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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The sword thief: Reflections on Congolese independence

Congo: Happy 51st anniversary of independence. 

Instead of remembering Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Mulele or Simon Kimbangu, I'll choose Ambroise Boimbo this time. His claim to fame? Stealing King Baudouin' sword when the Belgian monarch arrived for independence celebrations in 1960. What was he thinking? Was he caught up in the delirium of independence, annoyed that he hadn't been able to fight his way to freedom? Was he egged on by friends? 

In my imaginary reconstruction of the event, I see Boimbo as a frustrated hero, a brave man posing a futile act of rebellion, who was robbed - like all Congolese - of a fair fight, who had to accept a fake independence on a silver platter. 

In a way, this lèse majesté symbolizes both the joy of being free, as well as the sad reality that the Congolese had neither proper preparation or a thorough decolonization. For how else can one explain the fact that the culmination of the struggle for independence was your previous colonizer parading down the main street in full military regalia? That even after Boimbo was caught, King Baudouin asked for him to be released, patronizing him?

The Belgians were letting the Congolese have their freedom, but - as the Congolese so often say - it was a poisoned chalice, as they had no one to rule their country, little national polity or political organization to speak of. There was only a handful of university graduates in the whole country, the highest ranking black officer in the army was a sergeant. Give me that sword, you who proclaim independence, when really that's just another kind of oppression you are handing me.

The sword thief was brave, a bit foolhardy. I wish more people today could stand up to their leaders like this. But at the same time, he symbolizes the lack of true rebellion and freedom that June 30, 1960 brought. 

Take ten minutes and look at this fascinating reconstruction of the event, Ambroise's life and his sad end in the Kintambo cemetery in Kinshasa.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mass rape reveals the fragility of rebel integration process

Over the past few days, information has come trickling in about yet another case of mass rape in the eastern Congo. According to Doctors Without Borders, local health centers, and the UN, anywhere between 121 and 170 women may have been raped on June 11 and 12 in Abala and Nyakiele, two villages in Fizi territory, South Kivu.

Why? In most reports on the incident, the essential context is missing. In this case, the context is the simultaneous integration of armed groups and the formation of new regiments out of existing brigades. This twin process - while probably necessary  - has been rushed and has produced a volatile and often violent situation, of which this mass rape may be a symptom.

So what happened in Fizi? This is what we know so far. 
The Congolese army is undergoing a process of troop consolidation, regrouping their brigades - which are often desperately understaffed, with only 400-800 soldiers - into regiments of 1,200 soldiers. So far, four regiments have been formed in South Kivu, and another five are on their way. Soldiers are being pulled together in training centers, where they are consolidated and placed under new command. 

On June 7, the commander of the 10th military region, General Patrick Masunzu, ordered all weapons in the Kananda training center to be stockpiled. This infuriated Colonel Kifaru Niragire, who had been commanding the 43rd sector. Col. Kifaru alleged that Gen. Masunzu was going to name Colonel Ruterera, a Munyamulenge officer from the FRF armed group, as the commander of the newly formed regiment. As Kifaru was the previously the overall commander of several brigades, he felt he was being passed over in favor of an officer from Masunzu's ethnic community.

A stand-off ensued in the training center, and Col. Kifaru deserted along with around 170 soldiers, climbing into the mountains of the High Plateau that rises up to the west of Lake Tanganyika. According to some sources, he was later joined by a small group of around 20 FDLR Rwandan rebels. Col. Kifaru is a Hutu from North Kivu and a former commander of PARECO, which had links to the mainly Hutu FDLR.

On the night of June 10, Col. Kifaru's group passed through Abala, a small village of around 300 people, mostly from the Bembe community. According to diplomatic sources who investigated the incident, Col. Kifaru's men ransacked the village for food and valuables. In the course of this pillage, his soldiers allegedly raped 15 women (some sources are higher).

The following day, the soldiers continued towards Nyakiele, a larger town 17 kilometers away, also mostly inhabited by Bembe. There, again according to diplomatic sources, Col. Kifaru's men supposedly asked for food from the population. They then proceeded to ransack the village before leaving the following day, June 12. After their departure, 31 women reported to the health center that they had been raped. When a team from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) arrived on June 22 and 23, a further 80 women came forward to state they had been raped. 

