On May 1st, military authorities in Bukavu proudly presented the results of a sting operation. Laid out on a plastic table in front of the officials were half a dozen semi-refined bars of gold, along with stacks of US dollars and Congolese francs. The value of the items was over $2 million, part of an illegal smuggling racket that involved the heads of the provincial intelligence and immigration agencies, as well as an advisor to the governor. According to the army’s spokesperson, General Sylvain Ekenge, this criminal network was smuggling minerals out to neighboring Rwanda; all the more shocking given Rwanda’s backing of the M23.
The dirty banknotes and crude gold bullion arrayed on the table are emblematic of larger developments that draw in government officials in Kinshasa, Kampala, Kigali, and Abu Dhabi and that are linked to the M23 escalation.
Over the past several years, gold has risen to the top of the economy in the eastern DRC. In large part, that is because of its price––at $65,000 a kilo, it is almost at an all-time high, driven by global financial uncertainty and demand for luxury items. The price has risen by 40 percent in the past five years. Gold is especially sought-after in the eastern DRC––it is extremely easy to smuggle across borders and past check-points, important qualities in the shadow economy.
But it is not just its value that has placed gold at the heart of controversy. It occupies an important place in the geopolitical competition between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. The figures speak for themselves: In 2022, the IMF projects Rwanda shipped $654m worth of gold, more than double its exports, and Uganda exported $2.25 billion of gold in its 2020-21 fiscal year, according to the Bank of Uganda’s most recently available annual report. Neither country has much domestic gold production; experts agree that almost all of this gold comes from the Congo (in the case of Uganda, some comes from South Sudan). The DRC, in contrast, exported less than $2 million of artisanal gold in 2021 (it exported much more industrial gold).
Let that sink in: before the M23 rebellion even began, Rwanda’s largest export was Congolese gold––it grew from being 1% of its exports in 2014 to 47% in 2020. In Uganda, we can see a similar trend, culminating in 2021, when gold made up 56% of its exports. This is striking. While it is true that Rwanda and Uganda have been exporting Congolese minerals for many years, it has never made up such a large part of their official exports. In comparison, the previous peak in mineral exports (as a share of total exports) was in 2001, during the notorious coltan boom and when the eastern Congo was under Rwandan military occupation––then minerals made up 41% of exports and were valued at a mere $40 million.
How does this all relate to the emergence of the M23?
At the very least, it is clear that the eastern Congo is seen as a place of geopolitical competition for Uganda and Rwanda. As CRG and Ebuteli have reported before, the re-emergence of the M23 was initially connected to rivalry between Kampala and Kigali––when the UPDF launched Operation Shujaa, combined with road and mining projects, Rwanda saw this as an economic and security threat in November 2021. Ugandan troops and road-building machinery were deployed down to Bunagana, within a stone’s throw of the Rwandan border.
The competition over gold, however, preceded that. In November 2020, Dott Services––a Ugandan company close to President Museveni––signed a contract with the Congolese public sector mining company Sakima for important mining sites in Maniema province that are rich in tin, tantalum, and tungsten, as well as gold. The contract also agreed on the creation of a processing factory for minerals and precious metals. Not long after this, in late June 2021, a series of mining contracts were also signed between Rwanda and Congo, stipulating that gold produced by Sakima will be refined in Rwanda by the relatively unknown local company Dither Ltd, close to the Rwandan presidency (it is run by Jean Paul Rutagarama, a businessman close to Kagame who is also operating in Mozambique).
A businessman close to Kagame who is also operating in Mozambique. Something changed, however, in late 2021. The most likely explanation is that the Ugandan military operations jolted the Rwandan government into action, leading it to back the M23 by the end of the year. It didn’t help that in late December 2021, following protests, the Congo backtracked on the creation of a joint police cell in Goma to work with Rwanda on counterterrorism operations. The M23 offensive led Tshisekedi to reconsider his alliance with Rwanda, as well as his choice of advisors. In February 2022, Tshisekedi’s national security advisor François Beya––who had been a key interlocutor with Kigali––was arrested; in January 2023 Fortunat Biselele, who had been instrumental in setting up economic partnerships with Rwanda for Tshisekedi, was also put behind bars. In May 2022, the government canceled Rwandair’s flights to the Congo; other contracts, including the one with Dither, were also put on ice.
Finally, in September 2022, the Congolese government put ink to paper on a gold deal they had been working to secure that would try to stem the smuggling of gold to neighboring countries. A deal signed with Primera Gold, a joint venture between the company based in the United Arab Emirates and the DRC government, to “be able to capture all of the artisanal production.” Finance minister Nicholas Kazadi has said this new venture would allow the government to fight back against smuggling that benefits Rwanda. According to the minister, in the first three months of the year, Primera had exported 354 kilograms of gold––valued around $23 million.
In private, donors from the French president to the US State Department and the European Union have been arguing that the best way to find a resolution to the M23 conflict is to figure out a way to address the economic interests of all three governments. This approach is a symptom of their disappointment in the Congolese government––which has spent an unprecedented amount of money on the military offensive, but with paltry results––and the reluctance by major donors to sanction the Rwandan government, for a variety of reasons.
Such a “peace dividend” strategy will be better off if there is peace––as one diplomat told me––will be challenging. Tshisekedi’s election campaign is likely to include a fair amount of blaming the Rwandan government for conflict in the East. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine this kind of arrangement could be sold to the Congolese public embittered by decades of profiteering off its natural resources and how Congo could increase its gold production without Rwanda and Uganda losing out on the lucrative trade. Indeed, everyone may not be better off if there is peace. Indeed, everyone may not be better off if there is peace.
By Jason Stearns, director of the Congo research Group, a partner of the Ebuteli Institute.