Demobilization of the M23, PlayStation 4 Sales and Violence in Eastern Congo
A few weeks ago the Congolese rebel group known as M23 announced it would disarm after 18 months of wreaking havoc in eastern Congo, thanks to a military offensive carried out jointly by the Armed Forces of the DRC and the newly created Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) of the United Nations.
Although many other armed groups continue operating in eastern Congo (over 25 according to the NGO Oxfam) and presumably the tasks carried out by the FIB have just getting started, the truth is that the M23, with or without peace agreement, is rapidly falling apart. According to the French television France 24, about 2,000 soldiers have been demobilized to date.
However, military successes could be ephemeral.
Many rightly associate the M23 with episodes of mass rape, pillaging, war crimes and crimes against humanity in areas under its control or temporary occupation. Nevertheless, the M23 was not only an armed militia dedicated to looting, but also a service provider filling the vacuum left by the State, especially in delivering security. In fact, it is not uncommon for armed groups operating in eastern DRC to put in place a sort of “proto-states” which not only provide security to “conquered” villages but also activate the local economy, particularly regarding the extraction and trade of valuable minerals.
The latter is what Raul Sanchez de la Sierra, a researcher at Columbia University, tells us in a paper entitled “On the Origin of States: Stationary Bandits and Taxation in Eastern Congo”, whose findings are based on an 18-months-long fieldwork in one of the world’s most troubled areas.
The most interesting findings of this paper are those on the origins and formation of states (eastern Congo is, after all, a vast territory without a State and therefore a propitious place to study its origins), but the analysis goes further and some results may require immediate responses from the field in different areas.
Firstly, the author notes that
Interventions aimed at constraining armed groups ability to collect taxes increase violence against civilians in the short-run. Interventions that attempt to weaken armed groups finances have become dominant among policy circles. In particular, the United States issued the Dodd-Frank legislation in 2012, aimed at constraining purchases of minerals whose trade is a source of finance to armed groups. Governments interested in “cleaning” the mineral chain, thus, may need to protect civilians in the aftermath of these interventions, and provide alternative occupations to combatants who lose access to revenues from taxes as a result of these interventions.
Accordingly, after the demobilization of the M23 is absolutely essential to fill the power vacuum left by the group in many villages with a strong government presence aimed to provide those services (mostly security, but not only) delivered by the rebel militia so far.
And that should be done as quickly as possible, since this paper finds evidence of a short-term increase in violence against civilians if the vacuum continues to exist. Many armed groups are still active today in the Kivus, and it seems clear that the military victory will not be enough to prevent the area formerly controlled by the M23 from falling into the hands of another militia.
The M23 occupied a large swath of eastern Congo, as evidenced by this map of Human Rights Watch:
In this context, it is startling that the United Nations and the Government of the DRC do not already have a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program for former soldiers of the M23. In fact, we are getting reports that some of the demobilized fighters regret having done so.
Secondly, I would like to highlight the findings with regard to the relationship between drastic shocks to the global demand of coltan (columbite-tantalite, a rare but critical commodity used in the manufacture of electronic components, especially in the video-game industry) and the establishment of “proto-states” led by armed groups in the villages endowed with this mineral.
For example, the release of a new version of the popular console PlayStation and its sales expectations can make the price of coltan vary rapidly. And its latest version, PlayStation 4, just came out. Taking into account that the DRC has around 80% of world’s coltan reserves, the volume of sales of the new console will determine to a great extent the destiny of many villages formerly controlled by armed groups in the east of the country.
According to the author,
This conclusion, which is not consistent for the case of gold (more difficult to tax), shows that the presence of stationary armed groups is strongly associated with increased economic activity in those areas where they can raise taxes and as long as the price of coltan is high. Therefore, if more PlayStations are sold and the price of coltan increases, the violence could also flare up in the villages formerly held by the M23 in the short term, as armed groups will try to “conquer” them and settle there to extract their resources as soon as possible.
Finally, the article also explores the issue of development aid and its potentially negative effects:
First, this paper suggests that development aid disbursed in this area provides potentially a source of revenue to armed groups. This paper’s findings demonstrate that armed groups often settle in individual villages, and systematically raise taxes on a large number of economic activities, not only on the mineral trade, contrary to what is commonly believed. Aid that does not take into consideration the revenues it can generate to armed groups may counteract policies aimed at weakening armed groups. Second, the findings of this paper also suggest how to design aid minimizes this risk. Aid that translates into unobservable or intangible assets, may be harder to tax. This is the case of education and health. Attention needs to be paid to the process in which these services are delivered. This also implies that the marginal returns from aid delivery will be larger if armed groups are not taxing in targeted villages, suggesting that aid delivery and interventions that eradicate armed groups are complementary. Third, aid may increase civilian exposure to risk of violence if wealth can be converted to portable assets. The findings of this study indeed suggest that pillages target specifically portable assets.
Today, with the demobilization of the M23 and the release of the new Playstation 4, two key elements that could increase the level of short-term violence in eastern Congo are present. Both must be taken into consideration when trying to manage a lasting peace that has so far slipped away. The DRC does not need more “stationary bandits”, as de la Sierra calls them, but a State willing to work closely with the local communities in delivering the services they need and at the same time supported by a well-financed military. Meanwhile, the international community must be fully aware of the inherent complexity posed by a decades-long conflict but also of the risks and opportunities associated with this recent, critical juncture.