Field Dispatch: Conflict Minerals Windfall for Armed Forces in Eastern Congo

 

Senior commanders continue to benefit from Congo’s lucrative mineral trade. Striking examples of this trend are the staggering lifestyle and investments of some Congolese army officers here in the Kivus. Although official army salaries top out at 90,000 Congolese francs per month, less than $100, many Congolese generals and colonels own gas stations, run minerals exporters or ‘comptoirs’, and new buildings are sprouting up like mushrooms throughout cities of Goma, Bukavu, Butembo, Bunia and Kinshasa.


GOMA, Eastern Congo— Whether within rebel groups and militias or the Congolese national army, or FARDC, senior commanders continue to benefit from Congo’s lucrative mineral trade. Striking examples of this trend are the staggering lifestyle and investments of some Congolese army officers here in the Kivus. Although official army salaries top out at 90,000 Congolese francs per month, less than $100, many Congolese generals and colonels own gas stations, run minerals exporters or ‘comptoirs’, and new buildings are sprouting up like mushrooms throughout cities of Goma, Bukavu, Butembo, Bunia, and Kinshasa.

 
“It is a war economy,” I was told by a FARDC officer with whom I recently spoke on condition of anonymity. We were having lunch in a rather magnificent new restaurant where a teacher could not afford to buy a soda, but which is owned by a FARDC colonel. Next door is a gas station, run by his wife. From where we sit we can see gas stations and commercial buildings belonging to FARDC officers and ex-officers from the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, rebel group. One of these senior commanders is also a major sponsor of the V-Club soccer team. In 2007, when the team won the national cup, he allegedly chartered a French jetliner to ship soccer equipment to Congo for his team. “What an enormous waste for a country that needs reconstruction!” the officer exclaimed after recounting this story.
 
Trafficking minerals is not the sole privilege of armed groups and Congo army officers. The wider Congolese mining sector, which includes vast deposits of copper and cobalt in Katanga, diamonds in Mbuji-Mayi, gold in Ituri, and much more, is struggling to recover from what has been known as “Leonine Contracts”—the granting of mining concessions to companies by rebel groups and the government during Congo’s war without any transparency. As a result, many of Congo’s government officials and their relatives have prospered while the country as a whole remains impoverished. A particularly galling recent example of this disparity was the $200,000 diamond presented by Congo’s first lady to the Queen of Belgium, even while state employees are on strike and while under-paid FARDC troops are preying upon civilians.
 
One of the reasons why the Congolese army has performed so abysmally in military operations against rebel groups is that for many commanders, their foremost priority while deployed is to make money, not defeat their enemy or take risks on the battlefield. When a commander deploys to mineral-rich areas, it is a unique opportunity to secure some resources that he can fall back upon after his military career in a context where pensions and retirement benefits are nonexistent. Given the legacy of corruption and dysfunction within Congo’s military, it becomes a normal reflex for commanders to focus more on controlling mines than planning effective military operations.
 
According to Emmanuel Ndimubanzi of the North-Kivu mining authority, minerals represent 85 percent of exports from the province, with the exception of the Kasindi border area, where coffee, timber, and rubber are also in the mix. The mining authority has been striving to cut down on mineral smuggling and reports some success with regard to the mineral ores that produce tin (cassiterite), tantalum (coltan), and tungsten (wolframite), as they are now exported only after they have been placed in official state barrels.
 
Gold is much more challenging. In North Kivu gold is mined in Rutshuru, Masisi, Walikale, and Grand Nord. However, export records for gold from these areas do not seem to exist in mining department records. Sources in the customs office in Goma told me that in addition to rebel groups and civilians, Congolese army officers are actively involved in gold smuggling, using the power and resources of the military to smuggle the precious metal. Besides a handful of gold comptoirs in Butembo and Beni, located near Ituri where much gold is found, most of the gold from the Petit Nord – Rutshuru and Masisi—is smuggled through the border crossings at Ishasha, Bunagana, and Petite-Barrière.
 
As noted in the report of the U.N. Group of Experts published in late 2009, the FDLR and Congolese armed groups and militias are involved in the minerals trade in areas under their control. For instance, in Fizi in South Kivu, and Masisi, Walikale, and Lubero in North Kivu, foreign armed groups like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, and the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, or ADF-NALU, assorted Congolese Mayi-Mayi militias, and FADRC units and ex-CNDP fighters have reportedly monopolized the gold trade in areas they control. As the armed groups still control large parts of the Kivu hinterland, the armed groups can carry minerals from one area to the other and either trade through commercial networks or directly smuggle it themselves, given the easy access to neighboring countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania.
 
Local perspectives on U.S. Legislation
The conflict minerals requirements recently passed as part of the Wall Street reform bill in the United States will require publicly listed companies in the United States who source from Congo or its neighbors to specify the steps they have taken to prevent their purchases from funding armed groups. This legislation was welcomed by the Congolese government, and Minister of Information Lambert Mende called it a “noble initiative” – an opinion largely shared by civil society groups here in Goma, who called upon the European Union, and especially Belgium, to follow in the United States’ footsteps. The Congolese Catholic Church also issued a statement welcoming the bill. But Congolese civil society groups also have understandable questions about how the bill will be implemented, what measures will be taken to avoid unintended consequences, and how they can participate in the process. It will be important to make sure that information flows freely between Congolese and international organizations as implementation of the legislation moves forward.
 
During meetings with individual members of the mining dealers’ association in Goma and with some officials who wanted to remain anonymous, opinions were divided about the potential impact of the U.S. legislation on the business climate, employment, and security in Congo. Some think that demanding that multinational companies comply with such requirements in a country as vast as Congo—and where such a dense web of local and foreign militias, army units, and political and administrative authorities collude in minerals trafficking—could trigger a de facto boycott of Congolese minerals. The worst-case scenario would be where miners who lose their livelihoods join up with armed groups for lack of an alternative. However it is important to remember that many of the same traders who worry about a boycott are those that have made fortunes from the militarized trade during the past decade.
 
Whether or not such concerns are genuine, they underscore the need for significant accompanying measures that would help provide alternative livelihoods and substantially support demobilization and reintegration of fighters and the reform of the security sector. In the meantime, pressure from human rights activists and civil society groups in and outside Congo should be exerted on President Kabila to demand his resolute commitment to put an end to mining predation within the army, the government, and public administration. This is one part of a larger need to halt the institutionalized corruption and impunity that currently reigns, from the highest levels of the government down all the way to minor officials and bureaucrats.