The roads of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a crucial space where conflict, illegal taxation and conflict financing become entangled, writes Peer Schouten, researcher.
For more than a decade, it is common knowledge that funding for rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is closely linked to mining.
Discovered for the first time by the Belgians in 1904, the Congolese soil conceals an enormous quantity of precious minerals. Subsequently, the industrial exploitation of copper and gold became the backbone of Belgian colonialism, then of the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (a former president).
After support for Mobutu weakened during the Cold War, ordinary Congolese en masse invaded the crumbling industrial mining concessions in the hope of finding a livelihood there. Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of these miners persist in this way. Deep in the mud up to their knees, often for a little over a dollar a day, they are the infantry of the high-tech sector. Digging the ground using rudimentary tools, they provide not only copper and gold, but also chemical elements like coltan, tungsten and tantalum.
This unregulated exploitation has fueled conflicts in the country. Some of the mining sites are controlled either by soldiers or by rebels who strive to collect "rent" before the minerals find their way to Asian producers and Western markets.
While underlining these opaque relations between conflict and minerals, the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for the Great Lakes region in Africa recently reaffirmed that
the illegal exploitation of minerals remains the main cause of conflict and instability in the Congo.
Donors have established guidelines; companies are more rigorous regarding the due diligence, and a multitude of Partnerships are working to withdraw rebels and soldiers from mining sites. In addition, notable progress has been made. In the past two years, approximately 400 of the 2400 supervised sites have been declared free of any connection to a conflict. There, artisanal miners are likely to earn money without enduring forced labor or paying heavy illegal taxes.
The rebels, however, found other ways to make money. Driven from mining sites, they are simply trying to control the roads. Whoever controls the transport routes can levy taxes and control economic activities.
Dance a recent study, we have mapped nearly 1000 roadblocks in eastern Congo. In this region, the difficulty was to find a road without roadblocks. I believe it is time to admit the existence of these roadblocks and the support they provide to rebels and unruly soldiers.
The land of a thousand roadblocks
Last year, deep in the eastern Congo in the province torn by conflict of North Kivu, General Mando, chief of the Mai-Mai Simba, the older Congolese rebel movement, and a plethora of state officials and the military gathered to conduct important negotiations. The objective of this meeting was to convince the rebel leader to stop occupying a profitable gold mine. A local researcher reported that after listening to their arguments, Mando said:
But I have always filled your pockets with the recipes of mine. We have all benefited from it. Madam Territorial Administrator, you have always received your share. And to thank me, you come with the military - so they're just the ones who are going to benefit from the taxes now! Give me a good reason to go?
After a few hours of heated debate, a pragmatic solution was found: Mando would be allowed to simply set up roadblocks not far from the site, taxing remote entry and exit. This system would be a little less profitable than pocketing gold production directly, but had the advantage of being much easier to manage and hide.
This allowed authorities to declare to Western donors that the site is “conflict-free” while still satisfying the local strongman.
Mando's anecdote is just one story among many. Congo is home to around 120 different armed groups, and roadblocks are the key to their survival. This is especially true for rebel leaders residing in areas where minerals are not found.
Across eastern Congo, as mining sites are cleared of armed factions, rebel leaders and military contractors involved in the conflicts are content to set up roadblocks to fund their activities. The roads of the Congo are a magnet for extortion, as everyone has to transport their products to markets.
This strategy is easy to implement compared to theft or control of a mining site. It's much easier to sit by the side of the road, stretch a rope, and just wait for the money.
Roadblocks are also a crucial strategy for government actors. The Congo is as large as Western Europe, but has only 2000 km of paved roads. Since the DRC state collects few taxes, remote public or military outposts are largely "Self-financed" - state agents collect taxes locally to pay their wages (or daily bread) - through roadblocks. Their leaders frequently impose a weekly amount to be met on the road.
Therefore, anything that moves will be taxed. Every item that travels between the field and the village, then between the village and the market, is subject to a bunch of little taxes along the way.
The roads of peace?
A piece of rope stretched between two palm trees is nothing more than a nuisance. However, multiply it by a thousand and you have a significant source of conflict funding.
Congolese roads are a crucial space where conflict, illegal taxation and conflict financing are intertwined. Ask anyone living in eastern Congo how the conflict is affecting their life, and they probably won't mention remote mining sites, but instead start complaining about roadblocks and the price of food. For ordinary Congolese, the accumulation of taxes at roadblocks is a major problem of the current conflict, resulting in exorbitant prices on the most basic consumer goods in urban areas - and this, for a population trying to survive. with a dollar a day.
The problem of roadblocks is not easily solved for the international community. Whenever a well-meaning UN patrol passes by, the rebels at the roadblocks simply step aside before resuming their activities by placing a rope in the road as soon as the peacekeepers pass.
However, a solution must be found. One possible solution is to turn conflict data into a tool against abuse. For example, we can develop an application to closely monitor abuses so that we can hold the authorities accountable for the panoply of illegal taxes. As appealing as the history of "conflict minerals" may be, the systemic exploitation of the Congolese during their displacement should not be ignored. Roadblocks undermine the ability of ordinary Congolese to market goods - and to survive.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read original article.