Since leaving the training camp, Col. Kifaru has been in touch with the Congolese regional commander, Gen. Masunzu regarding reintegration. Masunzu reportedly acknowledged that Col. Kifaru was right in asking to be a regimental commander, and the deserters were ready to came to the Luberizi training center when news broke out about the abuses in Nyakiele and Abala. Col. Kifaru has maintained his innocence, suggesting that the local Bembe population has manufactured these reports for political reasons. A local Mai-Mai commander from the Bembe community, "General" Yakutumba, had listed Col. Kifaru as one of his principle enemies in a document he published in February this year. Congolese army spokespeople have also dismissed the allegations of abuse. 

A joint team composed of officials from the UN peacekeeping mission, the governor's office and the Congolese army went to Nyakiele this week to investigate the rape charges and is due to report back soon. Congolese officers are worried that a rape scandal will make it more difficult to reintegrate Col. Kifaru's men into the army, as they will be pressured to arrest him, which could lead to another stand-off.

This episode reveals the fragility of the integration and regimentation exercise. Col. Kifaru is not the first commander to desert - other, smaller groups have been defecting in North Kivu, as well. This has several causes: Units are asked to consolidate, which inevitably results in some commanders being demoted while others are relegated to tedious, ill-paid jobs at headquarters. To make matters worse, the integration of groups like the FRF and Mai-Mai Kapopo has stirred up ethnic resentment and created even more rank-inflation to fulfill rebels' demands. 
Finally, impunity, once again, risks becoming the (somewhat brittle) glue of the ramshackle army. The integration process is all carrot and no stick. Commanders are rarely vetted for past abuses and - as this example shows - the government has often been reduced to kow-towing to rebel demands.

As for the motives of the rapes - initial reports are inconclusive. Some officials I have spoken with cast doubts on the scale of the rapes, pointing to the suspiciously similar and forthcoming testimonies of the women in Nyakiele, along with the increase in rape claims when MSF arrived.

But everyone seems to agree that a large number of rapes did take place. The hypotheses vary between ethnic tensions between the Bembe and Hutu communities and the theory that a large number of deserters needs to be fed, and the looting operations often provoke a frenzy of brutality that then results in rape.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

More info on food prices

It turns out the internet is a fascinating place for people looking for information on food prices. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has some great price tracking tools here that allow you to make your own charts out of different commodities.

I have pasted several different charts below to give you an idea of food price developments in the Congo and their possible political importance. In the first chart, I compare cassava flour - probably the most important, cheapest staple in much of the country - in Kinshasa, Kisangani, Bunia and Lubumbashi. Two observations: Kinshasa is much more susceptible to fluctuations in the food markets, even the local one (all cassava flour is sourced locally), due to its reliance on the hinterlands for food. So an increase in fuel prices and bottlenecks in supply will affect this behemoth of a city much more than places like Bunia, where there is plentiful local production.

My second observation on this chart is that, while cassava prices have risen gradually, increasing by 15-35%, they are still below their crazy peak in 2008-2009 during the financial crisis. (We also need to be a bit careful about this price index, as it is expressed in Congolese francs, which have seen 10-20% inflation over the past two years - some of the economy is still dollarized, which provides a bit of a buffer to inflation in local francs).

On the second chart I compare different commodities in the capital Kinshasa - the reason for this focus is that, if there is going to be serious urban unrest, Kinshasa - the third largest city on the continent - is a likely candidate. Wheat - which is all imported - is obviously more susceptible to fluctuations in international markets, but otherwise most commodities seem to be more or less tracking levels of inflation in the country (I'd have to do a more rigorous analysis of the prices to be sure of this) and (possibly) fuel prices.

The last chart is a comparison of two African countries that have seen urban unrest linked to high food prices recently: Uganda and Burkina Faso. Here, the prices of imports (not the locally produced sorghum in the case of BF) has risen much more steeply than in the Congo, by 60-150% over the past year (I'm eyeballing it).

Friday, June 24, 2011

Food and fuel prices in the Congo

The IMF has warned that rising food prices will be a major challenge for the Congo this year; rising food and fuel prices are alleged to have contributed to civil unrest in Burkina Faso, Tunisia and Uganda this year, and Global food prices have risen 30% since last year, says the World Bank. So it is worthwhile looking at their impact on the tense situation in the Congo before elections. According to Minister of Information (aka the Congolese vuvuzela) Lambert Mende, taxes on food have been cut to help consumers.

Here are the price for the past year, courtesy of the Food Security Portal.

