Can the E.U. stop armed groups profiting from the mineral trade?

Conflict Minerals are the new Blood Diamonds. The term refers mainly to three metals, tantalum, tungsten and tin, originating in Eastern Congo. Advocacy groups like the ENOUGH Project have pushed hard to put the contribution that the mining and export of these metals make to the war chest of Congolese rebel groups on the international agenda and have had some success. As part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act, the U.S. has put in place regulation that forces U.S. listed companies to disclose if they are using any of these metals from Congo or its neighbouring countries in their products and if yes, what they are doing to keep them “conflict free”.

The Dodd-Frank act doesn’t force companies to actually do something, if they find out that money from the mineral trade in their value chain benefits armed groups. It just provides the disclosure that advocacy groups like ENOUGH need to put public pressure on these companies.

Dodd-Frank has been quite successful in a sense: Out of fear of bad publicity, most Western companies simply switched to other sources for the metals, sending the economy of Eastern Congo into a crash. As many experts have cautioned before the law was enacted, violence didn’t subside – the armed groups just switched to other modes of financing themselves.

Now the European Union discusses a similar legislation and it will be interesting to see if any lessons from Dodd-Frank will make it over the Atlantic. So far, the debate in Europe has mainly revolved around the question, which part of the supply chain will be covered by the proposed legislation. In its broadest version, every European-registered company would have to publish similar information to the U.S. Dodd-Frank act, including retailers. But this doesn’t play well with European industry interest groups, which fear an increase in bureaucracy and negative publicity for their members, reports Politico:

European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said last month that he wants to be sure any EU policy builds on the U.S. mandate and encourages broader action. However, in recent days, EU trade officials have also begun considering a less stringent proposal that would apply only to European-owned metal processors, a lobbyist close to the discussions said. That proposal would exempt most of Germany’s manufacturing companies, which largely import their minerals from non-European processors.

The problem: European smelting companies process only a small part of the world’s tantalum, tungsten and tin. The market is dominated by smelters in China and Malaysia, who wouldn’t necessarily fall under the proposed E.U. regulation. This would render the law ineffective, because metals from conflict regions would just be processed in smelters without reporting obligations and could then be imported to the E.U. as finished products without a declaration of origin. To be effective, the E.U. regulation would need to cover at least one stage of the value chain above the smelting level.

But the E.U. faces another obstacle, as has become apparent with the application of Dodd-Frank: stopping armed groups from profiting of the minerals trade doesn’t necessarily stop conflicts. Just take the example of the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

As a result of the steps being taken, militias have seen their prices for the minerals drop by more than 55 percent, reports Sasha Lezhnev, Enough’s senior policy analyst.

But even with reduced income from mineral sources, the last year has seen an incredibly high level of violence in the DRC, with the rebel group M23 even taking control of the regional capital Goma for a few weeks. The reason is simple: conflict is born out of political confrontation, not greed, and the Congo offers many more means to finance an armed struggle than minerals. Considering this, Dodd-Frank and the proposed E.U. legislation should be sold as conflict reducing mechanisms, but measures to increase general transparency along mineral supply chains, which would be a perfectly valid reason to enact these kind of laws.

This post is part of my ongoing obsession with the relation between natural resources and conflict on the African continent. Read on to find further insights on this topic and be sure to check back regularly! I will update this article frequently with long and short posts in the manner of a slow live blog.

When oil companies become advocates for peace

Commonly, oil companies are associated with less than benign influence on conflicts. This reputation is well earned: oil money financed a whole chain of Nigerian military rulers, kept the Sudanese regime afloat during the worst massacres in Darfur and continues to play a dubious role in filling the coffers of authoritarian regimes, like in Angola and Equatorial Guinea.

But this interpretation overlooks the potential — and in some cases actual — positive impact that oil companies can have on political and violent conflicts. Arguably, the Chinese government is one of the lynchpins of keeping the peace between Sudan and South Sudan. The interest of China is clear: keep the oil flowing. But the net effect on this particular aspect of the region’s many overlapping conflicts has been positive.

