Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, April 5, 2010

Five misconceptions about the Congo conflict

1. The conflict in the DRC is all about minerals.
Not quite. The war began in 1996, with three main causes: the collapse of the Zairian state after 32 years of misrule; the spillover from the Rwandan genocide with a million refugees (including perpetrators of genocide) on Congolese soil; and local conflicts over land, citizenship and power. There was a lot of money made from looting tin and gold stocks in the Kivus in 1996/7, and some multinationals (Lundin, AMF, De Beers) made deals with the rebels before they got to Kinshasa, but there is little indication that this was a main motivation for the war.

More substantial involvement in the minerals trade began with the coltan boom of 1999-2001. Now the minerals trade is the the largest money maker in the Kivusm, and many armed groups, including the Congolese army, heavily tax the minerals trade and make a fortune. But they also make money off charcoal (a $30 million dollar trade around Goma alone), fuel (the biggest import commodity) and other trade.

Also, there are many areas where there are rebel groups but few minerals - for example, the Lord's Resistance Army, that massacred over 300 people in December, does not appear to be exploiting the mineral trade. Laurent Nkunda's CNDP, possibly the strongest militia in the region until 2009, only controlled one mine, although they had interests in many trading companies in Goma for which they provided protection.

So yes, mining is a key element in the conflict and has served to prolong the fighting and motivate some of the actors. But the violence is a result of a many things and to reduce it to mining would be simplistic.

2. Coltan, a key ingredient for cell phones, is the main mineral traded in the Congo
Nope. Coltan does contain tantalum, which is a crucial ingredient for cell phones. Coltan exports peaked in 2000 due to a bubble in the market, but collapsed and little coltan was exported between 2002-2007. Tin is still king: In 2009, according to Congolese government figures, 520 tons of coltan were exported from the Kivus and around twenty times as much tin.

[Caveat: because a lot of coltan gets exported as tin (it's twice as valuable, so its cheaper to export it as tin), we may not have very accurate figures. Also, recently coltan prices have been climbing up again after several big mines elsewhere in the world suspended operations.]

It's also important to note that over 80% of the world's tantalum comes from Australia, Brazil and Canada, according to the US Geological Survey.

3. The FDLR is composed of Interahamwe and ex-FAR who carried out the 1994 genocide
Misleading, although this is what the Rwandan government and even some diplomats like to say. The FDLR was formed in 2000, and many of its commanding officers used to be in the Forces Armees Rwandaises (FAR), Juvenal Habyarimana's army that was defeated during the genocide. The former FDLR commander once told me that, several years ago, almost all officers over the rank of captain had been in the FAR. But that does not mean that they participated in the genocide - some units, such as the presidential guard, helped orchestrate the killings, while others did not take part.

As for the Interahamwe, who knows. What we do know is that a great many of the FDLR troops (perhaps over 50%) are under the age of 30, which would have made then around 14 at the time of the genocide - they could have participated, but most studies (Scott Strauss, for example), find that very few perpetrators were under the age of 14, while perhaps 20% were between 15-20 years old. That would mean that up to half of the FDLR are probably not genocidaires, although racist anti-Tutsi ideology is pretty alive within the movement.

4. The CNDP is a Tutsi militia
Sort of. The CNDP was (in theory they don't exist anymore, although they maintain their command structure) led mostly by Tutsi officers and backed mostly by the Tutsi community. They only had around 1-5 non-Tutsi field commanders over the rank of Major. But a majority of footsoldiers were non-Tutsi, including a large number of Congolese Hutu peasants and members of the Hunde and Nande community, some of whom were recruited by force.

5. The UN mission has failed to protect civilians in conflict zones
That's pretty accurate. But "protecting civilians in imminent danger," which is their literal mandate, is easier said than done. MONUC will find out about a massacre days after it happened and fly hundreds of miles to "observe corpses," which is what some Congolese think their mandate actually is. MONUC has too few soldiers, they are not embedded with their Congolese counterparts, and the country is too big.

The point is, if you wait until the danger is imminent, it's probably too late to intervene. Even if you are close enough (which is rare), intervening means becoming party to the conflict, which the UN is reluctant to do. Evidence is the CNDP Kiwanja massacre, which happened under their noses in 2008, and the RCD Kisangani massacre in May 2002 - in both cases, MONUC was within earshot of the massacre.

A better protecting civilians is by deterring violence, not intervening when it's too late. MONUC has had a spotty record at deterrence: they prevented the CNDP from taking Goma in 2006, killing up to 500 CNDP soldiers, but they allowed the CNDP to take Bukavu in 2004 and failed to get Kinshasa demilitarized to prevent to post-election violence in 2007.

(More to come soon).


Elizabeth Allen said...

Great blog. I wrote a piece on the Congo conflict mineral bills in the House and Senate. It's called "Buying War: Why a Kimberley Process for Congolese 'conflict minerals' won't achieve what its supporters hope."

keith harmon snow said...

