US legislation aimed at damaging Congolese militias has inadvertently propelled millions deeper into poverty
When his father could no longer make enough money from the tin mine, when he could no longer pay for school, Bienfait Kabesha ran off and joined a militia. It offered the promise of loot and food, and soon he was firing an old rifle on the frontlines of Africa’s deadliest conflict. He was 14.
But what makes Kabesha different from countless other child soldiers is this: his path to war involved not just the wrenchingpoverty and violence of eastern Congo but also an obscure measure passed by US lawmakers. Villagers call it Loi Obama – Obama’s law.
The legislation compels US companies to audit their supply chains to ensure they are not using “conflict minerals” – particularly gold, coltan, tin and tungsten from artisanal mines controlled by Congo’s murderous militias. It was championed by influential activists and lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, and tucked into the massive Wall Street reform law known as the Dodd-Frank Act.
The law’s supporters said it would weaken the militias by cutting off their mining profits. But the legislation, signed by President Obama four years ago, set off a chain of events that has propelled millions of miners and their families deeper into poverty, according to interviews with miners, community leaders, activists and Congolese and western officials, as well as recent visits to four large mining areas.
As it sought to comply with the law, Congo’s government shut down the mining industry for months. Then, a process was launched to certify the country’s minerals as conflict-free. But the process is unfolding at a glacial pace, marred by a lack of political will, corruption and bureaucratic and logistical delays. That has led foreign companies to avoid buying the minerals, which has driven down prices. Many miners are forced to find other ways to survive, including by joining armed groups. Meanwhile, the militias remain potent threats. “The intention of the law was good, but in practice it was not well thought out,” said Eric Kajemba, director of the Observatory for Governance and Peace, a regional nonprofit group. “This is a country where the government is absent in many areas, plagued by years of war and bad governance, where the economic tissue has been destroyed. The American lawmakers didn’t appear to take this into consideration.” Requests for comment were made to former Democratic Senator Russell Feingold from Wisconsin, a key backer of the conflict-minerals measure who is now US special envoy to the Great Lakes region, which includes Congo. But his office said he was not available. The state department also did not reply to several requests for comment.
As of June, the government had certified just 25 mining sites out of hundreds in South and North Kivu provinces as “green”, meaning there were no armed groups and no children or pregnant women labourers, according to UN monitors. As of October, there were only 11 mines out of more than 900 in South Kivu where minerals were “tagged” conflict-free, said Adalbert Murhi Mubalama, the province’s minister of mines.
Government and international mine certification agencies, he said, have been unable to audit most mining areas because of their size, poor roads and insecurity. Shabunda territory, where most of South Kivu’s mines are located, is almost as big as Belgium and is controlled mostly by a ruthless militia. The government, he said, “can’t go there”.
The UN estimates that Congo has untapped mineral reserves worth $24 trillion. Since the late 1990s militias, rebel groups and armies have plundered these riches to fuel a string of wars that have caused more deaths than any conflict since the second world war.
In the US, the furore over conflict minerals intensified with revelations that multinational firms such as Apple, Intel and Motorola were unwittingly buying conflict minerals to make products such as smartphones and laptop computers. Activists pressured lawmakers to pass the measure in the Dodd-Frank Act.
It quickly had an effect. In the autumn of 2010, two months after the law’s signing, Congo’s government halted mining for six months, even at facilities not controlled by armed groups. The move had tremendous repercussions in a country where, by some estimates, a sixth of the 70 million inhabitants depend on artisanal mining.
In Luntukulu, a mineral-rich region nestled in rocky hills near the border of Shabunda territory, more than a dozen out-of-work miners joined the Raia Mutomboki militia after the government imposed the ban, village elders and mining cooperative leaders said. “If we were earning more money from mining, I would not have entered the militia,” said Kabesha, now 16, as he sat in a grass hut. When he joined, he was handed a rifle and taught to shoot. Within months he was looting villages and fighting government forces and other militias. Last year he fled and entered a programme to rehabilitate child soldiers. But he is still not attending school.
In 2010, before the law passed, miners sold a kilogram of tin for $7. The world market price averaged $18 a kilo. Scores of buyers came to Luntukulu for minerals. They were exported to smelters around the world, from which US companies purchased them.Now, the miners get only $4 for a kilo of tin, even though the global market price this year has averaged $22 per kilo. None of the 15 mines in Luntukulu that produce tin and gold have been certified as conflict-free. This year only 12 buyers showed up, miners and community leaders said.
Some of the untagged minerals are bought by Chinese and Indian trading houses not subject to the Dodd-Frank law. But the loss of American and other western clients has been keenly felt.
With less money flowing in, shops in Luntukulu have closed. Many people struggle to feed their families through farming. “If Obama’s law wasn’t signed, the ban would not have existed,” said Waso Mutiki, 41, president of the miners’ co-operative in Luntukulu. “It destroyed everything.”
Even at the few mines certified as conflict-free, miners face hardship. Near Nzibira, a village about 24km from here, miners in blue uniforms dig in pits, searching for tin ore. The minerals are placed in tagged bags, indicating they meet international standards. But the miners still get $4 per kilo. That’s because there are only a few trading houses in the provincial capital, Bukavu, due to the limited supply of tagged minerals and delays in providing government licences to buy them, miners and community leaders said. The houses fix the price, they added. “The law of Obama is like a weight on us,” said Michel Mushagalusa, 30, vice-president of the mining cooperative in Nzibira.
“Four years went by with almost no support for Congolese miners,” wrote the Enough Project, a powerful activist group in an open letter published on 30 October. It added that American and other donors had only recently set up aid programmes, “but they have yet to be felt by mining communities”.
In a report published this summer, the Enough Project found that armed groups were no longer present at two-thirds of tin, tungsten and coltan mines in three eastern Congo provinces and cited the law as the reason. None the less, some of the most brutal militias are still thriving in those provinces and others.
In some areas outside of Luntukulu and in Shobunda territory the Raia Mutomboki are the lords. The militia, whose name means “outraged citizens” in Swahili, sells diggers access to mining pits and takes a percentage of the minerals unearthed, a large portion of which are smuggled out through neighbouring countries. The fighters also exact taxes at checkpoints.
Regulating the minerals, they say, does little to thwart the militias.
“Almost all our mines are controlled by Raia Mutomboki,” said Mozart Manigua, 42, president of a co-operative that oversees 20 mines in Kimbli, a vast area within Shabunda. Local people “have no choice but to work for the militia”.
In other areas, militias have switched to selling palm oil, charcoal, marijuana, cattle and soap, said community leaders, activists and UN monitors. Their income is hardly as much as they earned from minerals, but it’s enough to continue destabilising eastern Congo.
Supporters of the American law say the plundering of minerals is a key stimulant of the conflict. They say the legislation has spurred measures by corporations and African governments to help end the illegal trade. But even some of the law’s biggest proponents say the Obama administration and tech companies should have provided aid as the legislation was being implemented.
Some activists and researchers say that minerals are not the core cause of Congo’s war, that there are other, more powerful factors, such as political and ethnic struggles and conflicts over land.
Gold remains a lucrative financial pipeline for armed groups , according to UN investigators. By some estimates, $400m in gold from artisanal mines was smuggled out last year, most of it fuelling armed groups and tainting the global gold supply.
Increasingly Congo’s army is becoming a major player in the conflict-minerals trade. Soldiers help smuggle untagged minerals out through Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, according to UN experts and Congolese government and law enforcement officials. “It’s some of the big commanders,” said Mubalama, the mining minister.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post