Capturing Congo

Gold, Guns, and Strife

M23 rebels withdraw near the town of Sake. (James Akena / Courtesy Reuters)

News from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is usually grim. But it has been particularly so in recent weeks, as the M23 militia overran the town of Goma, the capital of the mineral-rich province of North Kivu. The militia has already started to withdraw, but reports of random killings and human rights abuses still abound. Meanwhile, parts of the city lack power, and garbage and human remains have been left to rot in the streets.

The violence in eastern DRC might look like the disruption of the fragile calm that followed the 2009 peace agreement between Congo and the M23's precursor, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). In truth, however, it is part of a continuum of chaos that has gripped the region for some 15 years. Reliable studies have shown that five million Congolese have died due to the fighting, many of them in eastern DRC, making the region home to one of the worst humanitarian disasters since World War II.

There is plenty of blame to spread around for the seemingly endless bloodshed and mayhem: countries in the region, the rebels, and the international community are all somewhat responsible. Although the history of the violence in the area is local, the international community has refused to intervene decisively as fighting has dragged on. In addition, and perhaps more ruinous, some halfhearted attempts to curb the conflict have exacerbated it. For example, the United States' effective ban on the purchase of so-called conflict minerals -- ores mined in war zones -- has made the region's fighters more desperate and thus more aggressive.

THE BIRTH OF THE M23

Today's conflict is rooted in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when the Hutu ethnic majority attempted to eradicate the Tutsis, the politically dominant minority ethnic group. The killing ended when the Tutsi army, led by the current Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, and supported by Ugandan soldiers, drove the Hutu forces out of the country. After just three months, about 800,000 Rwandans were dead.

The Hutu-Tutsi war was not over. It merely moved across the border into the eastern DRC provinces of North and South Kivu and into the northeastern DRC province of Oriental. There, the conflict pitted at least four main factions against each other: ethnic Tutsis, who eventually formed the CNDP (ostensibly a proxy for Rwanda) which is now known as M23; the Hutus, who formed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which controls significant portions of the area; the various Mai-Mai militias, which are composed of local DRC tribesmen; and the Congolese army, an unruly mix of otherwise unemployable men anxious to get their hands on guns.

Like its predecessors, the current DRC government, led by President Joseph Kabila, has been crippled by corruption and saddled with a military that is little more than a collection of armed thugs. It has thus been unable to offer much resistance to the well-disciplined militias. From about 2003 to late 2008, the Tutsi strongman and CNDP founder Laurent Nkunda pushed the Congolese army around at will and won control of many of the region's key mines, funneling untold millions of dollars' worth of minerals into Rwanda.

In early 2009, Rwanda captured Nkunda and put him under house arrest. He was replaced by Bosco Ntaganda, who had been his second-in-command. Soon after, on March 23, the Congolese government brokered the peace deal with the CNDP. Key to that agreement was the incorporation of the militia into the Congolese army. The move was supposed to sideline the CNDP on the battlefield and align it with the government. For a while, the tension seemed to ease.

But there was a problem: Ntaganda was a wanted man. In 2006, the International Criminal Court had charged him with the crime of conscripting child soldiers during his time as a commander under Thomas Lubanga, a DRC rebel leader who was convicted by the ICC for the same crime in 2012. After Lubanga was locked away, pressure mounted on the Congolese government to arrest Ntaganda and turn him over to the ICC, too.

Fearing arrest, Ntaganda, who had been open and flagrant in his role as a general in the Congolese army, dropped from view. The loyal Tutsi forces he commanded defected from the army and resurfaced as M23, named after the March 23, 2009 deal. They went back to their old ways and resumed fighting against the national army.

THE FIGHT OVER CONFLICT MINERALS

All this played out against a background of changing economic fortunes for DRC. With the rise of mobile phones and laptop computers at the beginning of the new millennium, global demand for gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten -- significant amounts of which are found in eastern DRC -- soared. Fighting among the region's ethnic militias to control DRC's mines thus became a major impetus in the war.

International outcry over the violence caused by control of conflict minerals sparked efforts in Europe and elsewhere, including within industry groups, to curb their purchase. In the United States, meanwhile, humanitarian groups pushed for the inclusion in the 2010 Wall Street Reform Act of a provision that required manufacturers of products that might contain small amounts of mineral ores to verify to the Securities and Exchange Commission that none of them came from contested mines in eastern DRC. The idea was that if the purchase of the minerals from the region were banned, the fighting there would stop. The provision was included, but it has not stemmed the violence.

Consider the case of the bitterly contested Bisie tin mine in North Kivu, which is by far the region's most productive and which contains its most lucrative deposits. By the spring of 2009, the Congolese government and ethnic militias had reached a fragile agreement to divide production there. But then, because of the pending sanctions on conflict minerals, which became official this past August, production at the Bisie mine dropped dramatically. This has left hundreds of thousands of locals who depend on mining with little or no income. The militias that control the mines, the middlemen, and the buyers are increasingly desperate.

With fighting now raging, the M23 has tried to reassert control over the mineral trading center of Goma and Bunagana on the DRC-Uganda border. With alleged backing from Rwanda, the rebels are looking to capture mines formerly controlled by the government or by other militias -- the underlying cause of the resurgent conflict.

All of this is happening under the watchful eyes of the largest United Nations peacekeeping garrison anywhere in world, which is posted in eastern DRC and consists of thousands of well-armed, well-equipped, and well-paid UN soldiers who remain holed up in their fortified compounds.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL

A black market has sprung up to fill the void created by the conflict-mineral ban. There are already well-established gold-smuggling operations, with traders and routes that circumvent conflict mineral regulations. Here, Ugandan merchants play a big role. Uganda is a major exporter of African gold (although it has no gold mines) and shares a long border with the gold-rich region of eastern DRC. The M23 and others have thus pinned their hopes on the mineral. 

The depth of the black-market problem was revealed in early 2011 -- more than a year before the U.S. ban became official, but just as buyers were starting to get nervous about conflict minerals -- when a sleek private jet was seized at the Goma airport. It was about to take off to an unknown location with cargo that included 25 metal containers of gold and millions of dollars in cash. According to UN investigators, the gold was part of a scheme that likely involved Ntaganda, a former NBA star, a Houston oil man, a U.S.-based dealer in west African diamonds, and perhaps even Kabila, whom the basketball player met in the course of trying to get the gold out of DRC. 

The operation on the tarmac illustrates just how intertwined minerals, corruption, and violence are in eastern DRC. More important, it hints at the complexity of achieving a sustainable peace in the region. Given recent violence, it is time to face the reality that minerals and mining will continue to be critical to the region, if not the world. Finding and enforcing a workable, lawful, and equitable way to share production and profits is thus the first step on the path to a peaceful future.

A peace deal might also allow for more autonomy for DRC's major regions, which would overlap ethnic boundaries and simplify governance, and might grant the M23 militia the freedom to maintain some control of the eastern DRC region -- by all accounts, the group can govern with some degree of efficiency. The UN troops should also get serious by either enforcing the peace or pulling out. None of these steps can guarantee a sustainable calm, but they at least have a chance of giving the people of DRC the peaceful future they deserve.

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