Cliches Can Kill in Congo
The country’s Ebola outbreak is spreading out of control—but it's not because of a fight over "conflict minerals."
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is currently facing the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history—at least 931 people have died since August 2018. This is Congo’s 10th confrontation with the deadly virus but the first to defy all efforts to curb it. It’s not just that many of the people who have been infected have opted to stay at home rather than to seek care at treatment facilities, fearing stigmatization. It’s also that the Ebola response has been met with resistance and treatment centers have repeatedly come under attack.
Combating Ebola requires dealing with those attacks—and that, in turn, requires understanding the motivations fueling them. By that measure, an article recently published in Foreign Policy by Laurie Garrett was a step in the wrong direction.
The article made the case that Congo’s latest Ebola epidemic had become “a global emergency because of a raging conflict over valuable minerals,” arguing that the global demand for coltan—a mineral used in electronics—was spreading Ebola in Congo and that international responses to the outbreak should center on the relationship among conflict minerals, violence, and Ebola’s spread. This is a misleading framing of both the conflict and Ebola in eastern Congo.
In reality, there are no coltan mines anywhere near the current Ebola epidemic. While some armed groups in the area are involved in the gold and timber trade, most are not financed by minerals. Rather, these groups sustain themselves, in large part, via taxation, sourced through setting up roadblocks, imposing contributions on shops, and other similar efforts. Another source of funding comes in the form of donations from politicians and entrepreneurs, who try to harness eastern Congo’s armed groups to gain an advantage in local power struggles. While the presence of these armed groups complicates the Ebola response in some areas, the wider political dynamics that fuel them are a much bigger problem.
The idea that minerals used in our cell phones are a major driver of violence in Congo is a pervasive and long-disproven trope that is still deployed to explain a variety of the country’s ills—including gang rape, gorilla extinction, and now Ebola. To the extent that they persist, it’s worth tracing the origins of these myths.
Nearly two decades ago, the wars in eastern Congo coincided with a global price surge in coltan. This led Western nongovernmental organizations to frame belligerents’ greed for conflict minerals as a main driver of Congo’s violence. In an attempt to end the conflict, NGOs launched the “No blood on my mobile!” campaign. These efforts, however, were grounded in faulty assumptions, some of which Garrett replicates in her article: Although it has been widely reported that Congo holds 80 percent of global coltan reserves, those reserves are difficult to calculate, and the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center has put the estimate far closer to 10 percent. The resulting misinterpretation has been emphatically debunked by research showing the diversity of both the conflict’s drivers and armed groups’ sources of income. Its harmful consequences have also been exposed, including an obsession with mineral certification and traceability initiatives, which have often negatively affected people’s livelihoods and failed to diminish violence.
Rather than looking to long-unraveled narratives about how conflict minerals are undermining Congo, anyone attempting to stem the country’s current outbreak will have to reckon with a more complex set of political and economic factors. What’s complicating the Ebola response in Congo isn’t coltan; it’s a violent struggle over political power mixed with deep distrust toward the Congolese government and international actors, including humanitarians.
The region around Beni and Butembo where the current Ebola outbreak is concentrated—known as the Grand Nord area of North Kivu province—is a stronghold for opposition to the government in Kinshasa. The Grand Nord’s history is peppered with contentious and often violent rivalries between and among local and national elites. The region is also home to multiple armed groups that have been the target of ill-guided military operations backed by the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which have ramped up levels of violence. Since 2013, a string of massacres in the Beni area of the Grand Nord has profoundly shaken its residents, killing almost 1,000 people and displacing more than 180,000. The inability of the Congolese state and U.N. troops to stop the killings and protect citizens has fed a climate of distrust toward both international interveners and state security forces.
Since the Ebola outbreak was declared, local populations have questioned the sudden interest of international humanitarian actors, which stands in contrast to the lack of international interest in stopping mass killings in the region. As a result, people who live in the region are asking why Ebola could suddenly draw massive international attention to eastern Congo while a series of terrible massacres did not. This duality has led people to ask whether there are hidden political and economic agendas at play in the Ebola response.
Such distrust has been compounded by the central government, which canceled the presidential and legislative elections in the Grand Nord and cited Ebola as a reason. The would-be voters who lived there were rightfully angry that Ebola was being used as a pretext for restricting their voting rights. In the aftermath of the December 2018 election, which formally bypassed the region, electoral contenders and other local politicians stoked rumors that the outbreak was not real or that the central government had concocted it, first to destabilize the Grand Nord and eventually for financial gain.
These rumors fed into a toxic climate that enabled attacks on response teams and facilities. While one significant incident occurred before the December 2018 polls, attacks against health workers increased after election day. The attacks hit a peak in February: During one of the first attacks in Katwa that month, the perpetrators dropped leaflets that called for people to resist Ebola teams as part of a broader attempt to stand up and fight for their voting rights. After catch-up elections were held on March 31 in the Grand Nord, there was more violence. On April 19, attackers invaded a university clinic in Butembo and killed a Cameroonian epidemiologist.
That same week, gunmen attacked the Ebola treatment center in Katwa for a second time, dropping leaflets citing the “business” of Ebola as a justification. The influx of international organizations and funding has generated new business opportunities for local elites. By renting out vehicles and hotel rooms to response teams and by taking on contracts to carry out safe burials of those who have succumbed to Ebola, well-positioned elites in eastern Congo stand to profit. Yet salaries for workers in the area are often not more than $20 per month. As a result, many people in the area have come to see outside interventions as an opportunity for local elites to make a quick buck.
Such dynamics inevitably take a toll on public health. As demonstrated by previous Ebola outbreaks, public health emergencies demand that responders build trust with communities. In the current outbreak in Congo, the opposite has occurred: Local communities distrust international responders because they view them as participants in the region’s broader political and economic conflicts. Local ownership of the response has been hampered further by a strike of medical staff in the area, occurring coincidentally at the onset of the epidemic.
If there is anything Congolese and international analysts agree on, it is that most attacks are not the work of armed groups, but of local networks involving politicians, local leaders and other powerbrokers. The suggestion that armed groups funded by conflict minerals are involved in the killings of Ebola responders is not only mistaken, it is also dangerous. This framing of the problem could inadvertently ramp up a heavy-handed militarization of the Ebola response. Given the violence that has punctuated the region’s recent history, increased militarization is likely to heighten people’s fears and deepen the divide between people in eastern Congo and those working to stop them from getting Ebola.
Linking Ebola to conflict minerals distracts from the real challenges in eastern Congo. The international Ebola response should be based on an accurate analysis of the perceptions and interests that are driving negative reactions to Ebola interventions. This includes developing an understanding of the complicated ways in which local power struggles intersect and overlap with national political dynamics and regional geopolitics. Reaching that understanding requires careful efforts from journalists, scholars, and humanitarians.
In the words of the late Congolese activist Luc Nkulula, “The Congo is great, and hence it demands greatness from us.” This includes listening to the explanations, demands, and recommendations of the people living in eastern Congo. Using a cell phone to that end—rather than to invoke debunked stereotypes and spread misinformation—is an essential first step.
Christoph Vogel is a former U.N. expert on the Democratic of the Congo and a researcher with the Conflict Research Programme hosted at the London School of Economics. Twitter: @ethuin
Gillian Mathys is a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University's history department Twitter: @GMathys
Judith Verweijen is a lecturer in international security at the University of Sussex. Twitter: @judithverweijen
Adia Benton is an assistant professor in anthropology and African studies at Northwestern University. Twitter: @Ethnography911
Rachel Sweet is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. Twitter: @rachelsarasweet