Really, this is more apology and whuitewash by Jason Stearns. He references the few minerals companies he does but only as companies that made deals with the "rebels" in 1996/7. I don't see any companies named there that are operating at present....BANRO, Moto, Metalurg, Lazare Kaplan, Mwana Africa, or the Israeli companies of Gertler and Steinmetz. So how do you see him revealing corporate interests in the Congo of present (1998-2010)? And, he tries to deflect attention from the CNDP being Kagame's army. And, he is apologizing for MONUC who is a combattant, not a peacekeeper entity. To say that the LRA is not involved in mining is true, but it covers up the existence of, and Stearns never talks about, Heritage Oil, H Oil, Hardmann Oil, Branch Energy, and so many more western intersts whose advantages are partly secured by the LRA maintaing a a state of chaos and depopulating the land, esp Northern Uganda, and Stearns says nothing at all about tehe real probelm (not the LRA) and that is MUSEVENI. Worst of all, Stearns either doesn't have any idea what he is talking about or he is outright lying when he says that TIN is the biggest money maker in Congo. Tin, tantalum germanium, niobium -- COMBINE them all, and add diamonds, and you STILL don't come close to the value of COBALT. His blog is clearly a direct response to my charges against him in my last story, but its beyond weak. This is damage control.

keith harmon snow

Jason Stearns said...

I encourage readers to take a look at Keith Harmon Snow's article that mentions me - although the above is not in any way inspired by it - at and make up their own mind.

Unknown said...

Jason, as someone living and working in Goma I appreciate your insight and look forward to reading more. But reading that Snow article was such a waste of time. Luckily it's raining in Goma and I'm stuck at home....

Jason Stearns said...

I recommended it to show what a waste of time it is. Sorry for the annoying exercise.

Anonymous said...

I spent some time with a Hutu rebel commander from Burundi in 2008/9, and it was impression that huge numbers of his men had been lured across the border by high pay from FDLR. Though most of these guys were too young to be involved in Rwanda's genocide, they were all generally Hutu nationalists.

Jason Stearns said...

Yes, there have been many Burundian Hutu who have joined the FDLR, but hard to say how many exactly. Could be dozens, could be hundreds.

Anonymous said...

I have no idea how many total, but there are dozens just from the one provincial group of palipehutu I'm familiar with. This is probably an upper bound for any province given that these guys were already living in a camp along the Congo border and were one of the last to settle with the Burundi government.

Anonymous said...

I dont know who your intended audience was for this post but i found it a "waste of time". If it was for those with little knowledge of the conflict then the post is inadequate to say the least - not one piece of historical fact and no analysis. If it is for those who have a better understanding of the conflict then it again is inadequate as it adds nothing. At least Snow takes the time to give some analysis to his posts. Regarding the augment about the mining of cobalt - as you say you cannot know the exact quantities since it is mixed up with tin so you contradict the point you are trying to make.

You are right in saying reducing the conflict to mining is an over simplification and yes cobalt is not the only mineral and or commodity produced in the DRC. Maybe you should have just said that the conflict is complex and present some of the historically and politically contributing factors instead of trying to "simplify" a conflict in 5 points.

Lewis - the dismissive tone of your comment makes me think of arrogance.

Unknown said...

Situation isn,t so grim.
Most things are hyped by some NGOs UN officials to attract more funds and importance.
Most HR allegations are frivolous. in one such case there was allegation of FARDC killing 500 civilian when only 5 died of malaria.
More noises , more money.
Pay earned by NGO employees is far more than their spendings on social schemes.
the less said the better

Minding said...

You make subtle and important points without minimizing the results. Thanks.

George Fowler
(Twitter) DRCongoLight
(Facebook) DR Congo: Light the Heart of Darkness

Jennifer Schell said...


Hello! My name is Jennifer Schell and Im graduated in political science, right now I’m studying a MA in international relations, I am currently doing my thesis which it calls "the role of women in the armed conflict in the republic Congo”. I’m wondering if you could help me providing me any information on this subject, and also I kindly ask you to please answer these questions.

Thanking you in advance for your answer and your time and hoping to hear soon from you again.

Best regards,

Jennifer Schell

My questios are the following:

1. What does the woman in African society represents? Is it treated with respect and equality?
2. In the Democratic Republic of Congo there is a historical conflict, from your slant: What role women has played and plays in the mentioned conflict?
3. In April 2009 the UN declared a significant increase in violations of Congolese women; what do you believe this increase is due?
4. Why women are utilized as a war weapon into armed conflicts?
5. Are there public policies or specific actions taken by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to prevent the used of women as a war weapon?
6. Considering this fact, what and how does the African Union acts?
7. Are there any government actions and/or plans in conjunction with international organizations (NGOs)?
8. From your perspective: Which is the most worrying issue in the conflict inside the Democratic Republic of Congo?
9. Are there policies or actions aimed to improve the conditions of African women in armed conflicts?
10. Could you mention or make reference of another conflict, within the African continent, where women have been respected and another where she has not been?
11. From you r angle: Why rapes occur in armed conflicts?
12. At the present time, are there some guilty of these rapes serving sentences?
13. Are there any rehabilitation programs for women who have been raped?
14. What happens to children born product of rapes?
15. Is it justified the use of women as a war weapon in the armed conflict?

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