Commodity Prices ($US/Kg)
                            Dec 10 Jan 11 Feb 11 Mar 11 Apr 11 May 11
Maize Prices           0.41     0.42     0.40      0.42     0.43      0.50
Rice Prices             0.63     0.60      0.59      0.63     0.69     0.72

This is in line with central bank stats that record inflation in the year to date at 12%, which would come out to 17% year-on-year. That is not good, but we should also recall that the country saw inflation of over 50% in 2009. Here is another metric, provided by FAO, but only updated to March this year.

In addition, fuel prices - which affect the transport of all of these commodities - have gone up in the past few weeks due to international fuel prices and tax changes in the Congo. Fuel prices in Kinshasa have gone from $1,2 to $1,3 per liter.

Doesn't look good. But perhaps not as combustible as elsewhere?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kamerhe unfurls new alliance

It says something about the fragmentation of Congolese politics that each candidates has to stitch together alliances of dozens of parties and political leaders. Kabila has the "Majorité Presidentielle," Tshisekedi has the "Dynamique Tshisekedi Président" as well as Roger Lumbala's "Soutien a Etienne Tshisekedi". Today Vital Kamerhe announced his own alliance: "Alternance Vital Kamerhe."

For those who had been expecting defections from Kabila's camp, none were forthcoming. Nonetheless, Vital has been able to garner some important allies, most promimently: Ne Muanda Nsemi, the popular leader of the outlawed Bundu dia Kongo and Bundu dia Mayala groups; Charles Bofassa Njema, a popular opposition MP from Mbandaka; and Raphael Katebe Katato, a former leader of the RCD, brother of the governor of Katanga and rich businessman from Lubumbashi. These men bring with them either popularity (Nsemi, Bofassa) or money (Katebe).

Then there are people who bring with them their own individual weight, as well as symbolism that will rancor Kamerhe's opponents. Mwenze Kongolo, who served as minister from both Joseph and Laurent Kabila; and Gaston Dindo and Mulumba Katshi, two former high-ranking leaders of Tshiskedi's party. These individuals, however, bring little money or popular base with them to the alliance.

The presence of his two former allies is not the only thing that will irk Tshisekedi - Kamerhe also taunted him, referring to his reputation as eternal opponent: "I want to be clear. I do not want to dispute the leadership of the opposition with anybody. I will give the opposition to he who wants to keep it forever. My ambition is to become president of the Republic." The gloves, apparently, have come off after months during which Kamerhe did not react to Tshisekedi's cold-shouldering of his candidacy.

Finally, for those who were hoping for "Mopepe ya Sika" - new air, Kamerhe's slogan - they were also liable to be disappointed. Kamerhe has now linked up with numerous figures tainted by corruption or other abuse of office. Katebe Katoto has been linked by the UN to the financing of several armed groups in the Kivus; Kongolo has also been named in UN reports, linked to extra-legal use of Congolese resources together with the Zimbabwean government. This is in addition to Kamerhe's repeated calls for Jean-Pierre Bemba to be released from jail, and his coalition with the former UPC party of another ICC-indictee, Thomas Lubanga.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Congo's Opposition Faces Internal Discord

Last month, a number of opposition leaders were invited to dinner at an ambassador's residence in Kinshasa. According to one of the people present, Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition leader, was asked by a diplomat what his party's position would be if the president stayed in office after December 6, 2011, when his constitutional mandate expires. This has been an important question of late, as several NGOs - including the International Crisis Group and ASADHO - have pushed for the election date to be pushed back to allow for a better organization of elections. The main opposition parties have stuck to their guns, insisting that the constitution be respected.

According to the witness, Tshisekedi answered the diplomat brazenly: If Kabila's term runs out, there will have to be a government of national unity. He implied that the opposition would have to be represented in equal measure as the current regime.

Tshisekedi has since denied having said this, but opposition has been ratcheting up the pressure on Kabila, insisting on November 28, 2011 as the election date.

Etienne Tshisekedi

This obstinacy is just one example of the poor tactics displayed by the opposition in recent months. It is true that the opposition face serious harassment and a lack of funds, and the incumbent is using his access to state media and security services to campaign. But in a country where Kabila is probably significantly less popular than in 2006, when he won 58% of the vote, the opposition will also have themselves to blame if, as is expected, Kabila is voted in for another five years in office.

