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The mining ban in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: will soldiers give up the habit?

On 11 September, during a tour of Nord-Kivu province, Congolese President Joseph Kabila announced that all artisanal mineral exploitation in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was suspended. According to Kabila, the ban is intended to stem the recent upsurge of violence in the area. Kabila is right that the violence is due, among other things, to competition over control of the mining areas and access to the associated revenues. The question is how much good a ban alone can do.

Violence in the mineral-rich provinces of eastern DRC has been back in the news this year, including a series of mass rapes that took place in Walikale territory, Nord-Kivu province in July and August. Most of it is perpetrated by armed groups: rebels from the DRC and from neighbouring Rwanda, rogue militias, and even units attached to the national army, the Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC). At issue is access to revenues from the trade in locally sourced minerals. These are all extracted by hand by artisanal miners, as security concerns have scared off industrial mining concerns.

A week after the first announcement of the ban, the Congolese Minister of Mines, Martin Kabwelulu Labilo, clarified that it concerned only the exploitation of cassiterite, coltan and wolframite. He also stated that while extraction should be halted immediately, traders had until 15 October to sell their stocks to exporters. The exporters, in turn, had until 15 November to arrange export.

Exactly how the ban will be enforced has never been specified, but diggers, traders and exporters and anyone else involved, regardless of rank, are all liable for severe penalties if they breach the ban. However, the ban is primarily intended to help to convince armed groups to leave the areas that they control and tax in the coming weeks. This will provide an opportunity for legitimate state mining and security actors to re-establish control. It is a positive sign that the president’s announcement and subsequent communications denounced the involvement not only of rebels but also of certain civil and military authorities. Until now the government has often turned a blind eye to government forces occupying mines in order to ensure a minimum level of loyalty to the central command.

Whether the mining ban will really hurt those military actors that profit from mineral trade remains to be seen. The forces that presently control the cassiterite mines can continue to profit for some time to come. First of all, the ban will not come into immediate effect for traders and exporters, thereby allowing time to stockpile. Second, some groups will doubtless try to smuggle cassiterite to neighbouring countries. In other words, revenues from the cassiterite trade, on which the ban focuses, are not going to dry up overnight.

In addition, the ban does not cover gold, which is the most profitable mineral resource in Sud-Kivu province. For example, high-level local officers and even their superiors in Kinshasa own mining pits in one of the main gold mining areas, Lugushwa, and purchase gold through local military and civilian agents.

Gold is the conflict mineral par excellence in the eastern DRC, used by Rwandan rebels operating in the area to purchase weapons from elements within the FARDC as well as from dealers in neighbouring countries.

Not only does the ban potentially fail to affect the real conflict actors, but artisanal miners and small-scale traders complain that it is hurting them instead. Besides the direct loss of livelihood, there have been reports of authorities using the ban as a pretext for confiscating minerals. Also, small-scale traders accuse exporters of cashing in on depressed prices at their expense. Furthermore, the mining communities rely on supplies brought in by traders. Now they say that few traders are arriving with supplies and when they do, they are paying only half the usual price for the minerals they take in return. Desperation and discontent among may spark riots the days and weeks to come.

Finally, the ban will damage progress made during the past few months in certifying and regulating the mineral trade. Most importantly, a pilot scheme developed by the tin industry (cassiterite is an important source of tin) to allow minerals to be traced back to legitimate mining sites has been suspended since the ban was announced. A United Nations initiative to establish secure trading centres is also at risk. One of the selected gold markets, at Mugogo in Sud-Kivu, has already moved underground, making it harder to prevent extortion and smuggling.

There is no easy answer to the issue of conflict minerals in eastern DRC. As the violence in the area is partly motivated and sustained by access to mineral revenues, blocking such access makes sense. Yet the ban is only part of what is needed. To have a real impact on the conflict players it must be accompanied by genuine efforts to demilitarize mines and to recall those commanding officers who have established interests in mineral trading.

Shortly after  the ban was announced, the DRC’s army chief of staff, Didier Etumba, visited Bisie, a cassiterite mining site in Walikale, and ordered the soldiers controlling the area to come down from the mountain-top mine along with the diggers. Time will tell whether they heard him and obey.