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It's the streets, silly

A truck with charcoal and other products passed a checkpoint on the road from Matadi to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on November 10, 2018. JUNIOR D. KANNAH / AFP via Getty Images

Control over people, territories or natural resources is not the main linchpin of civil wars. Breakthrough new research shows it is control of the roads instead. From Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from Syria to Somalia, armed groups are pouring onto the highways to fund their operations.

This article is from Roadblock Politics: The Origins of Violence in Central Africa by Peer Schouten (Cambridge University Press, 256 pp., $ 29.99, June 2021).

Across conflict zones, fighters are pursuing a new, lean business model that consists of sitting by the roadside with a couple of Kalashnikov rifles and taxing anything that moves. The problem is that multinational corporations and aid agencies are not exempt. The complexity of their supply chains effectively hides structural payments to rebels – which contributes to the success and sustainability of the Roadblock business model.

Western non-governmental organizations operating on the ground, in particular, stand between rebels demanding transit taxes and the realization that exposing their activities, which structurally contribute to the financing of armed conflicts, would call into question the entire humanitarian project and wipe out a large part of the population their attraction to western audiences. To prevent this and prevent multinational corporations and aid agencies from funding civil wars, the world needs new rules for global supply chains.

A trucker pays a Congolese soldier in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2017. Peer Schouten

Roadblocks or checkpoints are an endemic feature of conflict areas around the world – be they active war zones or simmering low-intensity conflicts. They often play an anecdotal role in reporting, but the causes of conflict are usually explained in terms of control over static people, territories, or natural resources. Caught either by the mineral myth or by an outdated state-centered framework, scientists and politicians alike have misdiagnosed the rebel business model. No wonder that interventions to cut conflict financing have been ineffective.

Take the Democratic Republic of the Congo, usually portrayed as a victim of the "resource curse" in which dozens of rebel groups battle for control of valuable minerals. But why are the conflicts dragging on in those corners of the huge Central African country where few natural resources are to be found?

In 2013, I reported in Foreign Policy that Heineken, the world's second largest brewer, eventually funded an armed group called the 23 March Movement (M23) in war-torn Eastern Congo. The armed group ruthlessly took over key trade routes and border crossings and set up shops that levied transit taxes. It was making an estimated $ 180,000 a month at their checkpoints, turning their years of rebellion into an economically viable and potentially self-sufficient business. For this reason, an M23 roadblock operator could claim in an interview, “Here; the road goes through here ”as he points to his bag. As it turned out, Heineken's local beer delivery was no exception.

M23's strategy barely matched what is driving conflict in this part of the world, but it hardly surprised locals. In this part of the world, everyone with a claim to power is pouring into trade routes, and roadblocks fund the exploits of many Central African armed groups – especially when, like M23, they don't control much mineral-rich territory. Or as Jean, a Congolese rebel who is also an army commander, put it to me: “When you are deployed somewhere, the first thing you do is build a hut against the rain. The second thing is to put up a roadblock to get food and make some money. "

Jean seems to speak for all Congolese rebels. Together with local people, I have mapped more than 800 roadblocks in just two provinces of Eastern Congo. The density of road blocks there is about 1 every 10 miles and there is literally no road that doesn't have one. Historically, it has been estimated that Congolese armed groups collectively raise between $ 14 million and $ 50 million a year solely through road taxes.

Roadblocks in North and South Kivu Provinces

Between 2016 and 2019, there were more than 800 roadblocks in just two provinces in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo – roughly one every 10 miles. Most of the roadblocks in North and South Kivu are operated by the Congolese army and / or armed groups. People are most commonly taxed for driving on roads, although they may also be taxed for accessing natural resources or markets.

Source: Peer Schouten and International Peace and Information Service

This may be a bit of an exaggeration, because around half of all roadblocks are operated by the Congolese army: Since there are no reliable salaries, every army deployment has to finance itself and includes a pop-up roadblock. But as a result, state soldiers and rebels often fight over roadblocks. Fifteen years of reports by the United Nations Expert Group on the Congo prove that many clashes between rebel groups and army factions take place at roadblocks that are located at strategic bottlenecks along the lucrative flow of goods in order to control them at any point in time.

