Stabilizing Congo – Analysis


By Patrick Cannon

Despite the efforts of the United Nations’ largest active peacekeeping force, several peace agreements among the belligerents, and a temporary six-month ban on mining earlier this year, conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) persists after nearly 15 years. It has been—and continues to be—a destructive conflict. More than 5.4 million perished in the region between 1998 and 2003, and an estimated 45,000 continue to die monthly due to malnutrition, disease, and violence. All parties in the conflict have effectively institutionalized rape as a weapon of war. And untold amounts of minerals and wealth have left the country, without the slightest trace of economic or social benefit for most of the 72 million denizens of the DRC, the vast majority of whom live on less than $2 per day, rely on a decrepit infrastructure with fewer passable roads than in 1959, and face a life expectancy of 48 years.There is much the international community can do to help provide stability in eastern DRC, including practicing due diligence in banking and supply chains, enhancing the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO), and more selectively targeting foreign aid. These simple but effective steps would reduce the violence against civilians, limit the exploitation of mine workers by multinational corporations (MNCs) and rebel groups, and minimize the expropriation of the mineral wealth of the Congolese people by a small military elite.

Why the Congo Matters

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

The conflict in eastern DRC is enabled and exacerbated by unregulated international financial flows, mining and electronic MNCs engaged in exploitative supply chains, and the privileging of profit over human security and development, trends that affect other mineral- and oil-exporting countries like Nigeria, Guinea Bissau, Chad, Angola, and Iraq. Many of these same trends are also eroding the quality of leadership, the practice of politics, and the quality of life throughout the developed world as well. As a result, strategies and policies that might be used to structure stability in the eastern DRC might also be useful to slow the decline of the quality of politics throughout Africa and beyond.

Moreover, the Congo war, marked by longstanding patterns of violence and exploitation but also by a nascent movement to reverse those patterns, illustrates the Janus-faced nature of international politics. Certainly, the violence and the exploitation in the eastern DRC represent the worst of international politics, a politics that in many ways approximates a Hobbesian “war of all against all” and creates an existence for many that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

But the prospects for change through institution building, social movements, and working to enable the Congolese to control their own resources might represent the best of international politics, a type of politics that favors stability, social development, and self-actualization rather than conflict, profits for a few, and exploitation. The more the international community can help to improve the situation in eastern DRC, the more it will improve its own institutions and contribute to the best, rather than the worst, of international politics.

Causes of the Conflict

Contrary to popular misperception, the conflict in eastern DRC is not due mainly to a failed state, greedy rebels, or government corruption. Rather, the primary causes of the conflict are Rwandan security considerations, the struggle among national and regional actors for control of mining operations, and the interactions of these actors with longstanding tensions over ethnicity, shrinking land availability, confused property rights, and access to state resources.

The conflict has evolved through two important phases, first from 1996 to 1997, and then from 1998 to the present.

During the first phase, Rwanda invaded eastern DRC, then known as Zaire, to defeat remaining members of the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Hutu nationalists who were responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide and were continuing to launch cross-border attacks from Zaire into Rwanda. Although the Rwandan army could not defeat the FDLR, it succeeded in using a Zairian proxy army to depose Zairian President Mobutu (who had provided sanctuary to the FDLR after the Rwandan genocide) in May 1997. The first phase of the conflict ended with a new Congolese President, Laurent Kabila, of the newly named Democratic Republic of the Congo — and a lingering and threatening FDLR in the remote hills and forests of North and South Kivu.

By 1998, however, competition for mines, markets, and trading posts replaced Rwanda’s pursuit of the FDLR as the most important cause of the conflict. From 1998 to 2003, regional powers Rwanda and Uganda, enhanced by their Congolese proxy militias, squared off against the DRC, Zimbabwe, and Angola and their attendant Congolese proxy forces for control over these commercial resources. Although a 2003 peace agreement signed by Joseph Kabila (president since his father’s assassination in 2001) ended the participation of Zimbabwe and Angola, Rwanda, the DRC, and the FDLR still battled for control throughout North and South Kivu. All parties used forced labor of civilians (salongo), illegal taxation at military roadblocks, extortion, rape, and violence to defend, maintain, and, when possible, increase their economic interests.

After 2003 Uganda’s role in the conflict diminished, and by 2009 Rwanda and DRC had reached an agreement, explicitly, on the need to eliminate the FDLR and, implicitly, on how they would share control of the mines, markets, and trading posts in North and South Kivu. The two countries collaborated (mostly ineffectively) on a joint military campaign to eliminate the FDLR, still a major disrupting influence in the disputed provinces. Equally significant, Rwanda and DRC implicitly agreed that the latter would control extraction from all but the most remote mines in North and South Kivu, while Rwanda would continue to hold a monopoly on the transporting and exporting of the minerals.

With the instrumental rapprochement of Rwanda and DRC achieved by 2009, the central dynamic of the conflict for resources now occurs between the national army of the DRC (FARDC) and the still-functioning FDLR. FARDC now holds a monopoly on the mines and markets close to the major cities, while the FDLR controls those in more rural locations. Both groups continue to practice forced labor, extortion, and sexual violence against civilian populations.

