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The Hidden Conflict in Congo - article by Ronan Wordsworth for Geopolitical Futures - 20.03.23

The country can’t realize its resource potential without first stabilizing.

The geopolitical competition over the Democratic Republic of Congo is heating up. One of the poorest countries on earth, Congo has problems that are not easily solved: arrested development due to colonial exploitation, underdeveloped infrastructure, corruption, destabilizing militia activity and insufficient governmental control in its farthest reaches.

Outside powers have generally allowed these problems to go unchecked, but Congo’s vast mineral resources – copper and tin, precious metals such as gold and diamonds, and resources that are becoming increasingly important to new energy and green energy technology – are too much for them to ignore. The country is also critical for regional stability; its central location on the continent has historically made it an important trade route along Africa’s west coast, and violence in its east tends to spill over to other countries.

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This explains the newfound interest in improving relations with Congo, especially among the West and Russia. The problem for these countries – and potential investors – is that much of Congo’s mineral wealth lies in its ungoverned eastern areas, which are rife with militia groups that exploit the local populations and commandeer otherwise licit mining and transport routes.

Perhaps the most prominent of these groups is the March 23 Movement, an ethnically Tutsi militia that broke off from the Congolese armed forces in 2012 and, having ebbed and flowed in power over the years, now rivals its former masters thanks in no small part to the support of the Rwandan government. In fact, the conflict between the two has escalated dramatically in recent weeks, with M23 capturing large parts of the eastern North Kivu province and displacing more than 300,000 civilians in the past month.

The militia is especially problematic for the Congolese government because it is widely believed to be taking minerals mined in the east and transporting them to Rwanda for export. Over the past 10 or so years, the exploitation of Congo’s mineral deposits has propelled Rwanda’s economic growth, which stood at 66.4 percent from 2010 to 2020. Mining is its second-largest export and second-largest contributor to gross domestic product. The government in Kigali cites mining as a key component of its diversified economy plans, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it still lacks diversity.

Take gold as an example. In 2020, Rwanda exported $640 million worth of gold to the United Arab Emirates after building a gold refinery plant in 2019. But curiously, Rwanda has very little in the way of gold deposits. U.N. experts have said that the refinery’s purchases of Congolese gold had benefited “armed groups and criminal networks” and that the smuggling operations use Kigali as their main route to international markets, usually Dubai or Hong Kong.

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Rare earth minerals are also instructive. Coltan, for instance, is heat resistant and highly conductive, is essential in the production of mobile phones and laptops, and is found nowhere on earth more prevalently than in Congo, which is home to 80 percent of the world’s supply. Rwanda was listed as the third-largest producer, but here again, there are very few coltan mines in Rwanda proper. Bay View, a historically significant investor in the Rwandan mining sector, has alleged that “upwards of 50 per cent of all minerals exported from Rwanda originate in the DRC and that upwards of 90 per cent of the coltan exported from Rwanda originates in the DRC.”

But for Congo to realize its potential, it must first stabilize, and it likely can’t do that on its own. Its armed forces have struggled to retake mining regions lost to M23. In fact, this is the primary reason that in 2022 Congo joined the East African Community, an international organization that purports to strengthen peace and security. Over the past year, multiple East African Community members, including Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and South Sudan, have deployed troops to supplement Congolese forces, though none have been decisive enough to overtake M23.

Meanwhile, there has been a concerted effort from China, the United States and the European Union to secure mineral supply chains, and thus remove strategic vulnerabilities, in the face of rapid tech production. All of them are aware of Congo’s mineral wealth and therefore have a material interest in stabilizing the region. Washington signed a memorandum of understanding with Congo and Zambia in December 2022 to secure future mining investment opportunities and shore up a productive supply chain from mine to manufacturing.

Though nothing from the MoU has yet materialized, it reflects the fact that Congo is essential in any attempt to safeguard supply chains for minerals like cobalt, copper, tin and lithium, as well as rare earth minerals including tantalum, niobium, coltan and cassiterite. (The push for green tech has only increased the demand for many of them. Cobalt is used in electric batteries, and Congo accounts for more than 70 percent of global production.)