With more than 120 armed groups, the Congo is a prime example of a fragile state, as, like others in this category, it barely controls its territory or its population. As in many so-called fragile states, there is honestly not much to govern in large parts of the Congo – which is roughly the size of Western Europe. Why should rebels line up everywhere in the dense rainforest, in inaccessible mountains or in empty savannas? Of course, these places offer great hiding spots, but to raise money, it makes more sense for aspiring rebels and rulers to simply move onto the nearest trade route and force anyone who passes through to pay – be it aid convoys, minerals or consumer goods.

The evidence shows that this is indeed the business model of choice for rebels around the world.

Members of the Taliban work at the Khar Khawana checkpoint north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on November 1, 1996. EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP via Getty Images

Think of Afghanistan, where illegal road taxes were indeed an important part of the birth of the Taliban. When the group debuted in 1993, truckers and dealers were among the group's most ardent supporters as the Taliban pledged to abolish rampant illegal taxes on Afghanistan's trade routes. Much of the U.S. support to the Afghan army after 2001 was to help it set up a whopping 10,000 checkpoints, which the army then used to raise about $ 3.9 billion in bribes and, unsurprisingly, the main target of Taliban attacks.

On the way, researcher David Mansfield, who has followed conflict financing in Afghanistan since the 1990s, said: “The Taliban have learned that it was much easier to fund their struggle to tax the huge amounts of diesel, cigarettes and tires on Afghanistan's highways . "Than hanging around in the poppy fields." As the United States pulls out of Afghanistan, the Taliban aggressively expand control of the highways and systematically levy millions of dollars in checkpoint taxes to fund their war effort.

In Iraq, all the main roads are littered with checkpoints at the front between different factions, which use the proceeds to expand their patronage networks and fund fighters. It is even known that private paramilitary groups lease high-ranking security officers the right to operate checkpoints for large sums in order to systematically blackmail truck drivers. In the Central African Republic, the Seleka Rebel Alliance, which had conquered the country in 2013, fell apart again when a year later various factions began fighting for control of profitable roadblocks. Today, various rebel factions control about half of the 300 checkpoints along the country's main trade routes.

In Syria, checkpoints at internal and external border crossings have been an important source of income for armed groups since the beginning of the conflict. At the height of the conflict in 2013 and 2014 there were more than 1,000 checkpoints around Aleppo alone. And in Somalia, illegal checkpoint taxes are a major source of income for al-Shabab.

A Syrian rebel fighter supported by Turkey occupies a checkpoint in the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in northwest Syria after taking control of it from Kurdish people's protection units on March 18, 2018. OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP via Getty Images

At their checkpoints, the group enforces a strict, centralized tax system for passing vehicles (gadiid), transported goods (badeeco) and livestock (xoolo) and collectively supplies the movement with tens of millions of dollars a year. In contrast to the Somali government, al-Shabab only allows truckers to pay checkpoint taxes once in order to receive a receipt that allows them to pass through at other al-Shabab checkpoints. As an additional incentive for hauliers to opt for routes controlled by al-Shabab, the group ensures that strategic roads that are not under their control are constantly attacked.

The fact that the central role of roadblocks is not recognized is due to the persistent myth that armed actors behave like emerging Westphalian states and try to control as much territory and people as possible. But in much of the world rulers were never interested in territorial control; instead they have contented themselves with filling certain bottlenecks and taxing the trade.

Part of the problem is that until recently, maps of conflict zones tended to show rebel control in the form of mutually exclusive areas, which perpetuated the notion that rebels are in control of the territory and more. It was not until 2015 that maps appeared showing the presence of the Islamic State as a series of splinters within existing states – tracts of land that corresponded to major population centers and strategic trade routes.

