
As in many mining communities, with less money flowing in, shops in Luntukulu have closed. Many people here struggle to feed their families through farming.
“If Obama’s Law wasn’t signed, the ban would not have existed,” said Waso Mutiki, 41, president of the miners cooperative in Luntukulu. “It destroyed everything.”
Even at the few mines certified as conflict-free, miners face hardship. Near Nzibira, a village about 15 miles from here, miners in blue uniforms dig in pits, searching for tin ore. The minerals are placed in tagged bags, indicating they meet international standards.
But the miners still get $4 per kilo. That’s because there are only a few trading houses in the provincial capital, Bukavu, due to the limited supply of tagged minerals and delays in providing government licenses to buy them, miners and community leaders said. The houses fix the price, they added.
“The law of Obama is like a weight on us,” said Michel Mushagalusa, 30, vice president of the mining cooperative in Nzibira.
Some activists and researchers say that minerals aren’t the core cause of Congo’s war — that there are other, more powerful factors, such as political and ethnic struggles and conflicts over land. And regulating the minerals, they say, does little to thwart the militias.
Supporters of the American law say the plundering of minerals is a key stimulant of the conflict. They say the legislation has spurred measures by corporations and African governments to help end the illegal trade. But even some of the law’s biggest proponents say the Obama administration and tech companies should have provided aid as the legislation was being implemented
“Four years went by with almost no support for Congolese miners,” wrote the Enough Project, a powerful activist group, in an open letter published Oct. 30. It added that American and other donors had only recently set up aid programs, “but they have yet to be felt by mining communities.”
In a report published this past summer, the Enough Project found that armed groups were no longer present at two-thirds of tin, tungsten and coltan mines in three eastern Congo provinces and cited the law as the reason. Nonetheless, some of the most brutal militias are still thriving in those provinces and others.
In some areas outside of Luntukulu and in Shabunda territory, the Raia Mutomboki are the lords.
The militia, whose name means “outraged citizens” in Swahili, sells diggers access to mining pits and takes a percentage of the minerals unearthed, a large portion of which are smuggled out through neighboring countries.
The fighters also exact taxes at checkpoints.
“Almost all our mines are controlled by Raia Mutomboki,” said Mozart Manigua, 42, president of a cooperative that oversees 20 mines in Kimbli, a vast area within Shabunda. Local people “have no choice but to work for the militia.”
In other areas, militias have switched to selling palm oil, charcoal, marijuana, cattle and soap, said community leaders, activists and U.N. monitors. Their income is hardly as much as they earned from minerals, but it’s enough to continue destabilizing eastern Congo.
Gold, though, remains a lucrative financial pipeline for armed groups, according to U.N. investigators. By some estimates, $400 million in gold from artisanal mines was smuggled out last year, most of it fueling armed actors and tainting the global gold supply.
Increasingly, Congo’s army is becoming a major player in the conflict-minerals trade.
Soldiers help smuggle untagged minerals out through Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, according to U.N. experts and Congolese government and law enforcement officials.
“It’s some of the big commanders,” said Mubalama, the mining minister.