A Light at the End of the Tunnel in Congo

Yes, it may look like the worst hell on Earth. But there are signs that the decades-long resource war in Central Africa could be shifting for the better -- if only the West stops bankrolling it.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not an obvious candidate to be Africa’s turnaround story of the coming decade. This is a country that has been pillaged by outsiders for more than a century, cursed by its extraordinary natural resource base to unparalleled levels of death and destruction. With a seemingly intractable war in the east, one of the worst corruption-fighting records in the world, and some of the highest rates of sexual violence ever recorded, Congo does not, understandably, lend itself well to optimistic prognoses. But sometimes a situation deteriorates so badly that it catalyzes transformative responses. And things can actually change, no matter how entrenched the troubles. That opportunity for real progress is exactly what I found on my recent visit to Congo.

Congo’s conflict, the world’s deadliest since World War II, is not really a war — it’s a business based on violent extortion. There are numerous armed groups and commercial actors — Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan — that have positioned themselves for the spoils of a deliberately lawless, accountability-free, unstable, highly profitable mafia-style economy. Millions of dollars are made monthly in illegal taxation of mining operations, smuggling of minerals, and extortion rackets run by mafia bosses based primarily in Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala. The spoils are tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, minerals that go into laptops, cell phones, MP3 players, and jewelry stores in the West. Armed groups use terrifying tactics such as mass rape and village burning to intimidate civilians into providing cheap labor for this elaborate extortion racket.

For decades, this illegal economy has thrived in the shadows. Atrocities committed against Congo’s civilian populations are both a means of social control and retribution for the perceived support of military (and hence commercial) opponents. It’s all about controlling the minerals and gaining a handsome profit. And until this logic of unaccountable, violent, illegal mineral extraction changes, all the peacekeepers and peacemakers in the world will have very little impact on the levels of violence there.

Here’s where the good news begins. A light is increasingly being shone in, illuminating this ugly reality. And it might just be enough to start altering the deadly supply chain in a way that will be the key to transforming eastern Congo’s torturous history.

The first sign of hope comes from consumers of these electronic and luxury goods. Shoppers are beginning to put pressure on the companies selling cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and other electronic devices, along with gold-jewelry retailers, to stop using the conflict minerals mined in eastern Congo. If consumers demand conflict-free electronics products and jewelry strongly enough, just as they do green technologies and fair trade products, big companies can place downstream pressure to clean up the supply chain for these minerals. In fact, this has already begun. Where companies six months ago shrugged off the issue as niche, they are today thinking seriously about how to tackle the problem.

Another opportunity comes from the U.S. Congress, which can make a difference by passing legislation to require conflict-free components in all electronics products. Two pieces of draft legislation, the Conflict Minerals Trade Act in the House and the Congo Conflict Minerals Act in the Senate, do exactly that. President Barack Obama’s administration could go even further, improving on the Kimberley Process (a certification agreement meant to stop the export of blood diamonds) by kick-starting negotiations for a global arrangement to certify conflict-free minerals. The Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan governments also have a role to play: They can commit to independent monitoring and auditing of the mineral supply chain, finally allowing transparency to replace secrecy in the regional mineral sector. In recent months, these governments have looked more and more interested in doing so.

If these stars align, it may well be the opportunity that Congo needs to finally bring transparency, legality, and security to its minerals trade. Together, all this would fundamentally alter the incentives that are today fueling conflict. Commercial actors might change their behavior, worried that a potential boycott would cut profits and make things more difficult for everyone who is currently benefiting. Central African governments could clean up their act or face International Criminal Court indictments, United Nations sanctions, and other scarlet letters. Electronics and jewelry companies would demand best practices or face increasing negative publicity about their "hear no evil, see no evil" mentality when it comes to the cries of Congo’s women and girls.

The certification scheme that arose in response to West Africa’s diamond-driven conflict is not perfect, as woes regarding Zimbabwe’s diamond exports currently attest. But it did help end bloody wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Angola less than a decade ago. Creating a "conflict-free minerals" certification scheme for Congo would be no silver bullet, but combined with increased efforts at criminal accountability and military reform, it would be the catalyst for a solution to more than a century of resource-driven death and destruction in the heart of Africa.

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