Jeffrey Herbst (2014, p.11), a scholar specializing in African studies and author of States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons for Authority and Control, reported an interesting quote from Lord Hailey, who in his monumental African Survey (1938) noted the following: ”The history of every continent is written clearly in its geographical features, but of no continent is this more true than of Africa”. Taking into account these words almost 90 years on, Lord Hailey might have been referring to the nowadays well-known relationship between natural resource wealth and conflict, a phenomenon that has been subject to intense debates over the past century. As such, the phenomenon known as the ‘resource curse‘ or ‘Dutch disease‘ theorises that natural resource abundance leads to growth collapse, corruption, poor governance, and contributes to greater chances for political violence. As such, the resource curse argument was developed to explain why certain countries which are blessed with an abundance of natural resources have shown worse economic performance than those without it (Di John, 2011).
Two natural resources have received particular attention in their contribution to the onset, duration, and intensity of conflicts, namely diamonds and oil. Hugo (2019) noted that the resource curse is related to broken models of democracy that lead to conflict. The current paper is concerned with diamonds and the abundance of resource wealth in Congo, also referred to as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The paper poses the following questions: Has natural resource abundance cursed Congo? To answer such a question, the paper will begin by offering insights into the theoretical underpinnings associated with the resource curse, specifically mentioning mechanisms through which the resource curse can manifest itself. This will be followed by a short analysis of the effects of resource abundance in Congo, referring to corruption and conflict. The paper aims to contribute to the wider discussion on the links between primary commodities, political instability, and conflict.
Natural Resource Curse
Richard Auty, an economic geographer, was the first person to coin the phrase “natural resource curse“ in 1993. It has subsequently been defined by Ross (2015, p. 240) as “the perverse effects of a country’s natural resource wealth on its economic, social, or political well-being“. To put it differently, the resource curse refers to the idea that natural resources and mineral abundance generate negative development outcomes in less developed countries. The idea suggests further that natural resource abundance produces growth-restricting forms of state intervention and large degrees of state corruption, exploitation and negative in terms of the development of the income it generates (Di John, 2011).
The literature pertaining to the resource curse usually analyses the relationship between resource abundance and conflict (Mildner, Lauster & Wodni, 2011). The political resource curse literature initially focused on the appropriability issue through the lens of the looting behaviour of rebels and distinguished between ‘lootable’ and ‘unlootable’ goods. Vahabi (2017, p. 3) subsequently defined ‘lootable’ resources as “natural resources that can easily be extracted and transported by individuals or small groups of unskilled workers“: the author then further mentions that diamonds provide the best example of such a resource because of its high value-to-weight ratio. Hence, the term ‘unlootable resources‘ refers instead to natural gas and oil, due to the fact that such resources require both knowledge and techniques to extract and transport (Vahabi, 2017).
Nowadays, there is wider recognition that the resource curse is a much more complex phenomenon, the manifestation of which depends on several factors: for instance, the type of natural resources, the way one measures their relative importance in an economy, the socio-political institutions in place and so forth (Hugo, 2019). The resource curse has two predominant theories, namely the ‘looting rebels’ model’ and the ‘state capacity model’. The former was developed largely by Collier and Hoeffler (1998) in the article On Economic Causes of Civil War, which analysed the tendency of regimes richly endowed with natural resources to be more authoritarian and more prone to civil wars than those without such resources (Vahabi, 2017). Furthermore, Collier and Hoeffler (2004) continued to suggest that natural resource abundance increases the risk of conflict onset since rebels can loot primary product commodities to finance their fighting. As such, Mildner et al. (2011, p. 162) summarised the key argument of the ‘looting rebel model’, which theorises that “resource abundance can represent an opportunity to either finance a rebellion or to exploit resource wealth for personal enrichment“.
The second major theory pertaining to the resource curse was developed by Fearon & Laitin (2003) and became known as the ‘state capacity model’. The model is best explained by Mildner et al. (2011, p. 162), noting that “resource rents are an additional source of government revenue that can weaken state institutions through rent-seeking behaviour and make conflict more likely [...] weakened state institutions can facilitate state capture by rebel groups“. Taken together, the literature mentioned above collectively emphasises the complexities and conditionalities of the ‘curse’, its presence/intensity being largely context-specific, depending on the type of resources, socio-political institutions, and linkages with the rest of the economy and society (Hugo, 2019).
