Damaging Effects of Mineral Smuggling in Central Africa

By Nyambura Githaiga                                                                                                   1 September 2011
Mineral smuggling in the Great Lakes region is a threat to the security and economies of states in this part of Africa. While not a new phenomenon, its continuation will deny the region of potential economic growth and propagate deeper insecurity.

A couple of cases to illustrate the regional complicity in mineral smuggling include the recent attempt by a UN driver to smuggle 1200 kilos of cassiterite ore from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) into Rwanda and the 2.5 tonnes of smuggled gold from DRC that recently disappeared in Kenya. The latter incident is linked to the killing of a Kenya Revenue Authority official assigned to the investigations and also prompted a visit to Kenya by the president of the DRC to underscore the gravity of regional complicity in smuggling.

The effects of smuggling will also be felt region wide. With the potential dissuading effect of the American Dodd-Frank Act on conflict minerals, companies may opt out of sourcing minerals from the DRC to forego the onerous disclosure requirements. Subsequently, there is likely to be a negative ripple effect in sourcing minerals from Great Lakes countries due to this regional trend of mineral smuggling, tainting the perception of regional minerals as conflict minerals.

At the heart of mineral smuggling in the Great Lakes region is the DRC, which has the greatest mineral reserves, but a weak state presence in the mineral rich East has left it subject to regional mineral smuggling. A history of civil war, stunted infrastructure, a largely unregulated mining sector and foreign invasions have made Eastern DRC a challenge for governance and administration.

The implicit and explicit involvement of neighbouring states to exacerbate mineral smuggling includes the proxy wars on DRC territory that make the East a haven for regional militia who then seek to illegally control the mines. Regional countries are then used as conduits for illegal minerals as far as the ports of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. While it is argued the countries in the region allegedly benefit from these illegal minerals and are thus uninspired to cooperate in stemming the vice, there have also been negative impacts, which in the long term will outweigh any perceived benefit,

The regionalisation of insecurity is by far the most potent threat to sustainable peace and development of individual states. This has been evidenced in the increased incidences of regional crime compromising the authority of national customs and border institutions, proliferation of small arms and light weapons and its effect on urban crime, and growing detrimental perceptions of the region that will affect investor confidence and economic growth.

So far the most significant regional effort has been under the Protocol Against the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resource by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). ICGLR comprises the governments of Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia. The implementation of this protocol has been through the Regional Initiative against the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources (RINR) which has set up a regional certification system for cassiterite, coltan, wolframite and gold and a certification manual has been approved by the members state and awaits national domestication of the regional protocol.

On 15 December 2010, the Lusaka Declaration of the ICGLR special summit to fight illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Great Lakes region underscored the commitment of respective governments to this cause. Related to customs and borders, the DRC has signed bilateral agreements with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi in part to mitigate regional mineral smuggling.

This show of commitment by ICGLR countries is certainly laudable but the region now needs to go beyond rhetoric to fast-track national domestication of the protocol and implementation of measures to curb smuggling. Declarations and protocols demonstrate recognition by regional countries of the negative impact of mineral smuggling but implementation of the necessary strategies will demonstrate the political will of countries in the region to deal with this problem. Apart from concrete actions to put in place regionally harmonized national certification systems and actualising the five other tools of the RINR, it will be business as usual for mineral smugglers in the region.

The most affected country, DRC, also has the most challenging institutional and administrative capacity to effectively implement these critical measures. Similarly, other member states have differing capacity and priorities that may affect the implementation process. For example, Kenya, which has considerable political and economic power in the region, does not have significant mineral reserves and as such illegal mineral exploitation and trade may not be a priority despite the use of its port as an exit for smuggled minerals. However, insecurity and illegal arms, which are exacerbated by regional smuggling, are a priority for Kenya so this may be impetus enough to engage in this regional endeavour.

It is clear from the regional dimensions of illegal mineral exploitation and trade, that only a well-coordinated regional approach can achieve any modicum of success. There are obvious incentives for some countries to engage in this initiative. Politically, countries like Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda stand to gain from curbing illegal mining and trade, as it will potentially eliminate a source of income for militia groups from their countries that are based in DRC. These groups pose an enduring security threat for their respective countries. Economically, all the countries will benefit from a regulated mining network that will improve national economies and subsequently, regional.

Stronger regional blocs whose countries are part of ICGLR, like the East African Community and the Southern Africa Development Community, should complement and bolster this initiative. Illegal mineral exploitation and smuggling has robbed the region of resource revenue that should be building infrastructure and running institutions in the region. With a considerable mineral endowment, the Great Lakes region must prioritize the fight against illegal mineral exploitation and trade as a way of restoring security, building stronger economies and equipping institutions for better governance. This must be done simultaneously while resolving root causes of conflict, nationally and regionally, to ensure sustainable peace and development.

Nyambura Githaiga is a researcher in the African Conflict Prevention Programme in the Nairobi office of the ISS.