The Eyes of the World: Mining the Digital Age in the Eastern DR Congo
By James H. Smith
University of Chicago Press, 2022, 360 pp.
Roadblock Politics: The Origins of Violence in Central Africa
By Peer Schouten
Cambridge University Press, 2022, 256 pp.
These two excellent ethnographic works probe the persistent civil conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many recent investigations of contemporary civil wars in Africa have fixated on the role of mineral resources in motivating and financing combatant forces. Smith studies the mining and selling of so-called blood minerals, such as coltan, tin, and tungsten, but his account focuses on communities of artisanal miners, their practices, and their own complex understanding of the world in which they operate. Accusations by nongovernmental organizations that these minerals have sustained and exacerbated violence have led to measures such as the provision in the United States’ Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 that sought to ban resources from mining activities linked to local militias and warlords from global trading networks. Although the law did force the more egregious warlords out of the mining business, Smith argues convincingly that the next effect of this legislation was to close down the artisanal operations that benefited thousands of miners and their families and to allow big private companies, often in league with Congolese state actors, to take over the mines. Smith’s book is sometimes repetitive, but it is chock-full of fascinating details on the people and communities that have lived off mining in the chaos of the wars in Congo.
Anyone who has driven across the countryside in West Africa or central Africa has probably been stopped at roadblocks tended by armed men seeking some kind of payment. In his strikingly original study, Schouten rarely mentions blood minerals but dwells instead on the thousands of roadblocks that exist in eastern Congo. Schouten shows how local community leaders, rebel forces, and state security actors seek to gain power and resources from controlling the road networks that cut through the thick forests of this area. The presence of such roadblocks in the Central African Republic, too, suggests they are a wider sociopolitical phenomenon in tropical Africa, and in fact, Schouten links them to older precolonial and colonial practices in the region that sought to regulate populations and their commercial activities. Not only are local populations and merchants that use these roads obliged to pay tolls, but so are international nongovernmental organizations and the local agents of major multinationals, such as the beer company Heineken. The result, Schouten shows in this authoritative analysis, is the collection of substantial and quite reliable revenues by the forces that control the roadblocks, which profoundly fuels long-standing conflicts and hampers efforts at institution building in central Africa.