In eastern DRC, mineral extraction and trade is often portrayed as an exclusive driver of regional violence. But Nicholas Garret and Laura Seay stress that weak governance, not trade, underpins conflict in the African Great Lakes – and is key to resolving it. Efforts to simply suppress the mineral trade are not only impracticable, but ignore its developmental potential and exaggerate its significance.
Trade, development and peacebuilding in the African Great Lakes
The role of the mineral sector
For the countries in the African Great Lakes, their economies – and for some their conflicts – are interdependent. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), investing in the creation of an economic and political environment that enables legitimate cross-border mineral trade to flourish could pay dividends, not just for traders, but also for governments and conflict-affected communities, in eastern DRC and throughout the region.
'Conflict minerals': a misdiagnosis
American and British lobby groups The Enough Project and Global Witness have built high-profile advocacy campaigns portraying minerals as the source of conflict and sexual violence in Eastern DRC. For example, Enough co-founder John Prendergast suggested in an April 2009 op-ed, “The time has come to expose a sinister reality: our insatiable demand for electronics products such as cell phones and laptops is helping fuel waves of sexual violence in a place that most of us will never go, affecting people most of us will never meet”.
Mineral trading for peace and development
In recent years, debates on war economies have been balanced by the view that, where the exploitation of, and trade in, natural resources has formed the basis for conflict, mining and trade can also form the basis for development and contribute to peacebuilding.
The militarisation of the production and trade in minerals is primarily a reflection of governance weaknesses in eastern DRC. Where fledgling democratic institutions find it difficult to assert themselves vis-à-vis entrenched interests, the full developmental potential of natural resources will not be realised so long as security around natural resource deposits is negotiated locally, or the establishment of security is attempted through the application of economic sticks and carrots such as sanctions or mineral trade control regimes. While these practices can offer some positive outcomes, in all likelihood state weakness would either remain or even be exacerbated – promoting a negative feedback loop.
However, there are enough positive trends to suggest that the moment is right to help develop legal trade and productive economic activity, which remains the primary focus to achieve development in the region. A professionalised and formalised mineral sector would support a ‘regional public good’, with DRC potentially emerging as a positive economic contributor to the development trajectories of itself and its neighbouring countries in the medium to long term.
The most populous country in the region, DRC offers enormous untapped natural resources, labour and large markets for goods and services that could grow should peace prevail. Those who have been benefitting from an absence of regulation, from the militarisation of economic activity and from unauthorised rent-seeking, are potential spoilers of positive change. But the likely benefits could improve the lives of many more across a range of sectors of society, from miners to local officials to exporters, who have had to cope with or have suffered from the effects of informal mining and trading simply because the formal systems have become so corrupted.
A process of reform that engages stakeholders in minerals exploitation and trade offers a potentially promising way to transform the industry. Actors in the current shadow economy include insecurity profiteers. But their objective is not necessarily to cause or sustain insecurity. Many may have an interest in stability and development, so long as they regard it as compatible with their profit motives. Incentivising the transfer of shadow economic activities to the formal economy would help provide a local basis for professionalising and formalising the ‘coping economy’, as well as to contribute to reform and strengthen governance from the bottom up.
The immediate dividend from improved cross-border mineral trade is economic, but the long-term reward may well be peaceful coexistence. This process will require the development of political incentives and a long-term commitment by all parties involved.