Tshisekedi's notorious stubbornness is one reason for this. President Kabila's party changed the constitution earlier this year to get rid of the run-off election for the presidency. This reform was intended to divide the opposition, making it easier for Kabila to win re-election, even if with only 20% or 25% of the vote. In this context, Tshisekedi's insistence that he is the unique opposition candidate has been unproductive. Almost since he returned triumphantly to Kinshasa last December, the veteran opposition leader has been proclaiming that he will run for the presidency regardless of what the other opposition candidates think. More recently, he has also proclaimed himself as the undisputed leader of the opposition. In this interview with Colette Braeckman, when asked if he is the unique opposition candidate, he answered:
But yes, of course, that is obvious. I count on being the only candidate and even now there are more than ten opposition candidates who have signed up to my candidacy through the coalition Dynamique Tshisekedi President. We are really on the right path. 
Jean-Pierre Bemba
But none of the ten candidates he mentioned have much weight (nor are they all registered presidential candidates). The best known among them are Diomi Ndongala, Roger Lumbala and Frank Diongo - none of whom have much popular support. (Diomi got 0,51% of the vote in 2006 and Lumbala 0,45%).

More importantly, neither of the other main opposition parties, Vital Kamehre's UNC or Jean-Pierre Bemba's MLC, has endorsed Tshisekedi for president. In fact, Tshiskedi has been dismissive of Kamerhe - in a recent interview on RFI, he suggested that he wasn't sure if Kamerhe was really a member of the opposition, saying that even in his native South Kivu Kamerhe was associated with Kabila. Kamerhe, for his part, is said to have been furious when he visited Tshiskedi at his house and was made to wait for an hour in the waiting room.

Vital Kamerhe
But the two other parties have troubles of their own. Jean-Pierre Bemba, who won 42% of the vote in 2006, is still languishing in an ICC jail cell in the The Hague. Nonetheless, he has insisted that he will be coming home and standing for elections. This seems highly unlikely given how long it takes for the ICC to reach a verdict (Lubanga's trial is over two years old now, Bemba's trial is only seven months old). In the meantime, his party is being riven by internal dissent. Several months ago, the acting head of the party Francois Mwamba led an internal faction that seemed to be trying to shake free Bemba's control over the party, either to name a different candidate for elections or to make an alliance with Kabila's party.

Mwamba was quickly ousted by Thomas Luhaka, who has now been named by the founding members of the party (backed by Bemba) as Secretary-General. Mwamba, however, has sued for justice in court, and the ruling in now scheduled for August. In the meantime, the party - which has also seen the prominent defections of Delly Sesanga (who has endorsed Tshisekedi) and José Makila (who is courting the government) - has done little in terms of preparing the grassroots for elections. D-Day for the MLC will come soon, as Bemba has to register to vote before the Kinshasa registration comes to an end in just a few weeks (the MLC is pushing for the registration centers to stay open until August). If he does not register to vote, he cannot run for the presidency.

Vital Kamerhe has probably faced the most repression of all the opposition candidates. One of the leaders of the women's wing of the party was assassinated in South Kivu; the culprit and motive of the murder are still unknown. Several of his party leaders in Maniema and South Kivu have been detained or harassed, and when he showed up to campaign in Goma and Bukavu, the local security forces prevented him from holding his speeches as planned. Although Kamerhe has national stature and made many friends across party and ethnic lines during his tenure as president of the national assembly, he has done little popular mobilization outside of the Kivus since he first announced his candidacy. He has been most adamant in getting the opposition to unite and is reported to be ready to endorse another candidate under the right circumstances (e.g. that he would get the nod for prime minister if their coalition wins sufficient seats in parliament).

In sum, harassment is certainly a problem for the opposition. But the stubbornness of figures like Tshisekedi and Bemba and their reluctance to build a genuine opposition coalition could prove to be just as formidable. We will have to wait and see whether they are able to overcome their egos and join up. We also need to see what the political figures who do have an electoral base decide to do - figures such as Ne Muanda Nsemi (Bas Congo), Mbusa Nyamwisi (North Kivu) and Nzanga Mobutu (Equateur) have not to my knowledge made official endorsements.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tidbits from travels

I have been traveling over the past few weeks in London, Brussels and Nairobi. In the course of these travels I have been speaking with some interesting people. Here are some tidbits from these conversations, some of which I still have to confirm (readers welcome to chip in):

