Between M23 and electric vehicles

With regional and global powers keen to take advantage of the DRC’s mineral wealth, it is hard to see how things can get better for the country in the short and medium term.

Processed cobalt oxide ready for export through Durban. Image credit Fairphone via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed.

On February 10, 2024, a wave of anti-Western protests erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), blaming Western inaction to stop Rwanda’s involvement in violence in the East. Initially focused on Kinshasa, the capital, the demonstrations spread to the eastern provinces, where fighting between the Congolese Army and M23 rebels has intensified. This initially seemed in line with what occurred in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, where populations went as far as supporting coups if they demonstrate an anti-Western motivation. However, when looked at more closely, these protests in Congo may be the symptoms of a more complex problem.

Indeed, due to the long-lasting conflict involving local actors, neighboring countries, and links with the US and EU, the DRC has become a tinderbox of tensions. After 32 years of dictatorship, the DRC went through a civil war in 1996, which was, to some extent, an aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. This civil war ended Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship and launched an emerging “democratic” process, evidenced by the fourth general election. However, this democracy has not yielded major advances in poverty reduction, despite the country’s immense mineral wealth. The country undergoes instead a seemingly endless cycle of violence, fueled by the same mineral wealth. To understand the poverty and conflicts fueling the protest, let’s take a closer look at what is happening in the Kivu and Katanga regions of DRC, where many critical minerals to the EU and US economies are extracted.

Minerals at all costs

In January 2024, the Congolese national football team denounced international complicity in the ongoing violence in Eastern DRC at the Africa Cup of Nations, by using one hand to mimic a gun on their temples and the other to cover their mouths. Their protest was followed by vandalism of the French broadcaster Canal+ and protests outside French and US embassies in Kinshasa. Little did the team expect, a few days later, the EU signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Rwanda, to access critical minerals most likely originating in the DRC. This MOU comes after nearly three decades of conflicts linked to some extent to mineral extraction in Eastern DRC. Indeed, while the 1996 civil war likely resulted from Rwanda’s new regime working with the Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo (AFDL) to hunt down Hutu militants who were involved in the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda and took refuge in what was then Zaire, many reports accused the second Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (RCD) rebellion launched in 1998 to be primarily motivated and maintained by the extraction of four strategic minerals: these are tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold—often called 3TG. The demand for these minerals skyrocketed due to their role in the production of mobile phones and computers; most of the extracted minerals were smuggled through Rwanda and shipped to the factories that use them. After the RCD rebels joined DRC’s army and government in 2003, the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) and the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23), respectively from 2004 to 2009 and from 2012 up to today, became active in North Kivu province, killing civilians and causing massive refugee waves.

It’s due to this context and several reports accusing Rwanda of supporting the killings in Eastern DRC, including that of the UN, that the MOU was met with accusations of hypocrisy, since it is in contravention of the EU’s stated goal of combating criminal mineral supply chains. While the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege called it the “height of cynicism” and evidence of a “policy of double standards,” the EU maintains that the agreement aims to improve transparency in the mining sector and does not endorse Rwanda’s actions in the DRC. 

France and the US have condemned Rwanda and demanded they leave Congo. But such impactless phrases are very common; they represent a pattern of verbal censure without the follow-through of substantive sanctions. All of this is not surprising, since the US, UK, and EU swiftly imposed drastic sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, while they unconditionally support Israel’s bombing of Gaza and, ironically, send food and other aid to the bombing victims. Initiatives such as the US’s Dodd-Frank Act or OECD’s due diligence guidelines, aiming to cut the financing channels of armed groups, also lose credibility as their initiators support Rwanda despite its links to the same armed groups. Knowing that Rwanda has no industry that can either use the looted minerals or produce the guns to sustain years of M23 activities, a ban on gun purchase or mineral export by the US and EU would significantly challenge its motivation to support M23 or any other destabilizing force in the DRC. 

It, thus, makes sense that the EU and US refusing to take any action to stop Rwanda from supporting M23 activities, choosing instead to secure the purchase of minerals linked with this violence, fuels the frustration of the Congolese population that has suffered for decades from war and poverty.