Finally, and crucially, the supply chains of mining and electronic MNCs and the weakly regulated international banking system significantly exacerbate and perpetuate the conflict. All of the minerals (and timber) that leave eastern DRC pass through Rwanda (and sometimes Burundi) unprocessed and land at major smelting and processing plants in various countries—from China to Malaysia to Germany to Canada to the United States. Once processed, the minerals become indispensable ingredients in the making of a variety of electronic goods, from computers to cell phones, and thus comprise a fundamental part of the market strategies of all of the major mining and electronic MNCs.

To be clear, MNCs are not the direct cause of the conflict. However, they are the link for the Rwandan and Congolese military elite to the global economy. The elites then take advantage of an accommodating international banking system that usually asks few questions and permits tremendous amounts of wealth earned from conflict minerals to be deposited abroad, regardless of the consequences for the majority of people living in DRC.

What the World Can Do

To help structure stability in eastern DRC, the most powerful countries in the international system, the major international organizations (ranging from the UN to the World Bank), and NGOs should support three specific policies at the international level: due diligence in supply chains and international banking, an enhanced MONUSCO, and more effective foreign aid.

MNCs and international banks wield considerable influence on the countries and organizations that write the rules of the international economy. In helping to write those rules, these banks and corporations hold considerable power over who is permitted access to the global economy and under what terms. Such power gives them leverage over the military elites in Rwanda and the DRC. As a result, reform at the international level could affect positive change at the national and regional level.

Due Diligence in Supply Chains

Due diligence in supply chains refers to programs that encourage companies to know the origins of the minerals they purchase and to avoid supporting rebel groups that control the mineral trade. Basically, companies are asked to file reports on the origins of the minerals they purchase; have an independent audit of the report; and then make the report public. Over the past few years, several due diligence supply chain programs have emerged from the UN, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and potentially section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

In addition, the International Tin Research Institute has endorsed a Tin Supply Chain Initiative for tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold; the Electronics Industry Citizen Coalition and Global E-sustainability Initiative have developed a conflict-free smelter program, which will audit the due diligence carried out by mineral processors; Germany has financed a pilot program for a mine site certification project; and the Enough Campaign in the U.S. has developed an index measuring the efforts of electronic companies to clean up their supply chains.

Such programs have obvious limitations. They are voluntary and frequently target only rebel groups, such as FDLR, and not FARDC, a major actor in conflict minerals. Further, Rwanda, the major conduit for mineral transport in the region, has not yet been targeted seriously for compliance, nor have the dozens of air freight companies operating in the region. Nonetheless, such programs have tremendous potential. As noted previously, mining and electronic MNCs have leverage over the Rwanda and Congolese military elite. Even if the major mining and electronic MNCs subcontract to smaller companies to acquire the minerals, they would still have to account for the origins of those minerals.

Moreover, such programs will increase documentation and information that could eventually be used to prosecute reprobate MNCs and countries. For example, last November Congolese citizens living in Montreal filed a class-action suit against Anvil Mining for allegedly providing logistical assistance to FARDC, which then committed human rights abuses against the civilian population in eastern DRC. Also, last year, Global Witness filed a case against the UK government for not publicly reporting British companies that do business in eastern DRC. Even though national courts dismissed both cases, due diligence supply chain initiatives will produce records that could be used to build national and international court cases, and even to support boycott campaigns against culpable MNCs.

Due Diligence in Banking

Equally significant, a nascent movement is emerging to require banks to identify customers, assess the potential for laundering, and monitor accounts for suspicious activities, particularly for international accounts at banks in the UK and its dependencies, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria, and the United States.  This would make it possible to identify, track, and monitor those who are financially benefitting from trade in conflict minerals. Such information could then be used to justify travel bans and to freeze the assets of those who control the mines until they change their behavior. Due diligence requirements in international banking should also be applied to FARDC and those parties involved in the transport of minerals, namely the Rwandan military and the various air freight companies operating in the region.

For the most part, the technology and institutional capacity to implement such oversight already exists. SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) has developed software that can track and monitor money transfers and deposits at 9,000 financial institutions in 209 countries. A program tailored to the specifics of the conflict minerals trade would be able to draw on the expertise of those involved in similar programs all over the world. Although the privacy of banking customers should respected, regulations should make clear that those involved in serious human rights abuses forfeit their right to privacy in international banking.

In addition, the Asset Recovery Section of the UN Convention Against Corruption (CAC)—already responsible for the repatriation of $1.8 billion to Nigeria—could also effectively contribute to in the oversight of international banking. The Asset Recovery Section has experience tracing movements of money and investments through a maze of shell corporations and their hard-to-trace bank accounts in the Seychelles, the British Virgin Islands, and the United Arab Emirates. With the use of SWIFT software programs and the Asset Recovery Section of CAC, those who commit or enable military commercialism would have fewer options to move money out of the region.

