Minerals, security and aid: what’s going wrong in the DRC?

Lasting security and stability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are under threat due to resource exploitation. Long-term peace requires institutional development and strengthening.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a resource-rich country that has been at the centre of the longest armed conflict in modern times. Global demand for coltan (colombite-tantalum), a mineral used in the manufacture of electronic devices, has seen the onset and exacerbation of illegal trading, child labour and widespread corruption in the DRC. The coltan that is mined near the DRC’s eastern border with Rwanda is sold in an unregulated market. These mines are almost exclusively controlled by armed rebel groups: corruption and illegal trading account for the majority of the region’s vast hidden wealth. Residual ethnic tension from warring Hutus and Congolese Tutsis combined with widespread armed and sexual violence force local Congolese to live in fear and oppression.

Institutional strengthening through security sector reform

One viable solution to the DRC’s endemic violence and conflict is security sector reform (SSR). Areas requiring such reform include police, intelligence, correctional and judicial systems. When combined with disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, SSR is a powerful tool to build (or rebuild) effective institutions and processes such as the rule of law — thereby contributing to successful peace-building.

Disarmament of non-military armed groups in the eastern regions of the DRC should be a first step. However, the Kabila government has shown uncompromising opposition to such action. The removal of individuals such as Bosco Ntaganda, a former General in the Congolese Army and leader of the M23 rebel group, is also of primary importance. Ntaganda has been taken into custody by the International Criminal Court and is awaiting trial on charges related to the widespread rape, murder, mutilation and forced recruitment of child soldiers.

It is overly simplistic to blame the resources buried beneath the ground for the violence that disproportionately affects DRC women and children. Botswana, like the DRC, is a post-colonial central African nation that is resource-rich. Unlike the DRC, Botswana has functioning institutions — the key factor that appears to determine peace and stability. Botswana established sound economic policies to sustain its lucrative diamond exports — key powerbrokers in the government of Botswana fostered economic opportunities and subsequently established the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning. Similar institutional strengthening across government has made Botswana an upper-middle income country, in line with China.

Foreign investment priorities

The collapse of state institutions in the DRC has not deterred widespread foreign investment in the DRC’s minerals industry. Given China’s global domination of electronic goods manufacturing, it is currently implicated in the coltan trade and accounts for more than 60 per cent of coltan extraction from the Kivu provinces. China’s bilateral relationship with the DRC was worth in excess of $24 billion in 2004. Unfortunately the Congolese people seldom directly reap the benefits of such a lucrative agreement. Most Chinese social development and aid projects take the form of infrastructure and public sector works such as roads, railways, dams and power plants — works that aid further extraction of the DRC’s resources. One such developer is the Chinese-owned Exim Bank, which financed 600 projects in Africa in 2006. This amounted to $12.6 billion of investment, far exceeding the total infrastructure expenditure from all developed nations in the same period.

A role for Australia?

Australia’s election to the UN Peacebuilding Commission indicates a clear commitment to peace and security in Africa; however, despite a commitment to assisting African countries achieve and maintain peace and security over the long term, only 1.4% of Australia’s total overseas development aid is earmarked for SSR according to the OECD Creditor Reporting System. As a measure of responsible development practice, Australian aid and development policymakers should first recognise the value of rule of law and the imperative of a properly-functioning security sector. Funding from the Australian Government, in conjunction with other donors, could help to effectively demilitarise the DRC’s eastern regions, alongside the targeted removal of rebel leaders. Engaging the African Union is currently the most viable option in this regard.


Felicity Driver has completed Bachelor’s degrees in Development Studies and Arts and works for a Melbourne-based research consultancy. A longer version of this article appears in the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ Emerging Scholars Series publication.