Militias rearming in the DRC

Armed groups in the Congo are re-emerging in response to a declining mineral trade, not to contest upcoming elections.

Congo militia
Militias were integrated into Congo’s army over the past decade, but recently armed groups have re-emerged [EPA]

Durban, South Africa – Reports have begun to emerge over the few weeks that rebel groups in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are reforming, recruiting new members and possibly rearming. Some commentators assume that this is related to the upcoming elections, but it seems equally likely that it is linked to disruptions in the mining sector in the eastern DRC over the past few months.

Since the end of the Second Congo War (officially in 2003, practically around 2007 in the East), mining has become an increasingly important part of the economy of the eastern DRC. It has also become a particularly important survival strategy for ordinary Congolese people. Artisanal mining requires little skill and, although it is extremely hard work, can be carried out by anyone who has the physical strength and stamina. Mines are worked by hundreds of individuals, panning through tonnes of mud to find nuggets of mineral wealth – tin, gold, tantalum, tungsten and others. Miners sell these minerals to traders, who sell them to buyers, who sell them to refineries, and so on. Miners earn money that is used to support families and live ordinary lives – buying food and other necessities, paying for transport and children’s education. Minerals provide a livelihood for thousands of families.

Armed groups – sometimes including the Congolese army (FARDC) – are also actors in this value chain. Sometimes they are critical actors. In particularly unstable or unsafe areas, the only people who can move large amounts of high-value minerals are men with guns who are willing to take risks. In other areas, they control to trade to their own (and sometimes exclusively their own) benefit. According to some reports, this has become the only real occupation of the armed rebel groups in the eastern DRC over the past few years.

Groups have shrunk as the demobilisation process integrated many soldiers into the formal Congolese army. Others returned to civilian life after the war ended. FARDC – in collaboration with the UN – has also played an active role in reducing the size, power and freedom of armed groups. Various operations have been launched across the eastern DRC over the years to wipe out armed groups. The operations have not been as successful as some had hoped they would be or as successful as they perhaps should have been. The sheer size of the force dedicated to the efforts over the past few years could have been enough to wipe out the armed rebel groups entirely.

Reports suggest that the reason this has not happened is because underpaid, unmotivated Congolese soldiers are not particularly enthusiastic about putting their lives on the line to fight these groups. Rebel groups have not been wiped out, but the large number of FARDC soldiers in the area has limited their size, freedom of movement and ability to recruit new members. This seems to be the general picture, right up until mid-2011: Armed groups in the eastern DRC are small and largely kept from actively fighting for any particular cause – partly through the heavy presence of FARDC forces and UN in the area – although they participate in mineral and other illegal trade activities. 

The last few months, however, have seen gradual changes in the situation. In the mining sector, there have been various disruptions, mostly related to international pressure over conflict minerals. Although the most high-profile legislative effort to control the trade in conflict minerals, the Dodd-Frank legislation in the US, only comes into effect in 2012, the impact of activists’ calls for more control have been felt in various areas already. The risk of negative publicity around conflict minerals has motivated powerful corporations such as Apple and Motorola to review their supply chains and very publicly remove all possibility that the minerals used in their products come from central Africa.

The DRC government also temporarily banned the export of key minerals from the East between November 2010 and March 2011, ostensibly in an effort to clean up the industry. The OECD recently published additional guidelines regarding the trade in minerals sourced from areas where that trade might support conflict. OECD countries are important donors in Central Africa, and negative publicity in OECD countries could affect the availability of aid to countries in the region. This may be why DRC’s neighbour, Rwanda – long-accused of profiting from the illicit trade in conflict minerals that supported rebel groups – is seeking to make clear that they are not part of the problem, including recently returning 82 tonnes of confiscated minerals to the DRC.

These disruptions inevitably have an impact on artisanal miners. In the DRC in particular, alternative livelihood options are limited. Formal employment is extremely scarce in the face of protracted instability. Agriculture – normally an option in fertile areas such as the eastern DRC – requires a level of stability that may not be possible when people have no reason to suppose that the place they plant crops will not be a war zone by the harvest-time. Mining provides a quick return on the investment of labour. When mining becomes unreliable, people seek other ways to survive.

Joining militant groups may be an attractive alternative, particularly for ex-combatants. Of course, military groups will also eventually be affected by a waning mineral trade, but they are likely to be able to keep making money for longer because they have greater access to markets, including through non-legal market channels. They are able to find ways of making money from other sources, such as, to use a recently emerging example, logging.

The attractiveness of joining rebel armed groups increases when the pressure that has curtailed the freedom and power of these groups is reduced: for example, when everyone is distracted by an election.

The upcoming Congolese election has focused attention on Kinshasa and the South, where presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi has already caused unrest by pre-emptively claiming victory. The election appears to have little to do with the East. None of the presidential candidates has strong ties to the East or to the armed groups in the area. Locally, the election is definitely important, but the proliferation of candidates – 232 of them are contesting five seats in Kasingani, for example – suggests individuals taking part in the political process, rather than a contest between powerful groups, as would be likely in the context of armed groups ramping up to conflict around election results.

While attention is focused on Kinshasa, armed groups in the East have the opportunity to take advantage of recent disruptions in the minerals sector to welcome men and families who have suddenly found their mineral-based livelihoods are no longer secure. The argument that increased armed rebel group activity in the eastern DRC is evidence of preparations for violence over contested election results fails to recognise that this election, whatever else it may be, is not a battle for the east of the country.

It seems far more likely that the increased activity of armed groups is simply a response to the greater number of willing participants looking for a livelihood alternative to replace the mineral trade, in a context where the people who were keeping them under control are distracted by an election.

Claire Hawkridge is a development specialist working in southern Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.