Saturday, 24 October 2009

Strategic Resources and War in Africa (by Nkanyiso Sibanda)

“The brute fact is that civil war is heavily concentrated in countries with low income in, economic decline and dependent upon natural resources.”
Paul Collier – October 2004.

Internal wars in resource rich African countries are a cause for concern for both Africans and the international community. These wars have inescapably claimed incalculable human lives, caused enormous human torments, damaged societies, weakened the already weak economies and harmed the environment. They have produced colossal human tragedies and humanitarian crises that are of concern to the international community and contributed to regional and global insecurity. 21st century modernity promised peace and saw most of the world inclining towards a peaceful order, but Africa witnessed wars still. Boas (2005, 74) asserts that the focus on material explanations and greed inspired motivations of actors in these wars has led to their being labeled ‘new wars,’ in contrast to the ‘old wars’ that were mainly fought during apartheid and colonialism.

The term ‘new wars’ is a contested one. It is used to refer to contemporary wars and conflicts in Africa that are allegedly caused by ‘strategic’ resources. It is argued that Africa’s so called ‘new wars’ are not really new. Their roots are deeply entrenched in history and the only way to understand them is to come to terms with this history (Boas, 2005, 74). These wars are not new wars, but merely ‘present day manifestations of social conflicts that started when the first colonial settlers arrived’ (ibid). This essay will however not delve into the merits of the arguments on ‘new wars’ or ‘old wars.’ Instead, the term will be used to refer to contemporary conflicts in Africa where natural resources are involved.

‘Strategic resources’ is a term used to refer to high value natural resources that have often been linked to the onset and even duration of wars and conflicts in Africa. These resources include diamonds, oil, and coltan among others. According to Collier and Hoeffler (2000), much of the academic debate on the economic causes of contemporary armed conflict in Africa has become polarized around the effect of resources on war outbreak and duration. Current mainstream debates often imply that all (contemporary) African wars are resource wars, fought not over political issues but in order to gain access to profits (Boas and Dunn, 2007:10). The term ‘strategic resources’ will be used here to refer to the high value natural resources that have been cited as having something to do with or contributed to the out break of contemporary ‘new’ wars in Africa.

An influential World Bank thesis states that the availability of portable, high value resources is an important reason that rebel groups form and civil wars break out (Ganesan and Vines, 2004:1). Evidently, a nexus has been created by some political science pundits such as Collier and Hoeffler(2000) between ‘strategic resources’ and Africa’s ‘new wars.’ As an African, the assertion that strategic resources are responsible for my continent’s ‘new wars’ is interesting and worth investigating. This essay will therefore cite some wars[1] in Africa where resources were held to have been the causal issue, discuss them briefly and show that while the nexus between strategic resources and Africa’s ‘new wars’ has received attention, it is myopic. It rarely tells us much about why conflicts start in the first place (Boas and Dunn, 2007:11). It would be a mistake, for example, to assume that the recent wars in Central and West Africa started as competition over control of alluvial diamonds, coltan and other natural resources. Infact, in Sierra Leone and Congo (DRC), the integration of extraction and marketing of natural resources to the conflicts occurred only once the conflicts were well under way (ibid).

However, while not completely true, the assertion that strategic resources are responsible for Africa’s ‘new wars’ is not completely false either. It will be proved that strategic resources have indeed played a role in Africa’s ‘new wars.’ They have acted as a condition with out which some of the ‘new wars’ would not have been triggered. Therefore, the relationship between strategic resources and Africa’s new wars should not be dismissed as less or out rightly non-influential altogether. It has to be duly considered, bearing in mind though that it is incomplete when other factors are ignored. Long historical trends, diverse social forces, political motivations and regional dimensions that have all contributed to the development of these ‘new wars’ have to be analyzed too when investigating what is responsible for Africa’s new wars.