  • The Congolese government has postponed arbitration over key oil blocks in the Atlantic with the Angolan government until 2013. This follows heightened tensions over Blocks 14 & 15 that prompted speculation that Angola may be considering supporting an opponent to Kabila during the upcoming elections. By putting off arbitration the Congolese government has managed to firm up relations with their southern neighbor.
  • Butembo, the North Kivu town long known for its booming trade and business sector, has been losing its edge in the import-export business that brought it prosperity. This may be linked to two factors: first, traders from elsewhere in the Congo have begun to establish networks in Dubai and Guangzhou, so Butembo-based traders no longer have an advantage; secondly, the business arrangement between the Butembo business elite and local politicians has frayed - during the war, this relationship (with Mbusa Nyamwisi at the time) allowed businessmen to avoid the exobitant customs and taxes traders had to deal with elsewhere.
  • Several independent analysts from Kinshasa give Kabila good chances at winning the upcoming elections. The constitutional revision, coupled with the significant resources the government is already pouring into campaigning, as well as the fractured opposition, lead them to believe Kabila could win, even if he only gets 25% of the total vote.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Troubles in the integration of armed groups

The Congolese government is officially tired of negotiating with every new band of rebels that emerges in the Kivus. Defense Minister Mwando Simba has said that soldiers have one last chance to integrate into the Congolese army during the current "regimentation" process where existing units will be consolidated into regiments in the Kivus. After that, rebels' only choice will be demobilization.

But there are still probably around twenty armed groups in the Kivus - ranging from a few dozen to thousands strong - and their integration has suffered serious setbacks in South Kivu over the past weeks.

A striking example of these problems emerged at one of the regroupment centers in South Kivu last week. On June 7, the South Kivu commander General Masunzu visited the Kananda center in Fizi territory, announcing that the commander of the new regiment would come from outside of the 43rd sector. This infuriated officers from that sector, including its ex-PARECO Hutu commander, Colonel Kifaru Niragiye. Fighting almost erupted in Kananda, leading to a displacement of the local population, and Col Kifaru then deserted with reportedly around 150 soldiers, mostly Hutu from North Kivu.

This is troubling, not just because this is the largest desertion from the Congolese army in a while. Kifaru might be headed to Minembwe, the capital of the Banyamulenge-dominated area of the High Plateau, were Major Sumahili, another Hutu ex-PARECO commander and deputy commander of the FARDC troops in Minembwe, has also reportedly deserted. To make matters worse, the Congolese army unit that was sent to bring Col Kifaru back was apprehended and disarmed.

At the same time, other reports from South Kivu suggest that 100 ex-FRF soldiers also deserted from the regroupment center to return to Minembwe, perhaps to join dissident FRF commander, Colonel Richard Tawimbi.

It is unclear whether the Hutu ex-PARECO troops and the Tutsi ex-FRF troops could end up joining forces. However, these events could spell the end to the FRF integration process. Two weeks ago, the integrated ex-FRF Colonel Michel Rukunda travelled to Minembwe to convince Colonel Tawimbi to join the integration process. Rukunda failed, and the desertion of FRF soldiers from the regroupment center will vindicate Tawimbi's opposition to the integration process.  This dissent comes on top of other problems in the FRF integration - after five months, their troops remain unpaid and most of their ranks have not yet been confirmed.

A further setback to the integration process has been the defection of Colonel Nyerere Bunana, a former Mai-Mai commander from the Ruzizi Plain who had been integrated into the police force. On June 6, Col Bunana deserted from his post after the Congolese army issued an order for his arrest on suspicions that he was involved in criminal activity in the town and that he had been recruiting youths to join an alleged armed rebellion. While his group is much smaller than that of Col Kifaru - one MONUSCO official spoke to me of around 15 elements - his desertion is all the more troubling given reports that he has linked up with other Mai-Mai deserters in Uvira territory, including Fujo Zabuloni, Bede Rugasara and Mukenge.

Addendum to Conflict Minerals' Optimism

Last week, I expressed some cautious optimism here about reforms in the mining sector in the eastern Congo. I received quite a bit of feedback on various issues, which merit another posting to clarify some issues.

First, "cautious" is the operative word. The Congolese export ban (September 2010 - March 2011) and the US electronic industry's embargo of untraced minerals (April 2011 - present) have caused major job losses in the Kivus, as well as played into the hands of a select elite of military commanders, including ICC-indictee Bosco Ntaganda. It is, however, important to point out that neither initiative was caused directly by the Dodd-Frank legislation in the US. Rather, the export ban was decreed by the Congolese presidency, while the industry embargo was an aggressive interpretation of the US legislation. Dodd-Frank call for companies to carry out due diligence and to report their findings; the OECD guidelines call on companies to minimize the risk of financing armed groups.