There is little to be gained from controlling empty deserts, jungles and mountains. It should come as no surprise, then, that rebels who flock to trade routes are often only copying what their states originally did – occupy the tax-collecting outposts that are the only sign of the state. It's a simple and inexpensive business model: anyone with a length of rope and a couple of Kalashnikov rifles can basically pull it through.

Hardline Islamist fighters occupied a checkpoint in the Hodan district of Mogadishu on February 25, 2009 during heavy fighting with Somali government forces. MUSTAFA ABDI / AFP via Getty Images

Another part of the problem has to do with tunnel vision of conflict minerals. Funded by donors and academics alike, she claims that “plunderable” resource funds collide. But as it turns out, it's a lot easier to tax a passing vehicle than overseeing a mine – let alone digging for minerals yourself.

Most rebels do not distinguish between the transactions made across their roadblocks, and mineral flows are just one of the "preventable" forms of wealth that their exploits co-fund with aid supply chains and multinationals – supply chains so opaque that their drivers often have no idea how their foot soldiers move material on the ground. Although Western governments focus on regulating informal miners and holding mining companies accountable, Western taxpayers and multinational corporations can collectively fund hundreds of millions of dollars in roadblocks annually.

This is because Western companies are outsourcing transport in conflict zones to opaque layers of logistics subcontractors, a system that insiders refer to as "foreign trade". Although activists slander global apparel brands for using this system to hide labor abuse, other companies are using the same trick to hide payments to armed groups. Rebels have made it standard practice to tax logistics subcontractors for multinational corporations. Their global customers are very aware of this, but they ask the carriers to hide these payments in flat-rate bills.

It is more of an affront that aid agencies large and small are following the same practice and working with the same commercial contractors to get help from ranks of rebel tax-collecting groups. Transporters are officially prohibited from paying illegal taxes at roadblocks. However, armed groups who operate the checkpoints know that these vans are well paid for by their international customers, and therefore, in practice, most are forced to pay regular road closure taxes. Understandably, helpers in conflict areas are sensitive to the topic. A humanitarian logistician in the Congo, who wants to remain anonymous, told me: “Of course we pay for roadblocks. It's something everyone knows, but nobody can admit. ”Because admitting that they help fund violent armed groups would cause their donor base to dry up.

A roadblock of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda is pictured on the flanks of Mount Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016. Confidential UN source

In the Congo, only six subcontractors for haulage companies working for international customers, including the United Nations and aid agencies, paid $ 1.7 million in road taxes per year in one province alone. In Syria, aid agencies recognize that navigating the multitude of checkpoints is a major problem, and it is reported that paying so-called incentives to checkpoint operators is a common tactic. In South Sudan, where half the population depends on food aid, the main supply route from Juba consistently runs between 50 and 100 checkpoints, with humanitarian trucks costing between US $ 1,500 and US $ 4,500 each way.

In a country where the ruling elite are deducting rapidly dwindling oil revenues directly from the state oil company's accounts, these checkpoints could form the de facto taxation system preventing soldiers and rebels from sweeping looting. A helper who used to work in the humanitarian logistics of a large aid organization and asked for anonymity said: “The enormous checkpoint taxes that we government soldiers and rebels pay are an open secret of the aid organizations here. I left because I could not morally defend the attempt to help people in need and at the same time support a corrupt regime. "

But the most glaring case was when the US House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee revealed 10 years ago that the coalition supply chains in Afghanistan had been subjected to structurally high checkpoint taxes by warlords who controlled parts of Afghanistan's main roads, which in turn was subject to high checkpoint taxes disbursed the Taliban for their own safety. The report, dubiously named "Warlord, Inc." revealed how US and NATO forced logistics were outsourced to hauliers, forcing warlords to pay protection money for safe passage. That could reach an impressive $ 3,000 per truck for a stretch of road under the control of each individual warlord.

