From the Jan-March 2011 Edition of Around Africa, by Bahati Jacques, AFJN Senior Policy Analyst

Since President Barack Obama signed into law the Conflict Mineral Act on July 21, 2010 (section 1502, of US public law N0 111-203), non-profit organizations and electronics companies have been working to influence the Department of State and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as they implement the law. Although the US Conflict Mineral law is a major step toward regulating the illegal trade of conflict minerals from the Congo, it will not create meaningful results on the ground until the root causes of the conflict are addressed.

Voices from the ground, including those of Congolese mineral dealers, see the law as an embargo on Congolese natural resources instead of a helping hand. The Congolese government has yet to realize that the US law is an empowerment tool to regionally and internationally stop the illegal mineral trade from war-torn eastern Congo.
There is no doubt that the road to conflict-free mineral trade will be the result of a well-governed Congo. On September 11, 2010, the Congolese president put a ban on artisanal mining in the North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema provinces. After realizing that the ban was more of a problem than a solution, President Kabila has ordered the ban to be lifted beginning March 10, 2011. The government believed that a moratorium on mining was a better way to reduce or stop illegal mining and the violence associated with it. It also saw this as the first step towards setting up a formal mining strategy that would allow it to control the revenues and generate income for the state and stimulate the local economy.

However, as predicted, the moratorium has had a negative impact on many people, some of whom depended on artisanal mining even before the conflict. The South Kivu based organization, Groupe Chrétien d’Appui aux Orphelins et Vulnérables pour la Paix (Christian Group for Peace, Assistance to Orphans and the Vulnerable) and other independent observers confirm that since the president suspended artisanal mining, the Congolese army is actively involved in black market mining and sales of the minerals from the sites affected by the moratorium. The irony is that the army was deployed to the mineral-rich areas in eastern Congo in order to secure and protect the mining sites from illegal access and exploitation by foreign or local rebel groups.

On a positive note, the Groupe Chrétien d’Appui aux Orphelins et Vulnérables pour la Paix reported that some civilians who could no longer work in the mines have returned to farming. This may bring about an increase in food production.

According to mining business owners, the passage of the US law is believed to have triggered President Kabila’s decision to ban artisanal mining. Consequently, many people have lost jobs, cash flow has decreased and other business sectors have been adversely affected. Furthermore, the newly unemployed may see joining rebel groups which control certain mines as their only option. The fact is whether they join the armed groups or continue working in the mines in the current conditions, they are still actively participating in the illicit conflict mineral network responsible for maintaining the insecurity in these areas.

The challenge at hand in this case is whether it is easier to deal with armed members of the conflict mineral network or unarmed and innocently complicit members of the same network who are in it only because they need to make ends meet for themselves and their families. The enemy of peace is the armed groups, not the food vendors at the mining sites or the victims of modern slavery forced by people with guns to work for little to no money to save their lives. Some of these people have been displaced multiple times during the fight for control of the mining area. After surviving displacement, they have no other choice than to live with and work for whoever is in control of their land.

Can the Congolese government, which has failed to stop the embezzlement of millions of dollars per year in border transactions, really solve the conflict mineral problem in eastern Congo? It is doubtful. Members of the government are part of the same mafia-like network which it claims it would like to stop. What king can wage a war against himself? Evidence shows that whoever is appointed as border agent or law enforcer in rich mineral areas must kick back money to the person who appointed him. This is the nature of institutionalized corruption.

Even if the mining industry was formalized and taxes were collected, people have no confidence in the government because the funds collected through taxes would disappear into the pockets of the elite. However, there is no doubt that if Congo was well governed by an effective leader, it would be able to pay its debts, pay government employees fairly and attend to other needs of its citizens.

If applied, the US conflict mineral law could significantly help reduce the plundering of Congolese resources. (read Lawmakers want SEC to stand firm on strict conflict minerals rules, The Hill) But, the Congolese government itself must do more, not only in terms of regulation and enforcing mining industry laws, but exhibiting good governance, protecting human rights, implementing security reform, strengthening regional political structures and respecting the rule of law.