Secondly, the Malaysia Smelting Corporation (MSC), which I had reported as having signed a deal for the largest tin mines in the Kivus, has not yet officially concluded a deal. A large Congolese delegation visited Malaysia earlier this year, and MSC and their Belgian partners Traxys then came to meet with President Kabila. A "confidentiality agreement" was signed with MSC regarding the Sakima concessions in Maniema, a good place to start as most of the mines there are removed from the main areas of conflict. In addition, MSC has not yet given $10 million for certification an tracing schemes, although the mining minister says they have agreed to fund these initiatives.

Furthermore, I gave the wrong impression with regards to the ITRI-led tracing schemes in the Kivus. These schemes, which the government intends to use as part of an official certification plan, do entail provisions for detecting armed group involvement in mining. Several local stakeholder committees have been set up in North Kivu, South Kivu and Katanga composed of relevant local actors. They compile information regarding mining supply chains and send them to a risk assessor - a kind of auditor - based in Brussels, Channel Research. This assessor conducts field visits, as well, and makes their information public (aside from confidential commercial information).

Critics have pointed out that, while these ITRI provisions are good first steps, they are still an industry initiative - while technically Channel Research can make whatever recommendations it likes, it is still being paid by its business partners. (For the deficiencies of these kinds of schemes, see this Washington Post article about in-house audits). In addition, uncovering collusion with armed groups requires in-depth investigation, which local shareholder groups may not be able to carry out.

Where do we go from here? There will be a meeting of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition in late June to discuss how to deal with trade from the region. Also, the latest group of experts' report (more on that later) has an update on the centres de négoce set up by the UN and Congolese government to monitor the mineral trade, with three of the five proposed centers set up (Isanga, Rubaya and Mugogo). These centers are also supposed to carry out investigations about the militarization of the supply chains they deal with, and we should soon be seeing the first fruits of their work.

These initiatives are still, however, lacking. For all their talk, neither the US State Department nor the industry have put real money into either certification or oversight schemes in the Kivus. While military units are slowly pulling out of some areas - including perhaps the vital Bisie mine - they still retain their control over most other areas.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Security and elections on South Kivu's mind

These two issues dominate the airwaves in South Kivu these days: security and elections.

Let's start with the most obvious one: We are headed toward elections, and the campaign, which cannot officially begin for several months yet, is in full swing. This past week, a PPRD delegation arrived from Kinshasa with Agriculture Minister Norbert Kantintima at its head to campaign for Kabila. (It is a mystery to me why Kantintima has taken on such a prominent role South Kivu, given that many still remember him as the deeply unpopular governor there under RCD rule). The previous week a rally was held in Bukavu by the new group with the catchy name: Network of Organizations Friends of Joseph Kabila. While the delegation had a warm welcome in Bukavu, they were greeted frostily in Uvira and Kiliba, the sugar factory in the Ruzizi plain that has not been relaunched despite promises by the government.

Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province

Kabila's opponents have had a harder time campaigning. The main opposition to Kabila around Bukavu will come from the UNC party of Vital Kamerhe, who hails from Bukavu. But local authorities dithered on allowing the UNC to organize a rally in Uvira and the UDPS complained that the police did not show up to secure the rally they held in Bukavu. Not encouraging, but more inconveniences than repression. Other, smaller parties have complained that they do not have enough funds to campaign. These are so far the largest biases in the electoral around the country: unequal access to media and security, huge discrepancies in terms of party funding, and persistent - if not systematic - harassment by security forces.

In the meantime, MONUSCO has launched a welcome effort to hold regular meetings of the 62 parties active in South Kivu. They held a first meeting of these actors on May 3rd.

As the electoral dance gathers pace, security problems have faced setbacks across the Kivus, as the Congolese army continues its process of consolidation. For several months now, the army has been trying to reduce the number of troops in the field by consolidating units into regiments, deploying others outside of the Kivus or confining them to barracks. The consolidation is merging the many units that have far fewer troops than they are supposed to have - battalions with only 300 soldiers, brigades with 1,600 - getting rid of "ghost soldiers" who are on the payroll.

