DRC: Lessons from Ghana’s dealings with illegal Chinese mining companies

By Cliff Mboya
Posted on Wednesday, 29 September 2021 15:19

Artisanal miners work at Tilwizembe, a former industrial copper-cobalt mine, outside of Kolwezi, capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the DRC, June 11, 2016. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe//

Recent campaigns against illegal mining activities by the Chinese in the DRC mirror events in Ghana a few back, so what lessons can be learned?

In the last few weeks, we have witnessed heightened campaigns against illegal mining activities associated with Chinese companies in the Congolese provinces of Ituri and South Kivu.

Several Chinese miners were arrested in the far Eastern Ituri province where it is believed that an unknown number of Chinese migrants and companies are operating illegally. In South Kivu province, the governor banned six small-scale Chinese-owned companies operating illegally.

These events in the DRC mirror events in Ghana a few years back when the government formed an inter-ministerial task force to crack down on illegal foreign miners that nabbed and deported about 4,592 Chinese nationals in 2013.

In order to draw insights from the Ghanaian experience and outcomes, I spoke with Dr. Hagan Sibiri, an Africa-China policy analyst who has investigated Chinese illegal mining activities in Ghana and the government’s clampdown on the illicit trade. His comments below have been lightly edited for clarity.

Cliff Mboya: Based on what you’re seeing in the DRC, what are the similarities and differences with what’s been happening with Chinese mining in Ghana?

Hagan Sibiri: The obvious similarity is that it involves the Chinese. Also, the Chinese companies suspended in the DRC are smaller companies – a striking similarity to Ghana where the illegal Chinese miners operated in small-scale settings.

In terms of difference, there was no issue of the Ghanaian government reviewing Chinese-owned mining contracts, as has been witnessed in DRC now. The truth is that non-Chinese multinational mining companies and not Chinese ones dominate large-scale mining in Ghana. The Chinese in Ghana operate in the small-scale mining sector, mainly as illegal entities, because the relevant law in Ghana explicitly bans the involvement of foreigners in small-scale mining in industry.

Whether the DRC government will follow through with its actions is another issue. Only time will tell whether the so-called efforts by both the provincial governments and the central government in DRC is a mere public show or a serious undertaking.

Indeed, it reminds me of the Ghana case where the government took some highly publicized actions in 2013 by forming an inter-ministerial task force to crack down on illegal Chinese mining but failed. A second task force also failed until after a change of government with a renewed commitment arising from pressure from the society. In all the instances, the officials mandated to take and enforce actions against illegal mining activities and of the Chinese were implicated as accomplices.

Is the issue of illegal Chinese mining under control now in Ghana? If not, why?

The issue of Chinese involvement in illegal mining in Ghana is somewhat under control now due to a determined action taken by the government.

Indeed, the president of Ghana put his presidency on the line and did all he could to end the menace. One wonders why the government failed to bring the issue under control since it became contentious in 2013 until 2020.

I believe successive governments lacked the commitment to take decisive action against the Chinese. Indeed, a senior minister of the government in 2019 admitted that the government has been lenient because of fear of reprisal actions from China. The Ghanaian government only took determined action on illegal Chinese miners because of pressure from the general society led by a coalition of civil society organizations and the Media Coalition against illegal mining.

Secondly, the government was determined to stop Chinese illegal mining activities because it became an election issue. The opposition used the government inaction about the issue as a campaign tool to woo citizens to vote out the government as punishment for the failure to stop illegal Chinese miners engaged in environmental destruction and water pollution.

Indeed, the ruling party in the 2020 general election lost in almost all the constituencies where illegal mining activities occur although the poor election performance is also attributed to constituents losing their ‘daily bread’ because of the ban of illegal mining activities in those areas.

Are there any lessons that you think policymakers in the DRC can learn from the Ghanaian experience?

From the Ghanaian experience, we know that the issue was not brought under control because of a commitment from the policymakers but rather because of pressure from society, which left the policymakers with no option but to take some measures against illegal mining, particularly those that the Chinese.

There is abundant evidence that the policymakers are complicit as they, directly and indirectly, benefit from the illicit mining activities through campaign financing and kickbacks. As noted earlier, the policymakers in Ghana only took committed and decisive actions where they realized that a powerful coalition outside government and policymaking apparatus was leading a campaign against the menace and only when the issue becomes an election issue – where a failure to act could potentially get the government voted out of office.

Therefore, rather than a lesson for policymakers in the DRC from the Ghanaian experience, Congolese society, in general, can learn from the Ghana experience and apply pressure on their government to act decisively against any illegal mining activities involving both locals and foreigners.

Hagan Sibiri is a research fellow at the Afro-Sino Centre for International Relations (ASCIR). His research work revolves around China-Africa links with a particular focus on China’s African policy. He has researched and published work on the role of the Chinese in the illicit gold trade in Ghana.

This article was first published in The China-Africa Project. 

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