This would leave more funds available for legitimate domestic investments. A skeptic might counter that the rampant corruption in the region would undermine any such attempt. However, if one briefly compares China and Indonesia to DRC, one will find that all three have high levels of corruption. But more money remains within the borders of China and Indonesia than in the DRC, which helps make economic development and growth more likely (although certainly not guaranteed) in the former two than the latter.

An Enhanced MONUSCO

An enhanced MONUSCO will have to be part of any program to structure stability in eastern DRC.

Currently, the mission consists of nearly 19,000 uniformed personnel who attempt to promote stability in the region in three important ways. First, the force pressures all armed groups in the region, from FARDC to the FDLR, to stop their predatory activities. Throughout the region, but especially in North and South Kivu, FARDC and the FDLR commonly raid and occupy villages, mines, and trading centers; extort tolls from civilians at roadblocks; and use gender-based violence and rape as a weapon of war to control local populations. Second, the mission also works with FARDC to apprehend the FDLR. Third, MONUSCO directs the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) of former members of Congolese rebel groups and the Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration, and Resettlement (DDRRR) of foreign armed groups from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.

While the mission has achieved some success, FARDC and other groups still engage in predatory activities and disrupt civilian life; the FDLR still controls the hills surrounding North and South Kivu; and the DDR and DDRRR programs have much more work to do. Thus, MONUSCO can be enhanced in two specific ways. First, it needs more trained personnel and an increased budget to better implement its policing and reintegration programs. Second, it is essential that MONUSCO learn to recognize and respond to the local origins of the wider national and regional conflict. In particular, MONUSCO needs to develop conflict resolution programs for local conflicts and train and employ locals to run those programs.

More Effective Foreign Aid

Finally, those who benefit the most from the minerals in eastern DRC—namely, the United States, Belgium, Canada, and China—need to be pressured to provide more selective and more effective foreign aid. Specifically, the aid should be used to build institutional capacity in national and regional ministries, to industrialize the provinces of eastern DRC by having the Congolese process minerals before exporting them, to improve infrastructure, and to enhance agricultural production.

Building institutional capacity in national and regional ministries would include programs to train Congolese regulators to participate in supply chain and financial due diligence, and even allow the Finance Ministry to use capital controls to monitor capital entering and leaving the country. Industrialization would mean building smelting and other plants to at least partly process the minerals and to provide more formal sector employment opportunities. An important part of improving the infrastructure would be to help DRC build a functioning radar system to track and monitor aircraft traveling in and out of the provinces of eastern DRC. And, given the disruption of small-scale agriculture during the last 15 years of conflict, new agricultural extension centers offering inputs, grants, and market advice would help ease malnutrition and hunger.

These suggestions could be implemented nationally within the DRC. Alternately, they could take the form of regional initiatives to promote cooperation between Rwanda and DRC, and perhaps Uganda and Burundi as well, in the construction, management, and maintenance of the infrastructure, the economy, and the agricultural production of the region.

Since the days of King Leopold II, powerful countries have used the rhetoric of reform to mask their brutal, self-interested, imperialist policies in the Congo. It is now time for Western powers (and China) to accept responsibility for their detrimental influence in the country, to acknowledge that the practices of their MNCs and banks are exploitative and plutocratic, and to fulfill their obligation to help structure stability in the eastern DRC. These suggestions will not eliminate conflict in the region, but they could reduce the exploitation of Congolese miners and minimize the expropriation of mineral wealth by an opportunistic military elite.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Patrick Cannon teaches international political economy at Sacramento State. In spring 2009, he was a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Kinshasa. He can be reached at [email protected].


Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting the research and action of more than 600 scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

One thought on “Stabilizing Congo – Analysis

  • September 26, 2011 at 5:10 am

    One correction and an opinion:

    Correction – You say, “All of the minerals (and timber) that leave eastern DRC pass through Rwanda (and sometimes Burundi)…”

    This isn’t anywhere close to true and puts your article/expertise in question as a whole. The eastern minerals go out through Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania at a minimum. We export minerals from the east and have never used Rwanda or Burundi, and almost always Dar es Salaam. Perhaps the illegal ones only out through Rwanda, but there aren’t as much volume of those as you would like people to think.

    Opinion – Dodd-Frank is easily the worst piece of legislation written in 30 years and will be repealed in whole within 14 months. Nothing could be more disastrous to the health and welfare of the Conoglese people than Dodd-Frank. It has caused 95% of legitimate mineral trade to evaporate almost overnight.

    Activists groups who like Dodd-Frank like to quote the Congolese govt’s support of it. These same activists rightly disdain the govt. on every other issue. The others they quote are NGOs.

    I can give you hundreds of people on the ground in the Congo who are being devastated by Dodd-Frank – we know many chiefs whose tribes are suffering because of it. So they quote the govt. and large organizations who don’t have to live with the results, and we’re quoting the chiefs. Who do you think is more likely to know the true effect?

    See – a recent article in the Economist.


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