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WALIKALE, Democratic Republic of Congo -- “We don’t understand why President Obama would want to cut off Congo’s minerals,” said Idrissa Assani, expressing a sentiment clearly shared by his fellow miners who sat together in the dark office of their mining cooperative. “It is the innocents who are vulnerable” and who will suffer most from “Obama’s law,” he said.
In the simple wooden structure with dirt floors, illuminated by late afternoon sunlight coming through the open door and through spaces in the paneling, Assani pulled out a pristine copy of “Obama’s law,” as the conflict minerals provision of the Dodd-Frank bill is locally known. People are already suffering from the “embargo” imposed by President Obama and expecting conditions to only get worse, he said.
Leafing through the pages of the legislation, Enough analyst Fidel Bafilemba noted to the French and Kiswahili speakers that nowhere in the U.S. bill is there any mention of an embargo or a ban on Congo minerals. Rather, the law calls for companies to conduct due diligence on minerals from Congo to ensure that armed groups and military units do not benefit from these resources. The group of miners was surprised, admitting that it has been difficult to understand the details of Obama’s law since none of them speak English and they’ve never seen a translated version of the bill.
Adding to the confusion, President Kabila suddenly instituted a mining ban last fall that effectively shut down all legitimate mining activities in North and South Kivu and Maniema. The government lifted the ban in March, but mining companies remain skittish. A European mining executive told Enough the ban was “a knee-jerk reaction” to the U.S. legislation and allegations of mass rapes in mining areas. “Kabila had to show that he was doing something,” the executive said, but he emphasized that the ban badly complicated certification efforts and is being viewed by local populations as part and parcel of the Obama law. “I have no idea who is advising [Kabila],” he added, shaking his head.
During Enough’s recent visit to this mineral-rich region, we heard about the detrimental effects of the ban from people directly involved in mining but also from local officials, shop and restaurant owners, prostitutes, and motor bike drivers. “The population here was living in misery [during the mining ban],” said the director of a comptoir in the village of Ndjingala, at the entrance to the area’s largest mine, Bisie.
In Walikale, the only regular connection to the outside world are the planes that arrive a few times each day from Goma, skittering down the lone stretch of paved road that serves as a landing strip. The planes bring in goods like cooking oil, fish, fabric, and vegetables whenever there are minerals ready to be shipped out. If there are no minerals to ship, there are no planes. Enclavement, or isolation, is one of the major problems in this area, we were told time and again. “People in Walikale think that this is the whole world, they never even get to Goma to find out other ideas,” said a local intelligence official. Nor do they see the posh lakeside homes in Goma being built with riches from Walikale.
Thus, as word of the new U.S. ‘embargo’ spread and living conditions deteriorated under the ban, President Obama became the target of blame.
But not everyone sees it this way.
“Sometimes we throw stones at other countries … but I pass the responsibility to the Congolese government,” said a local immigration officer in Walikale. He described the “system” for authorizing mining companies to do business in the area: “Companies come with some papers from Kinshasa, give a little something to the local administrator and the police, and that’s it.”
Plans are currently underway to open a number of trading centers that would centralize the steps minerals pass through on their way out of the country. It is in the trading center, or centre de negoce, where a shipment would be tagged as conflict-free and a standardized set of taxes would be applied and documented. The U.S. government has allocated $11 million to build infrastructure, train mining ministry officials and border police, and develop communities in mining areas. “Why would President Obama spend all of this money if the U.S. is trying to shut down mining in Congo?” Enough analyst Fidel asked skeptics countless times.
Among people who understand how the trace, audit, certify scheme would work, there is widespread support. “Traceability is really something good,” said the comptoir director in Ndjingala, noting that a formalized system would help standardize the price and create consequences for those who don’t follow the rules. “If these taxes are well collected and monitored, something could be delivered to this place,” said Ramazani, a miner. “Right now, the military doesn’t want to deploy elsewhere because of the mineral wealth here,” said the head of a motorbike transport agency.
But people are quick to caution that political will is the major obstacle, especially since it is the government officials and army that have enabled the current “system” to develop the way it has. Understanding these stakes also helps explain, at least in part, why “Barack Obama” has become the preferred target for distain in this remote corner of Congo, and no one is rushing to correct that perception.
Fidel Bafilemba contributed to this post.