Big business has a rare opportunity to bring stability and development to Africa’s troubled Great Lakes region.


In August last year, the beleaguered communities of Eastern Congo were again assailed by war. The rebel general Laurent Nkunda’s Rwandan-backed militas launched yet another violent campaign, threatening to return a region tormented by ethnic division and vast mineral wealth to all out conflict.

Yet in the space of just six months, a wave of unlikely events has brought fresh cause for optimism to the Great Lakes.

Firstly and most importantly, the upsurge in conflict was curtailed in dramatic fashion. The international community commendably dispatched ministerial officials and peace envoys to negotiate but it took an unprecedented agreement between President Kabila of Congo and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame to arrange for the arrest of the rebel general and to deploy Rwandan troops to secure the region.

Perhaps even more remarkably, these same troops completed an orderly withdrawal just days ago, surprising those who feared the intentions of the Rwandans from the very beginning. Despite legitimate concerns of a power vacuum in their absence, exacerbated by a chronically inadequate Congolese army and the continued presence of numerous militias, the early signs are hopeful.

Secondly, a spate of initiatives have been launched to bolster the private sector’s role in the Great Lakes region. For example, in the face of a World Bank report that for the third year running the Congo was ‘the worst country in the world for doing business in’, German agency GTZ boldly launched the Responsible Business Network. This initiative consists of international corporations active in Congo and aims to introduce stronger governance and human rights practices in their businesses.

There also appears to be a growing momentum for greater engagement with the private sector in tackling the region’s illicit trade in ‘conflict minerals’ such as coltan, tin and gold. This should come as no surprise; the UN Expert Group recently uncovered evidence that ‘all the main parties in the conflict in eastern DRC – armed groups as well as the Congolese army – are financing themselves via the exploitation and trade of eastern DRC’s mineral wealth’.

The Congolese Prime Minister last week invited international donor agencies, government officials and civil society representatives to a brainstorming soiree in Kinshasa specifically to unearth new ideas for a short-term stabilisation plan which prioritises economic recovery. The momentum appears to have spread to Europe where in The Hague, international companies gathered at the behest of the Dutch Minister for Development to do exactly the same. This followed a February gathering in Brussels of the “Task Force” on illegal exploitation and trade of natural resources – comprising European donor agencies working under the auspices of The Contact Group For The Great Lakes Region.

And the Germans once again seem to have taken the initiative. Next month they begin an ambitious pilot project in partnership with the Rwandan government and a prominent minerals investment company to introduce minimum standards of ethical and environmental practices. This bid to create ‘islands of good governance’ is taking place amidst the very militias, corrupt traders and officials who have exploited the hundred million dollar a year trade for over a decade, fueling the horrific conflict and exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Definitely no place for the fainthearted.

Even the UN’s much maligned peacekeeping force MONUC has joined the act. For the first time in its nine-year history, MONUC is now mandated to ‘use its monitoring and inspection capacities to curtail the provision of support to illegal armed groups derived from illicit trade in natural resources’. A tall order perhaps, but a significant step in the right direction.

This moment presents a unique convergence of interest in the role of the private sector as a force for stabilisation and development. It must be said at such a time that continual calls by activist groups for the withdrawal of business are not helpful. Their persistence in pressuring the multinationals with sanctions and boycotts may have served their purpose but now may do more harm than good. If their efforts serve to drive away reputable companies then the void left behind will only benefit those at the root of the problem.

A far more pressing issue is the global economic crisis. Massive falls in the prices of copper and cobalt have devastated the mining sector – resulting in the cancellation of 40% of concessions in the Congo’s Katanga region alone and forcing over 350,000 people out of work. In a rapidly declining market, the litmus test for industry will be to innovate more sustainable approaches to doing business.

But in a rare moment of relative stability the cast of players involved must seize the initiatve:

  • The private sector should resist pressures to withdraw and instead deliberately source its minerals from the region while demanding accountable governance and minimum standards across supply chains;
  • Donor agencies must take new steps to promote genuine cross-sector dialogue that serves the interests of affected communities and which leads to coordinated action;
  • MONUC must play its part by disrupting the provision of support to the myriad illegal armed groups;
  • Civil society should invest in alternative livelihoods programmes for those forced into artesianal mining;
  • The national and provincial governments must promote an integrated strategy for economic development while at the same time confronting corrupt officials and traders;

The solution cannot lie in disengagement. Sustainable peace in the Congo always seems a distant dream but at a time when stepping away is simply not an option, the call should be for new partnerships and collaborative leadership.