A recent article on the blog African Arguments is another example of the positive influence oil companies can have on active conflicts. Written by a consultancy, it reports on an ongoing diplomatic push to finally resolve the dispute over Western Sahara — spearheaded by French energy giant Total.

There is even talk of Kosmos lobbying the US administration and Total the French government to support a major new diplomatic initiative.

Of course, other parties are interested in a resolution as well, not least because the United Nation voiced fears that Sahrawi youth living in refugee camps are easy pickings for recruiting agents of regional Islamist groups. But with oil prices set to rise and promising geological structures present off the Sahrawi coast, interest in exploration and exploitation will rise. As the article notes, international companies are unlikely to take the risk of acting in the current legal limbo:

Oil exploration permits have been issued by both Morocco’s state Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines (Onhym) and Polisario’s government-in-exile, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), but the international consensus is that no significant exploration can be undertaken until the dispute is settled.  This follows a legal opinion by the UN General Counsel that stated that exploration and extraction of mineral resources in Western Sahara would be illegal “only if conducted in disregard of the needs and interests of the people of that territory”.  It has generally been viewed that exploration for reserves of oil and gas would run counter to this; thus they should stay in the ground pending a definitive resolution.

What do you think, do commercial interests of oil companies offer the chance to positively influence conflicts in Western Sahara and elsewhere in Africa?

The Central African Republic is erupting into war and other articles

I have some new articles up on the War is Boring collection over at Medium. All revolve around armed conflict in Africa. first one up:

The Central African Republic is Erupting Into War

Clashes between armed groups and government forces killed at least 60 people on Saturday and Sunday in the town of Bossangoa in western Central African Republic.

You might find yourself thinking “that’s a country?” and I can’t blame you for that. The Central African Republic — or the CAR for short — is not a well known tourist destination.

It’s not a “rising economy” or something equally catchy from a politician’s Sunday speech. It is just a state in (you guessed it) central Africa going through a decades-long national crisis and not even a fashionable one, like in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where ex-Secretary of State Clinton likes to drop in for a photoshoot.

Nobody cares about the CAR, which is why you probably don’t know anything about the country or the conflict.

Except that some people, people with a lot of influence, political and military power do care. They are not the ones you see on T.V., but they have good reasons to care and maybe the people you see on T.V. should start caring, too. […]

Read the rest on Medium.

Nigeria Is at War With Islamist Ghosts

A war rages in northeastern Nigeria. Three months into a government-declared state of emergency, an army division of 8,000 men and a joint task force of other military and civilian security forces are trying to wrest control of large swathes of land from a fundamentalist insurgent group known as Boko Haram.

The government has deployed helicopter gunships, fighter jets and armored vehicles — and battles regularly result in dozens of soldiers, insurgents and civilians being killed. It’s one of the most intense conflicts of present times and yet we know practically nothing about the enemy, its organization, goals and real developments on the ground. […]

Read the rest on Medium.

Did You Know There’s a Major Intervention Going On in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

All eyes are on the politicking around the possible U.S. intervention in Syria, but the future of humanitarian interventions is actually being forged right now, in the vicinity of the town of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Goma is a regional hub, a sprawling city of over one million inhabitants mostly living in tin shacks and walking the notoriously bad roads. It’s a center of mineral trading — both legal and smuggled — and hosts tens of thousands of refugees in camps on its outskirts. Goma lies directly on the border to Rwanda, a neighbor with a lot of influence and a long agenda in Congo.

Since the outbreak of the First Congo War in 1996, and in the subsequent Second Congo War and the general state of insecurity since, Goma has changed hands between the Congolese state, Rwandan forces and rebel groups many times. At the moment, its airport and barracks are home to a contingent of the largest peacekeeping mission ever, the United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO.