Sierra Leone
The Sierra Leone Civil War began in 1991, initiated by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under Foday Sankoh. The RUF launched its first campaign into eastern Kailahun (Sierra Leone) from Liberia on March 23, 1991. Diamonds played a key catalytic role in this war (Hirsch, 2000:33). Although endowed with abundant natural resources, Sierra Leone was ranked as the poorest country in the world by 1998[2]. With the breakdown of all state structures, wide corridors of Sierra Leonean society were opened up to the trafficking of arms and ammunition. Recreational drugs also eroded national and regional security as well as facilitated crime within the country, precipitating illegal trade with both Liberia and Guinea. While RUF rebels controlled the diamond trade, the people remained among the poorest. The 1999 Lomé Agreement failed to bring peace as it effectively institutionalized rebel control of the diamond trade by putting rebel chief Foday Sankoh in charge of mineral resources. The civil war thus resumed as UN forces sought to wrest control of the diamond fields, but found themselves instead being held hostage by the rebels. With a rebel take-over of the capital imminent, British forces intervened in May 2000 to evacuate British subjects and safeguard the Freetown airport for UN use. Within days, the British took effective control of the government and organized an offensive against the rebels. The rebel leader was captured, the peace process resumed.

The assertion that diamonds were responsible for the war in Sierra Leone offers a surface understanding of the war. The rich alluvial diamond fields of Kono District and Tongo were among the RUF’s earliest and most prized targets (Gberie, 2002:2). Sierra Leone’s war was neither a ‘rebellion’, in the sense of it being an internal uprising, nor ‘civil’, in the sense of it being about clearly understandable and achievable political goals. Rather, it was part of a continuous narrative of escalating regional violence and terror driven largely by criminal economic interests resulting from the availability of diamonds (ibid). RUF’s interest in capturing the diamond rich Kono district is testimony of this.

Identifying conflict diamonds as the main reason for the civil war in Sierra Leone is rather simplistic (Francis, 2001). This, however, is the analysis that most influenced international policy responses to the conflict. There is no denying the fact that the diamonds did fuel and perpetuate the war. But this does not make them the primary cause of the war in Sierra Leone (ibid). A more plausible explanation is that economic and political exclusion, perceived injustice and fundamental grievances were at the heart of the conflict (ibid). The people in the interior were aggrieved by the government’s neglect and took advantage of the Liberian war to take to arms against the government. Excessive focus on diamonds as responsible for the war is unhelpful in understanding the fundamental causes of the civil war in Sierra Leone. Using a surface analysis of the causes of the war, one can conclude that the diamonds were responsible but an in depth investigation would reveal otherwise.

The Niger Delta
The Niger Delta covers an area of about 70,000 square kilometers and accounts for 7.5% of total land mass in Nigeria. It covers a coastline of 560km, about two-thirds of the entire coastline of Nigeria (Nkoro, 2005). It has nine out of the 36 states that make up the Federal Republic of Nigeria[3]. The predominant occupations of the people in the Niger Delta are farming and fishing (Obi, 2001). The Niger Delta, where most of the country's oil reserves are located, is a violent and militarised region. Militant groups frequently carry out abductions of oil workers, robberies and oilfield invasions to extract ransoms or other benefits for their villages from oil companies. Since the advent of oil exploration over four decades ago, the region has become the bread-winner of the nation, which is the main source of foreign exchange earnings for the nation as a whole (Nkoro, 2005). The region’s oil resources accounts for 90% of the nation’s export earnings (ibid). However, the Niger delta is the least developed in Nigeria.

Historically, the conflict in the Niger Delta region can be traced down to the federal system of government that is being practiced since independence, which from the very beginning was at variance with the expectations of many minorities in the nation (Nkoro, 2005). Nkoro (2005) argues that the federal constitution that was drafted suffered from two fundamental and destabilizing setbacks. The first was the classification of the country into unequal regions. The second is the political and demographic domination of the people in the Niger Delta by those from the northern, western and eastern regions, being the majority ethnic groups. A surface analysis of the conflict in the Niger delta shows that oil is the responsible factor for the conflict. This, because many youths in the area regularly attack oil companies and inter-ethnic conflicts are common. Such an analysis would give credit to the assertion that strategic resources in the form of oil, are (is) responsible for the conflict in the area. However, a more in depth examination of the conflicts reveals otherwise.

