Armed conflict, insecurity, and mining in eastern DRC: reflections on the nexus between natural resources and armed conflict

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This report offers a new framework for looking at the eastern Congo conflict, one within which new evolutions of the past twenty years find a place. Indeed, violent conflict in eastern Congo has changed dramatically in all its aspects over the past two decades. Yet too often policymakers and observers appear to assume that we are dealing with a proxy war orchestrated from the DRC’s eastern neighboring countries. The over-simplified and incorrect narrative is then that large rebel movements are directed by neighboring countries to satisfy their insatiable hunger for ‘conflict minerals’. Still according to this simplified version of the facts, we find the civilian population and the weak, Congolese government on the side of the victims.

If this narrative was true at the time of the great Congolese wars around the turn of the millennium, it hardly applies today. More so, to the extent that such a perspective guides policy and donor interventions, it sometimes threatens to produce effects that add to the level of conflict in the region. We can think of the martial law declared by the Congolese government in May 2021, or of ‘responsible sourcing’ programs that, by adopting an incorrect macro-perspective, ignore local sensitivities and thereby foster conflict.

It was therefore high time to, in partnership with USAID, launch a new reflection on the drivers, causes and actors that together define the nature of the conflict in eastern Congo. In doing so, we note that the conflict has become atomized over the last two decades. That is, the different aspects of conflict and their interaction can vary considerably from location to location.

Within this fragmented conflict landscape, depending on the location, a range of drivers other than just ‘conflict minerals’ can be observed. Further analysis shows that, for example, the broader issue of land ownership may be at stake and that armed actors may just as well be concerned with proceedings derived from agriculture as they are with mining revenues.

As for the causes of conflict today, we see that, for example, corruption among government officials, poorly executed DDR programs or the continued existence of auto-defense groups with no raison d’être that sustain themselves with mining revenues, are of greater importance than the mere presence of resources in Congolese soil.

In terms of conflict actors, a great fragmentation can also be observed. In local conflicts, we find ex-rebels struggling to find their way into civilian life, as well as units of the Congolese army, which often strike deals with non-state actors. Not infrequently, conflict is also a matter of communities battling each other, with the ‘ethnic divisions’ artificially created by the colonizer sometimes being whipped up again by opportunistic leaders.

Finally, the study also shows that the regional dimension is still important for understanding the full context of the conflict. Regional trade chains of commodities – including minerals – and bilateral (military) cooperation give rise to geopolitical tensions. This also seems to be an important element in the resurgence of M23.

Supported by USAID, Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) project