It’s yet another aspect of Washington’s strategic goal to counter China. By curbing Beijing’s access to rare earth minerals, the U.S. has an opportunity to improve its ties with Congo and to leverage its relationship with Rwanda to tamp down on militia operations.

In fact, Washington was Rwanda’s largest donor in 2021, providing $147 million in foreign assistance, and it could threaten to withhold this money to get what it wants. (That wouldn’t be without precedent; the U.S. cut military funding to Rwanda in 2012 for supporting M23, though this was largely a symbolic gesture of just a few hundred thousand dollars.)

More, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has brought in several large U.S. businesses to the country, including Via and Starbucks – which means the U.S. also has levers in the private sector it can use against the government.

Rwanda has tried to develop a foreign policy that balances support, trade and investment with many countries, but it likely can’t afford to lose the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, the dispute with Congo was high on the agenda when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Rwanda last August. When Washington signed the aforementioned MoU with Congo in December, it signaled how much it values its bilateral relationship.

Given that China already has a significant lead in trade relations with Congo, accounting for 41 percent of all of Congo’s exports worth $5.8 billion in 2022 (ahead of regional partners Tanzania at 12 percent, Zambia at 9 percent, and South Africa at 8 percent), the MoU has been seen by many as a tacit agreement to support Congolese armed forces. The first step the U.S. took was to visit Rwanda to pressure it to help.

The U.S. offers a different set of options from China and Russia when partnering with resource-rich African countries. Put simply, it offers development aid and investment and provides security assistance through effective training and logistics. (By contrast, China isn’t especially interested in military assistance or Congolese-Rwandan relations. It focuses exclusively on economic partnerships and trade.)

Of course, these offerings come with strings attached: mandates for good, corruption-free governance, transparency, and respect for different ethnic groups – stipulations that are not especially appreciated by some African leaders. Still, coupled with pressure on Rwanda, this would likely be enough to suppress M23 and thus open up eastern Congo’s resource potential.

Importantly, the U.S. is not the only country that would benefit from improved relations with Congo. On March 15, the European Commission introduced the Critical Raw Minerals Act, which announced that no more than 65 percent of any key raw material is to come from any single country as part of its supply chain diversification plan. It’s part of Europe’s strategy to triple green energy production by 2030.

The regulation also specifically identifies Sino-Congolese relations as a vulnerability for battery manufacturing supply chains, considering roughly 66 percent of mined cobalt is extracted from Congo and 60 percent of the world’s lithium is in China. As part of the EU’s push to grab critical minerals, Brussels will look to Kinshasa, and the ongoing conflict gives Europe the opportunity it needs.

It’s also a chance to work with the U.S. to reduce their exposure to the risk posed by dependency on China. France leads EU efforts to engage with Kinshasa, but given its colonial history, it’s not an ideal mediator. The EU delegation will rely on pledges of humanitarian aid and development assistance, thus offering a slightly different proposition than the U.S. In this sense, the two could have the opportunity to work together to reduce their reliance on China and secure access to rare earth mineral mining in the Congo basin.

There will be limits to how far the U.S. and Europe can cooperate, and there’s only so much either can do to force Rwanda and Congo to go along with their plans. Most of those involved seem to understand that a stable Congo could represent a valuable partnership that would provide many benefits. But Kinshasa can’t do it alone.

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Ronan Wordsworth


Ronan Wordsworth is an analyst for Geopolitical Futures. He completed a Masters in Geopolitical Studies at Charles University in Prague in 2022. He has an ongoing association with the University, including assisting an ongoing project of African University partnerships and is co-host of a Geopolitics Podcast. Prior to undertaking the master’s program, Mr Wordsworth completed a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from the University of Sydney and spent nine years working across Australia, Europe, and Southern Africa working up to the level of Senior Project Manager providing experience in statistical analytics.

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