Curse, Congo, and Corruption
Did the presence of natural resources curse Congo? The following sections will attempt to answer this question by referring to two possible mechanisms by which resource abundance has affected Congo, namely (1) perpetuating corruption which led to poor governance, and (2) providing access to resources for rebels to sustain conflicts. The first dynamic relates to the theoretical assumption that resource endowments lead to corruption and poor governance. The resource endowments in Congo have been undermined by endemic corruption in the mining sector, as was evident during the presidency of Mobutu. Evidence of this claim was provided by Samset (2002, p. 468) who found that, under former President Mobutu, the mining sector in Congo was “hit by plunder, mismanagement, infrastructural and technical problems“. The political sector was severely implicated in corruption when billions of dollars were paid as bribes to the corrupt elites who controlled the various sectors of the mining industry (Bak & Vrushi, 2019). This weakened the legitimacy of the Congolese regime and contributed to the general erosion of effective governance (Samset, 2002).
Curse, Congo, and Conflict
Generally, in political science, conflict is studied in terms of motive. Fearon & Laitin (2003) asserted that rebellion occurs when grievances are present, which motivates people to engage in violent protest against the state. In contrast, Collier & Hoeffler (2004) provided an alternative explanation for the occurrence of conflict and rebellions in Greed and Grievance in Civil War. Their theory, known as the greed-rebel model, theorises that rebellions are motivated by greed, noting that “the incidence of rebellion is not explained by motive, but by the atypical circumstances that generate profitable opportunities“ (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004, p. 564). Opportunity referred to start-up opportunities for financing rebellions, which according to Collier & Hoeffler (2004, p. 565) can come from three broad sources: namely, “extortion of natural resources, donations from diasporas, and subventions from hostile governments“. In the case of Congo, Le Billon (2008) found that rebels covered their start-up costs by looting natural resources.
In this light, the second way in which resource abundance cursed Congo lies in the fact that the country has been destroyed by conflicts and wars. In Congo, the presence and extraction of diamonds, among other minerals, have been identified as a factor that prolonged the civil wars and contributed to a general rise in political violence (Usanov, De Ridder, Auping & Lingemann, 2013). This was due to the fact that revenues from looting resources by rebels financed their rebellion, specifically by providing means to buy arms (Le Billon, 2008).
In the late 1990s and in the beginning of the new century, diamonds captivated the attention of analysts, specifically because of their relation to wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Congo. The relationship between diamonds and conflict was termed by analysts as ‘conflict diamonds‘, while the media preferred the term ‘blood diamonds‘ (Le Billon, 2008, p. 346). Armed conflict and war were, as noted by Collierand Hoeffler (2004), a criminal project which was largely motivated by the lust for resources facilitated by easily lootable resources, of which diamonds were a prime example (Le Billon, 2008). As such, the so-called ‘conflict diamonds’, referred to precious stones mined in African war zones, often extracted by forced labour, were found to have funded armed rebellions (Baker, 2015). The definition of conflict diamonds used in the context of international law is found in the Kimberley Process core document, which is based on Resolution 55/56 of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and relevant UNSC resolutions, stating that “Conflict diamonds are rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments“ (Davidson, 2016, p. 25).
Le Billon (2008) specifically found that diamonds were conflict resources, meaning that it was a resource that provided financial opportunities which motivated belligerents and financed the continuation of armed conflict. A similar conclusion was drawn by Ron (2005), who found that lootable diamonds tend to increase the chances of civil war, in that they provided incentives for rebels to control geographical areas in which such resources were found. In terms of the link between diamonds and conflict in Congo, Maydan (2019, p. 13) claimed the following: “In the Congolese wars specific diamond mines were seized and controlled by rebel groups, in doing this the group gained a leg up on the enemy. Power, labour, and money were gained by controlling a diamond mine. All of the profits that were being sold on a market went directly into the hands of that rebel group“.
Interestingly, Ron (2005) argued that diamonds in themselves are not the problem: rather, it is the mix of social and political factors that leads to destructive wars and acts of political violence. To illustrate this point, an interesting example is Botswana, a country richly endowed with diamonds, yet which has not been ravaged by war. Le Billon (2008, p. 356) provided a possible explanation for this, by arguing that the government of Botswana provided “greater public services and infrastructures“ to the people. Therefore, diamonds in themselves do not cause conflict, as the case of Botswana illustrates, but the interaction between social, political, and economic factors makes conflict more likely in countries endowed with diamond resources (Samset, 2002).
