‘Conflict Minerals’, Canada and African Civil Wars

The global campaign against so-called ‘conflict minerals’ is gathering pace, with Canada playing a central role.The campaign is primarily focused on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), from where reports about ‘rape’ or ‘blood’ cellphones’ have fueled our collective guilt, so much so that the names of previously obscure minerals such as coltan and tantalum now roll off the tongue as easily as Blackberry and Motorola. The suggestion is that by curbing the trade in these conflict minerals, we can simultaneously end the violence in the DRC. It is a seductive—and dangerously simplistic—proposition.

Talk of Congolese conflict minerals started during the Congo war, when the U.N. Panel of Inquiry documented widespread illegal trade in minerals.  Advocacy groups, such as the Enough Project and Global Witness, then pushed for an end to this trade. One result has been the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in the U.S., which will eventually require all American electronic firms to identify if they are using DRC-sourced minerals in their products. As part of these developments, Canada is now involved in setting up a complex system for tracking conflict minerals in the DRC and Rwanda. The system builds on the Kimberley Process, which was designed to curb trade in ‘blood diamonds’ from Sierra Leone.  In other words, it rests to some degree on the assumption that Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war was in fact caused primarily by diamonds. There is much evidence to suggest that it was not.

Diamonds undoubtedly played a role in Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, but its root causes may be both much more mundane and much more complex than the fascination with ‘blood diamonds’ suggests. Rather than a simple story of greed and illegal diamond trade, the conflict was part of a revolt against oppressive agrarian structures. In a recent article in African Affairs, the leading scholarly journal in African studies, Esther Mokuwa, Maarten Voors, Erwin Bulte and Paul Richardsdemonstrate how the war has to be understood in the context of an underclass of young men who have become dependent upon larger farmers through their inability to find legal marriage partners. Young men in the peasant communities of rural eastern and southern Sierra Leone (where 60% of the Revolutionary United Front’s fighters originated from) must pay bride wealth and bride service to marry, and this requires the assistance of an elder. As a result, young men are frequently unable to marry until they approach middle age, and in the meantime, they become tied to village elders in a form of serfdom through coerced labour. The authors show how grievance over this form of labour exploitation fueled the civil war, which was in important respects a peasant revolt aimed at overturning an agrarian world in which landholders had over-taxed young labourers. The RUF allowed young men to break free from restrictive customary institutions, and while they may have ended up digging for diamonds this was much more than simply a ‘new war’ fought with economic rather than political objectives.

In the DRC too there is much to suggest that while the mining of precious metals and minerals is part of the dynamics of conflict, it may not be the main cause—and certainly not the only cause—of these conflicts. Here too, complex local struggles over access to land, disputes over traditional and administrative power, and conflict over local resources such as cattle and charcoal are crucial, as documented for example in Séverine Autesserre’s book The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacekeeping.

Such multilayered accounts of Africa’s civil wars are much more difficult to engage with and give international actors fewer points of entry. They do not lend themselves to emotional, guilt-inducing headlines about ‘blood cellphones’, nor do they suggest a simple, one-step solution. Unlike the stories of conflict minerals and blood diamonds, the heroes and the villains are much more difficult to identify—and the western consumer no longer gets to play the lead role.

All this is not to say that current efforts to curb illegal trade in minerals from conflict zones and promote a more ethical trade in African minerals should be abandoned, or that they will achieve nothing good. These initiatives might well contribute toward curbing some forms of violence. They may also force Western (and Canadian) companies to clean up their practices and move towards less exploitative, less coercive business relations. That would be a major achievement.

Whether or not such initiatives will solve African conflicts is an entirely different matter. The danger is that by making illegal mining the only story about the conflict in eastern Congo, other causes—requiring more complex solutions—will be ignored. Meanwhile, the international community will invest vast sums in cumbersome tracking procedures that may be easily avoided in an environment of weak institutional capacities and porous borders.

Ultimately, then, the campaign against conflict minerals might do more to restore Canada’s image abroad and make Canadians feel like ‘good global citizens’ than it does to bring peace to the DRC.

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