YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – People’s gaze often turns to Africa when conflicts erupt, portraying them as ethnic or religious strife.

However, beneath the surface, a more insidious connection exists—one that intertwines mining and war, according to Johan Viljoen, Director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC).

“The nexus between mining and conflict in Africa is quite clear although in the rest of the world it seems to be a bit opaque because whenever these wars break out, the media and the rest of the world always report them as being of ethnic or religious nature,” Viljoen told Crux.

He said increasing evidence in several conflict-affected parts of Africa point to a clear link between mineral resources and conflict, with examples from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique coming readily to mind.

In Nigeria, Viljoen said Boko Haram attacks have depopulated whole communities in Nigeria’s North East, and very conveniently, Chinese mining firms have stepped into the picture.

“There is evidence that in many of the places in the North East, in Borno State, there are blue diamonds and many of the places where entire communities have fled because of Boko Haram attacks; they are now mining diamonds there,” he told Crux.

He also cited the example of Niger state in Nigeria where conflict has driven out communities and their land is now occupied by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote.

“The second example in Nigeria is Benue State. This state was known as the breadbasket of Nigeria, it’s the most fertile area of the country with one of the largest rivers-the Benue River flowing through it. And for a number of years after 2017; there were communities along this River under relentless attacks. Those entire communities fled, and the land has now been given to Dangute to build a sugar refinery and sugar plantation,” Viljoen said.

In Mozambique, conflict in the Cabo Del Gado region, usually framed as ISIS fighting to create a caliphate in the country’s north, also happens to be where French company Total has been working.

“If you go to Cabo del Gado where the war is raging, the people who are there – the IDPs themselves – will tell you that this has nothing to do with religion. Catholics and Muslims have been living there for centuries,” Viljoen told Crux.

“In fact, in some families, one parent and some of the children are Christians and the other and some of the children are Muslims and there has always been harmony, and now suddenly war breaks out, and conveniently after two years, oil was discovered and just after, Total started to put its installations in Cabo Del Gado,” he said.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country’s mineral-rich eastern regions have been unsettled for decades. Viljoen recalled that in 2019, Catholic bishops in the DRC issued a statement undercutting the prevailing narrative that it was a tribal war, but rather “a deliberate attempt to exterminate the population in the areas where mining is being conducted so that those lands can be given to multinational corporations.”

On a visit to the DRC last year, Pope Francis made a passionate plea against the exploitation of the continent’s mineral wealth with little benefitting the African populations.

“Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” the pope said.

Viljoen said one doesn’t need to go far to know who is at the root of Africa’s conflict.

“So if you look at any conflict in Africa, the first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘who is profiting?’ Once you have identified who profits from that conflict, you will know what the source of it is,” he said.

The issue is so serious that the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) had to convene a seminar on the theme of mineral exploitation and conflict in Africa from March 8-10 in Accra, Ghana.

The seminar brought together approximately forty participants, including bishops, priests and lay Catholics.

Addressing participants, SECAM President and Bishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo noted that it was paradoxical that significant foreign investments in oil, gas, mining, and natural resources fail to adequately benefit the local populations of the continent.

He called on Africa “to adopt a pastoral approach to integral ecology and ecological conversion informed by its social doctrine, particularly in relation to extractive industries.

A statement by the General Secretary of SECAM, Father Rafael Simbine Junior, said several proposals were made to change the picture, amongst which was “a call for enhanced education on integral ecology, as well as increased involvement of legal and media professionals in monitoring natural resource exploitation and advocacy efforts.”

“The overarching objective is to ensure that Africa’s abundant resources contribute to economic development, benefit the majority of its populace, foster peace, and alleviate poverty,” the statement said.