YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A leading Catholic expert on African affairs has said that competition over mineral wealth as part of what’s often referred to as a “New Colonialism” is at the heart of most of the continent’s conflicts, and that African leaders themselves are often complicit in creating and prolonging the violence.

Referring specifically to a conflict between the government of Mozambique and Islamic militants in the country’s northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, which has claimed an estimated 5,000 lives and displaced some 1 million people since fighting broke out in 2017, Johan Viljoen of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute of South Africa told Crux that “the conflict in Mozambique (and in most other parts of Africa) is about control over mineral wealth.”

Viljoen’s institute is an associate body of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference.

His comments came in the wake of the institute’s recent second International Symposium, which was organized collaboratively with the Technical University of Würzburg-Schweinfurt and other Catholic and civil society organizations.

Bringing together scholars, religious leaders, community members as well as internally displaced persons who fled from the conflict in Cabo Delgado province, the symposium took place in the Diocese of Nicala, Mozambique, under the theme “Working for a just, socially cohesive and conflict-resistant economic transformation to build lasting peace processes.”

It focused on decolonization, with Viljoen stating that most African countries rich in natural resources are “subject to economic colonialism coupled with endless wars.”

“The symposium underlined the fact that the conflict in Mozambique (and in most other parts of Africa) is about control over mineral wealth. An aspect that was emphasized throughout, is the culpability of African leaders in all of this,” he said.

Viljoen drew a sharp contrast between the period of the slave trade and what has become known as the new form of colonialism, but noted that both eras were marked by the complicity of African leaders.

“In the days of the slave trade, it was largely African chiefs who sold their own people to the slave traders. With the ‘New Colonialism,’ it is the politically well-connected African elites who are profiting from the activities of multinational corporations,” he told Crux.

“The multinational corporations wouldn’t have been able to operate if it wasn’t with collaboration from in-country elites,” he said.

“The New Colonialism is about control of resources, natural and mineral. It has seen local populations of vast swaths of the African continent being dispossessed and driven off their land to make way for mega-projects. It has seen no economic benefits from all these activities accruing to local communities,” Viljoen said.

“It has seen irreparable environmental damage. It differs from past forms of colonialism in that foreign governments do not annex territory and physically establish their own governments. The ‘colonized’ state remains nominally independent,” he said.

Viljoen’s analysis reflects comments by Pope Francis during his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year. The pope talked about a continent brisling with natural resources, but where development has been scuttled by a history of conflict and foreign domination.

“Political exploitation gave way to an ‘economic colonialism’ that was equally enslaving,” the pontiff said.

“This country and this continent deserve to be respected and listened to; they deserve to find space and receive attention,” he said, before admonishing: “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

Viljoen said the venue of the recent symposium in Nicala Diocese was particularly instructive.  Nicala is found in Nampula Province, which borders Cabo Delgado, and where conflict has been rife for years.

While institutional fragility, the persistence of government dysfunction and the existence of unemployment opportunities for the youth are some of the factors driving the conflict, the exploitation of mineral resources by business and political elites has worsened an already tragic situation.

Viljoen said attacks in Cabo Delgado are a strategy to drive people off their land and permit oil and mineral companies to operate freely, insisting that economics and not religious extremism are the heart of the affair.

“This is not a religious war. It is about access to mineral wealth, oil and gas,” he said.

And as the war festers, Nicala, according to Viljoen, has become “the place of refuge of very large numbers of internally displaced persons.”

Viljoen expressed skepticism about recent calls in Africa’s former colonial masters for public statements of regret. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron in January turned down requests to apologize for French colonial policy in Algeria.

“Of course, it wasn’t the right thing to say,” Viljoen told Crux.

“It shows that the mindset hasn’t changed. The British Queen went around apologizing to all and sundry. But how sincere was this?’ he asked, rhetorically.

Today there is a new wave of nationalism across Africa, and it’s more visible in French –speaking nations where anti-French sentiments are rising. From Burkina-Faso to Mali to Niger, French flags are being pulled down and their embassies ransacked.

“It is to be expected,” Viljoen told Crux. “[President Ibrahim] Traoré in Burkina Faso has made no secret of the fact that the form of ‘New Colonialism’ is exactly what they are fighting. The same applies to Niger. Almost its entire production of uranium has always gone to France, while the local population has seen no tangible benefit.”

Viljoen fears African nations who seem to be increasingly rejecting the West and turning to Russia, could again sell Africa on the cheap.

“The dangers are the same,” he said.

“We must remember that it is not only European and Western powers that exploit Africa. The slave trade was started by Arabs, centuries before Europeans came onto the scene. With the ‘New Colonialism,’ we see Chinese, Indian and Brazilian companies doing even worse than Western companies,” he said.

“This is not a struggle between Africa and the West. This is a struggle between African populations and those who seek to steal their wealth – be it US, European, Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, or UAE interests,” Viljoen said.