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The Economic War in the Congo

February 5, 2009

Conflict analysts are obsessed with discerning the “root causes” of violent conflicts. Yet, too often, these analysts fail to consider the many dimensions of violent conflict before coming up with policy recommendations.

Consider the conflict in the DR Congo, or rather, the many overlapping conflicts. Is it a proxy war between Rwanda and the Congolese government as many suggest? If so, why did Kigali and Kinshasa join forces just a couple weeks ago in a military operation to capture Laurent Nkunda, a militia leader and former ally of the Rwandan government?

Is it a “war against women,” as some have suggested due to startling and horrific accounts of widespread rape and abuse? Or is it about access to resources and arable land as many suggest? In reality, it is all of these, but the link between access to resources and conflict is strongest, as Caroline noted last month.

The DR Congo is among the top ten poorest countries in the world. But in terms of resources, it’s one of the richest. The world’s largest deposits of copper, coltan, gold, diamond and tin are located in the DR Congo, according to Mvemba Dizolele, a Stanford University researcher.

More than 5.5 million people have died in the Congo. It has been rightly called Africa’s first World War. After the violence last November, nearly every relief group, many governments and U.N. peacekeeping officials called for a rapid influx of 3,000 peacekeepers to shore up the beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission. The U.N. mission, MONUC, only has 17,000 troops to patrol and protect civilians in a country as vast as Western Europe.

Yet, while more peacekeepers and high-level pressure on the various actors is needed, robust economic instruments need to be employed as well. One idea proposed by Herman Cohen, a former U.S. assistant secretary for Africa, is the creation of a common market for East Africa, to allow the free movement of trade and people between Rwanda, the DR Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. Rwanda and the Congo would no longer feel the need to finance militias to secure access to resources, according to Cohen. Royalties and taxes could support the Congolese government’s effort to provide services to its war ravaged population.

Another idea would be to require greater transparency and control over the importation of products which use resources from the DR Congo. Many household products such as DVD players, cell phones and computers are built using coltan and tin. Given that 65% of the world’s Coltan reserves are located in the Congo, there is a good chance that sales of these products directly finance actors involved in the conflict. “The Conflict Coltan and Cassiterite Act,” a bill introduced by U.S. Senator’s Durbin and Brownback last year, would require the President to create a list of armed actors in the DRC committing abuses and human rights violations, and restrict the import of any product containing coltan or tin if any of the listed groups would benefit.

These efforts would not solve the conflict alone. Yet its clear that strong economic instruments are needed to solve what’s primarily an economic war. More peacekeepers and high level pressure must be coupled with instruments to address the economic underpinnings of the conflict.

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