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Rebels With A Business Cause: Part I

Critical State looks at research on how rebels negotiate the international business world.

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Much of the rhetoric around smuggling trades and insurgency operates from the assumption that an enemy of the state is any other enemy of the state’s friend. If rebels are trying to overthrow the state and traffickers are trying to avoid it, then surely they must be in business together to achieve their shared ends. That logic, however, doesn’t hold up too much upon careful scrutiny. If rebels and traffickers both want to avoid state attention, then hooking up with the state’s other biggest security priority probably isn’t a great idea.

Yet rebels do get into the smuggling game, and with some frequency. This week and next in Deep Dive, we’ll look at new research on how rebels negotiate the international business world when they don’t want to go into business with their criminal compatriots.

Political scientist Rachel Sweet has a new article in the journal International Organization addressing exactly this issue. Sweet got ahold of 126 contracts between various private companies engaged in cross-border trade in Democratic Republic of Congo and the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), the largest rebel group in the Second Congo War. The contracts, and a range of other records about the deals, describe a whole world of negotiations between the RCD and firms that wanted to profit off the conflict but did not want to get caught doing so.

The contracts cover a range of export commodities, with the RCD partnering with private companies to ship coltan, diamonds, gold, other minerals and agricultural output out of the country in exchange for much-needed cash. They are notable as a source of material support for the RCD war effort but, as Sweet points out, they are perhaps more remarkable as a form of legitimacy-seeking by the rebels.

The RCD addressed firms’ concerns about doing business with an internationally sanctioned rebel group and domestic worries about the group’s capacity to govern simultaneously. Rather than partner with criminal organizations to move minerals out of the conflict zone, the RCD invested resources into accessing forms of legitimation that would make private companies willing to do business with the rebels.

Rather than partner with criminal organizations to move minerals out of the conflict zone, the RCD invested resources into accessing forms of legitimation that would make private companies willing to do business with the rebels.

In practice, this meant not evading Congolese state authorities but drafting them into the cause. As the RCD took over territory, it took care to make sure that local offices of the Congolese state dealing with business — tax collection offices, customs houses, mineral certification bureaus — weren’t left deserted. Instead, these offices were retooled. All the seals and stamps and signifiers of state authority remained in place, but the taxes and fees they remitted were sent to RCD headquarters in Goma, instead of Kinshasa.

Those same seals and stamps then appeared on the RCD’s contracts, along with other accoutrements of legitimate business. Of all the contracts Sweet saw, 87% cited specific state laws, and 82% required the contracted firms to work with state agencies and pay state taxes. As a contract between the RCD and a South African firm read, “with the support of the OFIDA customs bureau, tax collectors, and DGRAD [the Congolese tax authority], [the firm] commits to pay the fiscal duties relevant to this file on the fifteenth of every month.” It was the same language that might have appeared in a contract between the firm and the de jure Congolese government, but both the firm and the RDC understood that the OFIDA customs bureau and the DGRAD tax authority in question were the RCD’s OFIDA and the RCD’s DGRAD. The contracts worked too — at least 77% of contracted firms sent money to the RCD through state agencies.

Not only did this double bookkeeping approach to legitimacy help calm the nerves of companies doing business with insurgents, it also flummoxed the international regulators charged with preventing that business from happening. When governments and nongovernmental organizations attempting to limit the conflict economy challenged firms doing business with the RCD, they simply pointed to the contract language, claiming that they were doing business with the Congolese government. Many avoided accountability in this way, even in cases where the firms had actually been denied contracts by the Congolese government and gone to the RCD in hopes of a better deal.

Far from running toward crime as a funding source of first resort, rebels with pretensions to one day become a state in their own right often try to adopt the state’s approach to raising funds. As Sweet’s research shows, private firms are often willing to assist rebels in that effort, as their interests align with the insurgents in a way that traffickers do not.

Sam Ratner

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