Conflict Minerals Fuel War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Eastern Congo suffers from the most deadliest conflict since World War II, which is sometimes referred to as Africa’s World War.  According to a study by the International Rescue Committee, the conflict and humanitarian crisis has taken the lives of 5.4 million people since 1998, and the figure continues to add on by as many as 45,000 every month.  The barbaric war is largely fuelled by conflict minerals or blood minerals that are used to build electric devices that are deemed as the symbols of modernity in the 21st century.  The various armed militia involved in the war finance their efforts in the war through revenues generated by the sale of mineral ores that produce, tin (cassiterite), tantalum (wolframite), tungsten (coltan), or the 3Ts, and gold.

The main actors in eastern Congo are largely driven by desires to access and control the extraction, taxation, transport, and trade of the minerals. Apart from the Congolese National Army of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) who have now been joined by the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), various other rebel groups including the Democratic Forces of the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Uganda, and the Mai Mai Cheka militia are also involved. A report from the Enough Project indicates that “the commanders of these armed groups who claim to be fighting each other to protect the interests of their respective ethnic groups, have become business partners…earning millions of dollars per month from extracting, heavily taxing, transporting, and trading minerals.” According to a UN panel of experts report, top officials of the armed forces are the men behind the illegal conflict mineral exploitation. Officers as high as the Deputy Army Commander personally control whole mines.  Militia involvement has become extremely institutionalized, and the various militia groups carry out mafia-style operations. Rebel groups, local militia, government troops, and criminal groups all deserve accusation for exploitation of the mines and minerals.

The issue of conflict minerals is clearly not just a conflict within the Democratic Republic of Congo. Neighboring countries of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi are involved in smuggling coltan from the Congo. In fact, even though no coltan is mined in Rwanda, figures indicate the Rwandan army made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months.  A UN report shows that the Hutu Rebels of the FDLR continue to exploit minerals especially gold and cassiterite in the North and South Kivu provinces through trading networks in Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the United Arab Emirates, while irregular arms deliveries have come from North Korea and Sudan.  Rebels also get weapons leaked to them by the army itself while the far-reaching international Diaspora, particularly in Europe, coordinates fundraising and operations.  International, regional, and local networks are altogether fueling the crisis in eastern Congo.

Recently, there has been growing awareness on the role of the FDLR and other rebel groups on the conflict minerals issue.  However, the picture is not complete with armed forces alone.  There are regional shareholders such as Rwanda and Uganda.  UN reports and international arrest warrants document that Uganda has an International Court of Justice ruling against it for looting and crimes against humanity, and Rwanda plays a role in perpetuating the conflict and looting of the Congo.  Rwanda is the main transit point for illicit minerals regardless of the rebel group transporting the minerals.  The Enough Project report indicates that “private business interests with high-level connections to the government remain heavily invested in [the conflict mineral] trade,” and Rwandan business interests work directly with CNDP and FARDC units to purchase minerals…using their military protection to avoid taxation.”  Rwanda is dependent on Congo economically, and “its plans for future economic development rely on mineral profits from the Congo.  Rwanda is determined to control a share of the minerals supply chain, in order to ensure that a large portion of the minerals continue to transit through Rwanda for processing and export.”  Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen sums up the situation by saying “having controlled the Kivu provinces for 12 years, Rwanda will not relinquish access to resources that constitute as significant percentage of its gross national product.”  Uganda’s role is also rooted in the battle for market share in Congo’s natural resources, and its economic interests are interconnected with the political rivalry between the Presidents of Uganda and Rwanda, respectively Museveni and Kagame.

According to Global Witness’s 2009 report, the biggest armed beneficiary of Congo’s minerals is actually the Rwandan regime led by Paul Kagame. However, the international community has more or less responded with silence.  Much against our understanding, the Congo Wars are not primarily civil wars, but rather state-on-state wars.  The focus on Eastern Congo and the conflict minerals issue alone does not take into account the nature and scope of dynamics in the entire country.  Global pressure must be placed through diplomatic and political means.  The conflict minerals issue must be dealt with within a political framework, which as Kambale Musavuli of Friends of the Congo says, that will bring all the players to the table.

By Soyean Ahn

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