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Conflict Minerals in DRC: altering incentives is necessary to end violence

The violence that erupted on August 28 between the Congolese army and General Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP militia in North Kivu province continues this week, prompting international outcry and intervention by MONUC, the 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission in DRC. In response to the fighting, the worst since the signing of a January 2008 ceasefire, diplomats from the UN, the African Union, and the European Union released a rare joint statement calling on both sides to cease hostilities and return to their initial positions. But is continued insistence on a seemingly failed ceasefire agreement enough to stop the fighting and restore long term stability to the region?

According to London-based Global Witness, the international community is ignoring a critical piece of the puzzle. In a statement on Wednesday, the resource watchdog argued that diplomatic efforts are “likely to founder unless they address the economic dimension of the conflict.”

DRC’s mineral wealth is often mentioned as an afterthought in news coverage of the conflict. However, findings from a recent trip by Global Witness researchers to eastern DRC suggest that addressing the economic element must be moved to the top of the international agenda.

The researchers witnessed groups of Congolese army (FARDC) soldiers and elements of the extremist Hutu FDLR militia working “side by side” mining operations, each profiting from illegal trade in minerals such cassiterite (tin ore) and columbite-tantalite, or coltan, which is used in portable electronic devices such as cell phones and laptop computers.

The FDLR, which is made up largely of Hutu militiamen implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, lies at the root of the ongoing conflict in eastern DRC. Not only does the FDLR commit widespread atrocities against civilian populations in the area, but its presence in the region serves as the premise for the continued involvement of General Laurent Nkunda’s forces. The lucrative illegal mineral trade provides the FDLR with a consistent source of funding (used to buy arms) and a strong incentive to resist disarmament and repatriation efforts.

And, in light of Global Witness’s findings, it’s no wonder the Congolese army isn’t honoring its commitments to expel the FDLR. Why should FARDC soldiers fight the FDLR, when it’s more profitable to cooperate with them?

Other armed groups operating in eastern DRC, including Nkunda’s CNDP, also sustain themselves through mining profits. Furthermore, most of the minerals are smuggled illegally across DRC’s borders and exported from neighboring countries, providing a disincentive for regional players to restore stability.

As long as all parties to the conflict stand to profit from chaos and insecurity, it is unlikely that real peace can be achieved. Altering the incentive structures of the perpetrators of violence, which in this case means addressing illegal mining by armed groups, is absolutely necessary if any real progress is to be made.

Over the next several weeks and months, this space will be examining the economic aspects of the conflict in greater detail, including the various issues associated with potential solutions.

–Nina McMurry, Congo Education Coordinator


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