The U.N. force, which has around 20,000 men and women under arms across the country plus about as many civilians, came under intense criticism when it allowed the Rwandan-supported rebel group M23 to occupy Goma in November last year. […]

Read the rest on Medium.

War is Boring: Africa Round-Up

Mali

There hasn’t been much of a change in the overall situation during the last weeks: the northern half of Mali — an area about the size of France — is occupied by a range of rebel groups. While neighboring states and the international community are deeply concerned over the Islamist policies of some of these groups, the Malian state has proven to be incapable to act, due to a coup d’etat which send the government into a deep crisis.

There is a lot of confusion and uncertainty about what lies ahead. The regional organization ECOWAS and especially its member Niger would like to send an intervention force to set things straight in the north and south. […]

Read the rest of the Round-Up on Mali, the DR Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Somalia over at WarisBoring.com!

War is Boring: Africa Round Up

DR Congo
The eastern Congo is about to enter a new cycle of violence. The rebels of the new organisation “M23” only control a limited area so far, but reportedly get stronger by the day. M23 is the result of the mutiny of several army units around Easter. These units were part of a former rebel group, the CNDP, which was officially disbanded and integrated into the army in 2009.

As a reaction on the limited success of operations against the mutineers the army is concentrating more and more forces in the area surrounding the rebel strongholds on the border with Rwanda. But this leaves other areas in the vast and inaccessible east bereft of security forces. In these areas violence by ethnic militias against civilians is on the rise andseveral thousand people have fled already in fear of atrocities. […]

Read more on the DR Congo, Mali, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire over at War is Boring!

World Politics Review: As Crisis Gathers, Northern Mali Needs More Than Just Military Intervention

Mali Azawad rebellion fr
Since April, when two Tuareg rebel groups drove government forces out of northern Mali, the situation in the sparsely populated region has steadily worsened. The lightning advance of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), which seeks independence for the Tuareg homeland, and Ansar Dine, which has an Islamist agenda, triggered a coup of disgruntled junior officers against President Amadou Toumai Touré, with the resulting political instability in Bamako leaving the army incapacitated and the rebels the effective rulers of roughly half the country’s territory.

Though the two groups worked together to launch the rebellion, Ansar Dine has gradually taken the upper hand. The MNLA suffers from a lack of fighters and weapons, while Ansar Dine benefits from the support of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has formally put all its fighters and resources at the command of Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali. The Islamist group has now taken control of most of the rebel-occupied towns and begun to enforce orthodox Sharia law, destroying establishments serving alcohol and Islamic shrines not conforming to orthodox practices. […]

Read the rest at the World Politics Review!

Waging Nonviolence: The Arab Spring you haven’t heard about — in Mauritania

Protest in Nouakchott
Photo by Magharebia, via Wikimedia Commons

You may not have heard of it, but the West African country of Mauritania has what is probably one of the most vibrant and active protest movements in the world today. Protests drawing tens of thousands of people (out of a total population of just three million) take place almost weekly in the capital Nouakchott, with many smaller protests happening on a daily basis around the vast country. The protests are overwhelmingly nonviolent — even in the face of frequent violent suppression — and have been going on since February 2011.

It would be comfortable to file these protests as another part of the Arab Spring: Mauritania is on the southern reaches of the Saharan Arab belt, and large-scale protests here started with the self-immolation and subsequent death of YacoubOuld Dahoud, an action mirroring the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, which set off the revolt in Tunisia. As in other Arab countries that experienced large-scale protests, Mauritania is governed by an autocratic regime whose leader,Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, originally came to power through a coup d’état.

But while these similarities exist and the pro-democracy protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world surely have been a source of great inspiration for local activists, Mauritania merits a second look. […]

Read the rest on Waging Nonviolence!

War is Boring: Africa Roundup (Congo, Mali, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau)

Fighters of the MNLA in Mali. Photo via Maghrebia on Flickr.