Global value chains: Colonialism 2.0 ?

Rwanda’s involvement in destabilizing the Eastern DRC is not the only problem that reveals contradictions in EU and US policies when it comes to DRC’s minerals and peace efforts. Their attitudes regarding the cobalt supply chain questions their valuation of Congolese lives vis-à-vis their economic interests. With the impending ban in developed economies on internal combustion vehicles, it remains difficult to find a substitute, underlining the strategic importance of cobalt for the future. Sodium-based batteries have been considered, but their density is not practical for cars but more suitable for homes. Despite this, the cobalt, lithium, and nickel mining sector is valued at about $11 billion, whereas the electric vehicle (EV) market is valued at over $7 trillion. Knowing that countries in the Global South have been shaped by their colonizers and are still maintained by Western powers as raw material providers, with as little as possible value addition on their soil; it is clear to see which countries are set to benefit from the booming EV market. Furthermore, this value distribution thus offers little to the DRC, which has around 70% of the global cobalt deposits and 3T minerals necessary for various electronic devices and the green energy transition.

Unfortunately, there is little room for countries in the Global South to negotiate a larger share of the EV pie. The economic war that China undergoes versus the EU and US are clear proof of that. Indeed, while the EU is criticized for its hypocrisy in blocking the imports of Chinese electric vehicles and simultaneously campaigning for a shift to EV’s to respond to climate change, the importation of batteries from China by European industry seems to raise no questions. One may wonder whether the actual reason for blocking cars and not their batteries is that the EU wants most of the value addition to be made on its soil, akin to the Biden administration’s goals in the US.

In the face of such Western policies, and seeing that they are the biggest loser in the distribution of the benefits of their resources, the protesters are indeed further frustrated that they not only live in extreme poverty, but also witness how the EU and US looks away while their countrymen are being continuously killed.

Is their light at the top of the mining pit?

President Felix Tshisekedi’s first term was marred by unfulfilled promises. Despite extending a controversial state of siege in Ituri and North Kivu provinces over 50 times, the administration failed to restore peace, and civilian safety in the mineral-rich east barely improved. In fact, the move backfired, empowering the military, who cracked down on dissent, jailed journalists and activists, and detained people in harsh conditions. Meanwhile, armed militants like the Islamic state group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) expanded their presence, and M23 seized towns, displacing thousands. While his mediatic denunciation of Rwandan involvement has contributed to his reelection, it has not yielded any actual change on the ground. This lack of change further frustrates not only the population in the provinces under martial law, but also those in other Congolese provinces who are continuously bombarded with reports of the war in the media, without change or any glimpse of a hope for change.

On the economic front, after his first term, Tshisekedi failed to deliver on his promise of renegotiating the Chinese contract that traded minerals for infrastructure, which was accused of being the “deal of the century” due to how unbalanced it was. Reports have surfaced of backchannel payments to former President Joseph Kabila’s family and allies from this deal, giving a glimpse into what might have motivated such an agreement. With such questions around the deal between the DRC with China, and in the midst the ongoing trade war between the West and China, there is opportunity for the Congolese government to renegotiate a bigger piece of the EV pie with both sides (China and the West), as well as to extract a meaningful commitment from EU and US to pressure Rwanda to end its support for M23. Here again, the population is frustrated by the lack of progress in terms of value addition on Congolese soil or any achievement by the government in revising the Chinese deal, as promised by the Tshisekedi’s administration.

So, is there any light at the top of the tunnel? This remains hard to tell despite Western governments’ motivation to secure their supply chains no matter the cost; with the Rwandan government happy to be a good proxy to take advantage of the fragility of DRC’s army; and with China taking advantage of its mineral deal to get a chance at positioning itself in the upcoming wave of car production. The DRC government can still leverage its strategic position in the EV industry. But on the other hand, as witnessed with ministers imitating the football players’ gestures, the Tshisekedi administration can benefit from the population blaming the West, totally missing the opportunity to reposition the country in the midst of the EV wave, leaving its population to suffer further from poverty and violence.

Further Reading