This is in general positive, as it gets rid of payroll scams and reduces the number of soldiers deployed in the region, but it has also had deleterious effects.  This has been a sharp deterioration in security in some parts, as FDLR and other armed groups move in to fill the gap left by the Congolese army. I never thought I would hear Congolese crying for the army to come back, but that is just what the administrator of Shabunda territory did two weeks ago, when FDLR attacked part of his territory and occupied the Kigulube mining site, displacing 7,000 civilians. Around the same time, the deputy administrator of Fizi reported pillaging in Burembo (137 km south of Uvira) after the army shipped out. Finally, just a few days ago the population of Ninja in Kabare territory called for the Congolese army to come back, as the FDLR are now occupying their villages.

It is not just the FDLR who are taking advantage of the Congolese army's redeployments. On the Ubware peninsula in Lake Tanganyika, Mai-Mai Yakutumba increased their activity, possibly in conjunction with the Burundian FNL rebels. Several weeks ago, the Burundian army threatened to invade Congolese territory to hunt down FNL leader Agathon Rwasa (who they liken to Osama Bin Laden and claim is hiding in South Kivu). The Congolese army then met with their Burundian counterparts and tensions seem to have died down, although there are rumors that there is a deal to allow Burundian troops into the Congo to hunt down Rwasa.

In response to this violence, the Congolese army has now deployed back to some of the areas it had left. The UN had followed suit, creating two new operational code names in a period of just a few weeks: Hakikisha Usalama (Ensure Safety) and Amani ya Kweli (True Peace - perhaps to distinguish from the previous Amani Leo, which was just Peace Today).

Finally, to top it off, there has been an increase in urban violence in recent weeks, as well. There have several high-profile murders, including those of the governor's driver and local leader of the UNC opposition party, in Bukavu, as well as many more pedestrian thefts, burglaries and rape in Bukavu. Following protests by students and civil society, the local authorities have cracked down in criminals through increased police patrolling, promising additional police stations, and cordon-and-search operations. It appears this has had some impact.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cautious optimism for mining in the eastern Congo

(This posting has been updated in a new posting on June 15: See here).

I feel the urge every time I type the words: "conflict-minerals" to provide a disclaimer: Conflict minerals are not the real problem with the Congo, and focusing excessively on them will distract from the deeply political nature of the Congolese crisis, which lies more in the capture of the state by private interests, who see little profit (and perhaps some harm) in creating strong, accountable state institutions.

But a second urge soon follows, aimed at my friends who would like to throw the conflict-minerals baby out with the bathwater of a dumbed-down Congo hysteria. This urge is to say that minerals do form a large part of the conflict economy in the East, and are thus a significant reason for the problems in governance in the Kivus region. Ask any Kivutian: minerals matter in the Wild West of Masisi, Fizi, Shabunda or Lubero.

Coming back into the light? Perhaps...

Having performed my ritual ablutions, I can get to the meat of this posting: Where do we stand with regard to this issue? The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity, which Congo Siasa has been silent on due to travels and miscellanea.

First, I would like to remind readers of consultations that took place in March and were never thoroughly reported (at least to my knowledge). President Kabila and his advisors met with the key constituencies - businessmen in particular - to figure out a way forward as they were heading towards an end of the mineral export ban. While the export ban was a disaster for local communities, the recommendations coming out of these consultations made quite a bit of sense. They included:
  • requirements for all artisanal miners to form cooperatives and to register with the state
  • for comptoirs to add value to minerals prior to export through basic sorting and processing, so that the state would make more profit
  • making tracing and tagging supply chains mandatory for all actors involved - this would be implemented through the international industry group ITRI
This measures are outlined in the new report by Global Witness, published about three weeks ago. They also describe how pressure from Kinshasa to reform the mining sector before the elections has led to the demilitarization of Bisie, the most important tin mine in the region, where army units have been largely replaced by mining police (despite a brief occupation by Mai-Mai forces there last month).

In the meantime, international actors have been moving as well. In a meeting in Paris on May 19th, all 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - together with Argentina, Brazil, Lithuania, Latvia, Peru, Romania and Morocco - signed onto a joint framework for due diligence on conflict-free supply chains. While these guidelines are voluntary, it's another step in the direction of creating international norms of due diligence in this sector. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the US, for example, has already referenced the OECD guidelines in their draft regulations as the model for what due diligence should look like. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, several major international companies appear to be retreating from their rejection of due diligence - which have included threats of boycott of the Congo or just exporting minerals to China and India - and investing in these efforts. The main such company is Malaysia Smelting Corporation, which has been the biggest buyer of Congolese tin in the past. On May 21st, the Congolese mining minister announced that MSC was going to take over all the Sakima concessions - which include some of the largest tin mines in the country - in Maniema, North Kivu and South Kivu. This would be the first step towards switching from artisinal to indistrial mining in the region. For now, all of the mines in the Kivus (with the exception of Banro's gold mines) are mined with picks and shovels. MSC has also indicated that it will invest $10 million in tagging and tracing schemes through ITRI, the tin industry coalition. That suggests that MSC intends to continue to produce for the US an European markets. 