The latest installment of my regular Africa conflict roundup for warisboring.com

Congo

A large-scale mutiny-come-rebellion rocks the eastern part of the Democratic Replublic of Congo since Easter. Never the most peaceful of places, the situation in the Kivu provinces bordering Rwanda escalated, when army general Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda decided to defect from his position.

Ntaganda is searched for by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. (The ICC recently sentenced Ntaganda’s former superior Thomas Lubanga in a related case.) A military commander of a powerful rebel group, the CNDP, Ntaganda protected himself from prosecution by leading an internal coup against CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda and bringing the CNDP into the fold of the government. This deal — in which Rwanda played an important part — gave Ntaganda the highest army command in the Kivus and didn’t touch the CNDP structures, which persisted in parrallel to the normal chain of command. […]

Read more on the current situation in the DR Congo, Mali, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau here.

World Politics Review: The Origins and Consequences of Tuareg Nationalism

World Politics Review has brought out a new special on “peoples without borders”. They look at Kurdish, Basque and Tuareg minorities in their respective countries, and I am happy to tell you that I contributed a feature article on Tuareg nationalism for the issue:

At the beginning of April, after a loose coalition of Tuareg rebel groups forced the Malian army to abandon Timbuktu, one of the armed factions involved in the fighting didn’t lose much time in announcing its ultimate objective: “We, the people of Azawad declare irrevocably the independence of the state of Azawad,”read the communiqué issued by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad — known by its French acronym, MNLA — five days after the ancient city fell.

The bold declaration is of course mostly wishful thinking. No state or international organization has recognized the independence of Azawad, as the Tuareg refer to the border-spanning region they inhabit, and it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. The situation in northern Mali remains chaotic, with various armed groups, criminal networks and terrorist organizations competing for influence, while the Malian government and army still reel from the effects of a coup d’état that shook the capital of Bamako in March.

But the Tuareg bid for independence does not come from out of thin air, nor does it come at a normal time for the countries of the Sahel region and North Africa. Tuareg minorities in Mali and Niger have fought for self-determination for more than 100 years. And following the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year, regional political dynamics are evolving rapidly, which may yet prove to be either a boon or bane for those Tuareg rebels interested in independence.

Tuareg nationalism as a political ideology is rooted in the effects of colonization. It was sharpened by decades of marginalization and oppression, and has since become a useful tool in the hands of regional powerbrokers. Yet today, even as the MNLA makes the boldest bid yet for Tuareg self-determination, many Tuareg have actually come to accept the countries they live in as legitimate, making the future of Tuareg nationalism as well as its implications increasingly difficult to discern. […]

World Politics Review is a subscription journal. It’s well worth your money, but you can read the rest of this article for free, if you follow this link.

ThinkBrigade: Hunger, rebellion, coup: Mali’s crisis has its history

I’m part of the new project ThinkBrigade, which brings together reporters and citizen journalists from around the world to experiment with new forms of collaborative and interactive journalism. This is my first piece for the project, but others will follow:

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, about two times the size of France. It is dominated by vast expanses of sparsely inhabited desert and the fertile surroundings of the Niger river. In historical times, the area was home to powerful empires and the ancient city of Timbuktu, with its architectural wonders, still tells of this era.

Mali is again in the news these days, but not favourably. There are no stories about enthusiastic tourists or cultural richness. Instead, Mali currently lives through a triple crisis: After a devastating drought,potentially millions of people face a hunger crisis. At the same time, a rebellion led by Tuareg fighters has engulfed the North of the country. And if this wouldn’t be enough, a coup d’état has brought a military junta into power in the capital and resulted in harsh sanctions by neighboring states. […]

Read the rest on ThinkBrigade!

The Stream: The crisis in Mali

I took part in The Stream yesterday, an interactive show on Al Jazeera English. Originally I was asked to take part in the live discussion via a Goolge+ hangout, but this did not work due to a crappy internet connection on my side. So instead some of my tweeted comments about the show were shown and discussed.

The show was great and very interesting. There were some excellent participants, among them Andy Morgan, so if you didn’t see it yet be sure to watch it!