These warlords, in turn, systematically paid the Taliban and other coalition-focused insurgents to protect them. Those protection fees, the report said, could have run to an astonishing $ 2 million per week. The US military replaced dozens of contractors after a proprietary investigation found that up to $ 360 million was diverted from a $ 2.16 billion transportation contract to "malicious actors". But the US supply chain in Afghanistan is still mired in corruption problems.

The back of a 2016 NGO consignment note is signed and postmarked by all rebel checkpoint operators along a stretch of road in the Central African Republic. Courtesy of Peer Schouten

To understand how these checkpoint controls are hidden, see the picture above.

It shows the back of a NGO consignment note signed and postmarked by all the rebel checkpoint operators along a road in the Central African Republic. Documents like this have become the centerpiece of Roadblock Finance's unofficial paper path. Truckers not only have to present it to the road traffic authorities, but also have to return the signed and stamped document to their customers as proof of the transit taxes incurred – but please do not invoice them separately. Along with the receipts some roadblock operators issue, this is part of the way nonprofits are dealing with the conflicting demands of having to pay for roadblocks (on-site) and prohibiting them (through their head office).

A humanitarian logistics officer in the Central African Republic commented and asked for anonymity: “We know very well that there are roadblocks, we know who is operating them, and we also know that it is impossible to bypass them. So we close our eyes and work with the carriers who include the price of roadblocks in the offer that we communicate to you, the customer. "

Hidden in exorbitant flat rates for transport, western taxpayers' money ends up in the pockets of the rebels and prolongs the conflicts around the globe. The overall system of roadblocks is sustainable, since contract carriers across conflict zones do not care, as they can pass on the costs of roadblocks to their corporate or non-profit customers. They, in turn, prefer to ignore the situation in order not to risk themselves as accomplices in conflict financing. Indeed, the ease with which rebels can obtain significant payments from global actors can be an incentive to take to the streets.

A Syrian rebel fighter supported by Turkey occupies a checkpoint in the Syrian city of Azaz on a road to Afrin, Syria, on January 27, 2018. OZAN ​​KOSE / AFP via Getty Images

So what can be done? A number of initiatives – the US Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and equivalent European rules for the mineral supply chain – are pushing for more transparency in the mineral supply chains to ensure that reliance on technology does not fund conflict in the Congo. But every year 70 percent of US companies reporting conflict minerals fail to confirm whether or not they source them from the Congo.

It turns out the same is true for companies running other types of global supply chains. A recent Deloitte survey found that most multinationals have no oversight beyond the first tier of suppliers – and what happens in conflict areas is multiple levels of outsourcing that are beyond corporate responsibility. Businesses and aid agencies can pretend they are unaware of the abuses along their supply chains until governments force them to be accountable for the entire chain.

The problem with current supply chain regulation is that it is based on due diligence; H. on self-disclosure and initiatives by the actors who primarily need regulation. Under current regulations, they claim compliance and delegate responsibility to their own contractors by signing generic documents without checking compliance or developing certification systems that overlook abuses instead of tackling them. There are two ways out.

First, it would become more expensive to accept help. In fact, rebels typically don't tax United Nations or non-governmental vehicles; they only tax their logistic contractors. But aid agencies outsource transportation because it's cheaper – even with the added cost of checkpoints, outsourcing logistics allows them to get the most out of them with limited budgets. If donor countries are unwilling to pay the bill for conflict-free aid, they can instead enact robust legislation with independent compliance monitoring by corporations and aid agencies in conflict areas. No less costly, but donor countries are already paying the cost of the checkpoint problem and spending taxpayers' money to pay bribes to rebels and soldiers.

Until that happens, control of the streets will remain the price of conflict for rebels around the world. The bigger question is whether rebels, funded by taxes on global aid and trade, provide a minimum of stability and security for locals, and what rebels will do if the West takes them away. As a senior UN officer in South Sudan, who asked for anonymity, put it: “The checkpoints? It's just another way for us to put money into local communities. "

this article is adapted from the book Roadblock Politics: The Origins of Violence in Central Africa. With the promo code, FP readers receive a 20 percent discount ROAPOL20.

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