Other industrial actors may get involved, as well, including a quixotic foray into Rwanda by Rajesh, the largest jewelry manufacturer in India. Bloomberg reported that Rajesh exports may invest up to $1 billion in developing a gold refinery and a diamond business in Kigali. While Rwanda may have some gold - I don't think it is very much - they don't have any diamonds to my knowledge, and probably the vast majority of these precious minerals come from the Congo. Rajesh did indicate that they would try to set up some traceability scheme to ensure that their trade would not dip into conflict minerals. But gold is much more difficult to trace than tin and tantalum, both because it can be easily smuggled, but also because the gold mines are very remote and it could be harder to set up tagging schemes there.

There are still reasons to be skeptical. Ten million dollars will not be nearly enough in the long run to set up tracing schemes. And, as Global Witness and I have pointed out in the past, the current ITRI schemes just record the origin of the bags but do little to account for the militarization of the trade route, as well as other ways through which armed actors can profit. They only way to really control for military racketeering is through nuts-and-bolts investigations through independent monitors. Enough and several industry groups (Motorola and HP, I think) recently submitted a proposal for such an oversight group, based on a draft that Steve Hege and I elaborated in 2009; Global Witness is also calling for something similar.  

In addition, Rajesh's venture still seems bizarre and perhaps misplaced, given how complex and mired in abuse the gold trade is. Recent reports from the Misisi gold mines in Fizi - some of the biggest gold pits still artisanally mined in the Congo - suggest that Congolese army officers continue to control the trade there.

But while much remains to be done, these developments are welcome steps in something that looks like it might be the right direction. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

MONUSCO and elections

The UN Security Council is soon going to renew the mandate of the peacekeeping mission in the Congo. There is some debate around the role that MONUSCO should play in the electoral process, with the head of the mission Roger Meece arguing that other organizations are better equipped than MONUSCO to conduct election monitoring and observation. After all, MONUSCO has a relatively small electoral division, which in addition has also suffered the tragic loss of some of its leaders in a recent place crash in Kinshasa. He also points out that MONUSCO did not do much direct election observation in 2006.

Instead, Meece wants to preserve MONUSCO's "good offices" in order to better manage election disputes between the various contenders. This is in line with his overall objective of re-establishing good relations with the Congolese government after they had reached their nadir under his predecessor. Meece has argued, quite reasonably, that as long as the Congolese see them as antagonists or rivals, they will accomplish little in the country.

However, this drive to preserve good relations could become a slippery slope, as MONUSCO begins to barter away more and more of its leverage and moral authority in order to stay in President Kabila's good books.

Special Representative of the Secretary General Roger Meece

For example, in their latest report to the UN Security Council, the UN mission said that they have documented over a hundred human rights violations related to the electoral process between January and May 2011. Other than including one paragraph in their report, however, the mission has not made any of their information on these incidents public. The publication of his kind of information could help deter further abuses and put pressure on authorities to rein in their local officials (most of the violations I have heard of appear to be orchestrated at at the local level).

Some human rights advocates have spoken of the possibility of setting up an election abuse team headquartered within MONUSCO - drawing on members of its military, election workers, human rights division and intelligence cell - that would focus solely on this issue for the next 6 months. I think this could be an excellent idea, albeit not one that would probably please the authorities in Kinshasa.

Ambassador Meece argues that MONUSCO is not the best equipped organization to monitor the elections. He may be right on some fronts. However, for now MONUSCO is probably the only organization with representatives in almost province and will the ability, finances and clout to investigate the voter registration process as well as other abuses. Soon, the Carter Center and the EU will have official monitors on the ground, but by that time the tone for the campaigning will have already been set and the voter register will be complete. Congolese organizations are also increasingly calling for the UN to use its authority to prevent repression and intolerance.

MONUSCO does not necessarily need a strong election mandate - although a sentence telling it to use its resources to document and investigate abuses related to the elections would be helpful - but it should not value its good relations with the government more than the most important political event in five years.