The mineral export ban: What gives?

President Kabila announced the suspension of mineral exports from the eastern Congo last week, although soon afterward the mining ministry said that the measure would not concern the stockpile of minerals that trading houses had already purchased and were waiting to export.

The decision came after Kabila met with Kagame repeatedly in Kigali and after Rwanda said it would implement a tin tracking project of its own with ITRI, the tin industry body that is beginning a small certification project in the Congo. The decision was supported by the largest Malaysian Smelting Corp, the largest buyer of Congolese tin, as well as by ITRI.

This raises numerous questions:

1. The motive: Sources within the Congolese army and the mines ministry say that the decision is linked to a military offensive that the army is planning in Walikale to secure key mining areas. That alone, however, doesn’t seem to be sufficient – the Congolese army has carried out many offensives in the past (Kimia I & II, Umoja Wetu) without banning minerals. It is more likely that both the offensive as well as the ban are intended to reconfigure the mineral trade in the Kivus. How it is to be reconfigured is another question.

Does the government intend to completely sanitize the sector before allowing tin exports to start up again? That would require clamping down on major mafia networks within the Congolese army and administration, instoring discipline in the security forces as well as pushing rebel groups out of mining areas. In other words, it would take months if not years. In connection with this, some analysts have suggested that Kabila may be talking with outside investors who are willing to engage in industrial exploitation of the mines, which would allow Kinshasa to benefit more directly, instead of allowing local mafia networks to flourish.

Others have speculated that there has been feuding within the Congolese government and the restructuring will just displace one patronage network in favor of another. For example, General Gabriel Amisi, the commander of the land forces, is irked that his allies in the field – Col Etienne Bindu, Col Samy and some even say Col Cheka – have been pushed out of the most lucrative mining areas by ex-CNDP commanders. Others point to the fact that Col Innocent Kaina (ex-CNDP) has recently stopped all exploitation in the Bisie mine and tightened control over the area. Will he re-start trade with new traders?

2. The consequences: Already, the price of cassiterite (tin) has reportedly dropped from $4,5/kg to $1/kg in the Bisie mine over the weekend. Mining sources are worried that the embargo could spark riots or general lawlessness in the areas around the mines. It is also likely that the embargo will encourage massive smuggling, which is often facilitated by military officers in Goma, Bukavu and across Lake Kivu. Of course, the ban will also diminish the profits of armed groups in the mineral trade, which, if managed correctly, could lead to increase rates of demobilization. You will notice however, that some commanders could make more money through smuggling while other stand to lose quite a bit.

A suivre.