Given the above-mentioned argument, the role of diamonds cursed Congo in two ways: first, it influenced the outbreak of conflict, and second, it increased both the intensity and duration of the conflict (Davidson, 2016). The political factors that made Congo more prone to the resource curse were the lack of legitimacy and endemic corruption in both the mining and political sectors, with Nichols (2018, p. 12) stating that “the natural resources sector within the government is riddled with corruption and the government’s management of the natural resources within Congo lack transparency“. In their essence, diamonds are durable, easy to conceal and worth millions. Julius (2001) wrote an influential article in which he assessed the role of diamonds in the conflicts in Sierra Leone, and he concluded that in addition to Sierra Leone, the attempts to control diamond mining in Congo were at the heart of the conflicts which ravaged the country. As Meydan (2019) and Le Billon (2008) illustrated, the presence of diamonds and other minerals in Congo gave rebels access to the funding needed to create and sustain the rebellion.
The aim of the paper was to discuss whether resource abundance cursed Congo. For this to be valid according to the theoretical underpinning of the resource curse, resource abundance needs to either cause conflict and/or cause poor governance. As the paper illustrated, resource abundance had powerful effects on conflict dynamics in Congo, it created low-capacity governments which were plagued by corruption, and it provided early access to funds for rebels to create and sustain their war effort (Ron, 2005). Poverty and primary commodities do not in themselves cause conflicts, it is mechanisms that provide the link when they come together as one. As theorized by Collier and Hoeffler (2004), resources provide rebels with opportunities to fund rebellions. This has tragically manifested itself in various resource-rich countries around the world. Indeed, numerous resource-rich states across Africa suffer from chronic instability. In some places, disputes over access to natural resource revenues or grievances about the environmental impact of resource extraction are among the major triggers of conflict. In other places, natural resource revenues provide belligerents with the resources necessary to sustain military campaigns. To make matters worse, the onset of conflict or political crises further distorts leaders’ incentive structures and weakens states’ chances to manage natural resources effectively (Mailey, 2015).
To conclude, Congo remains the ‘heart of darkness’, to borrow the title phrase from the 1899 novel by Joseph Conrad. It has proved to be a place of violence, brutality, and exploitation, arguably since the beginning of the establishment of the country. Tragically, Congo’s horror remains unchanged. Foreigners full of lust, rebel groups, and a corrupt government have and are currently ridding the country of its natural resources by exploiting the very people they aim to liberate, govern, or protect (Ron, 2005). The current paper set out to detect a connection between the abundance of natural resources and political conflict in Congo, thereby raising awareness of both the rebel and state dynamics associated with the resource curse. Unfortunately, both political and economic instability still continues in Congo, therefore future research should focus on the creation and implementation of laws that could benefit the Congolese population, a starting point being associated with frameworks which strengthen checks and balances on political elites with the aim of eradicating corruption.
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Cover image: Ghosh, A. (2022, April 2). The Resource Curse [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.heartfulnessmagazine.com/the-resource-curse/ Image 1: Addario, L. (2015, September 7). Congolese miners working one of the thousands of artisanal mines that cover the country [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://time.com/blood-diamonds/
Image 2: Batz, J. (2017, April 29). Rich resources and violent opportunities [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/the-drcs-resources-curse/g-38612785
Image 3: Moore, P. (2012, December 15). A member of the Congolese M23 rebel group slept in the back of a truck as the rebels waited to withdraw on Dec. 1 from Goma, in eastern Congo [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/sunday-review/congos-never-ending-war.html Image 4: Sawasawa, M. (2022, July 11). Armed militia men gather near Rutshuru, 45 miles north of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/a-reprieve-but-no-settlement-for-the-rwanda-congo-conflict/
Image 5: Unknown. (2021, November 9). The M23 rebels have attached military positions of Chanzu and Runyonyi, in North Kivu province [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.ug/dr-congo-army-claims-m23-rebels-attacking-military-positions/ Image 6: Addario, L. (2015, September 7). Inside the Democratic Republic of Congo’s diamonds mines [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://time.com/4012857/the-fight-against-blood-diamonds-continues/
Image 7: Kontos, Y. (2006, December 17). Blessings and Curse [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/weekinreview/17mcneil.html