Paradoxically, the Niger Delta is the richest and yet the poorest and most underdeveloped region in Nigeria. This paradox is the product of the deep-seated neglect and marginalization of the area by the government and oil companies in supporting critical human development, infrastructure, and provision of basic social amenities. It is a paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. 70% of the people in the Niger Delta region live below poverty line … (Nkoro, 2005). There is a high rate of unemployment among the youth with over 2million youth being unemployed, while 40% of the people are illiterate (Ibid). Furthermore, according to 2007 World Bank report[4], GNP per capita in the Niger Delta region is below the national average of US$280. Similarly, health indicators are low and they lag far behind the country average (ibid). Pollution and continuous flaring of gas from oil prospecting and production have created health hazards and render fishing and other farming activities almost impossible[5]. There is high mortality from water-borne diseases, malnutrition and poor sanitation. The quantity and quality of housing infrastructure are less than expected in most of the region. Only about 20% to 24% of the rural communities and less than 60% of urban communities in the region have access to safe drinking water (Nkoro, 2005). Transportation is often difficult and expensive (Ibid).This has resulted in the local people forming militias that often stage violent protests against the government and the oil companies in the region. The local people feel aggrieved by the government. This, because, while their region is the richest in the country, it is however the poorest and most underdeveloped. Their land was taken away and there was little or no compensation. The area is polluted and their way of livelihood[6] has been disturbed. On the other hand, government officials do not do much with their plight because the officials benefit from oil deals with the oil companies[7]. Blaming oil for the conflict is to over look such deep underlying factors that have their roots in the history of the area. It can not be denied that oil does act as a catalyst for the current conflicts in the Niger delta. The people in the area fight because they too want a share of the pie from the oil. However, blaming it on oil alone would be ignoring other historical and even contemporary factors that have shaped the conflict. Focusing on oil would limit one to the actors in the conflict while ignoring the geography of the actors.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
The resource rich DRC has experienced the longest and deadliest intra-state war in history. Presently, there is war in DRC led by one rebel general Nkunda against the government security forces. The conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo has been dubbed ‘Africa's world war’ because it has involved nine countries (Shah, 2008). It has also been characterised as a ‘resource war’ motivated by control over eastern Congo's rich natural deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, timber, cassiterite (a tin ore) and coltan (ibid). The DRC war is also called: The PlayStation War in some circles. The name came about because of a black metallic ore called coltan. Extensive evidence shows that during the war hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coltan was stolen from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is used to make cell phones, laptops and other electronics. Intense mining of the minerals have increased instability in eastern Congo, with locals and military groups rushing in order to make profits.

Although the nations involved in the war in DRC issued rhetoric about claims of issues of security, many of their troops hoisted off key resources back to their respective mother countries (Morpheus, 2003). A UN panel noted that the foreign states all deliberately prolonged the conflict to plunder gold, diamonds, timber and coltan, a mineral used in the making of mobile phones, from the Congo, thus highlighting a key shameful reason for the disastrous and costly war: greed (ibid).
Yet again, a surface analysis of the DRC war points to strategic resources as being responsible for the war. The fact that nine countries have been involved in the war, and were concentrated especially in the areas that are rich in natural resources would deceive one even more into thinking that resources are to blame. However, beyond the resources lies deep colonial practices by the Western countries that perfected a system of divide-and-rule in Central Africa, callously dividing ancestral lands and orchestrating strife between ethnic groups in DRC (Tull, 2007). The current crisis represents a continuation of these insidious practices (ibid).

The interplay among a seemingly endless supply of mineral resources, the greed of multinational corporations desperate to cash in on that wealth, and the provision of arms and military training to political tyrants has helped to produce conflicts that have engulfed Africa, leading to many concluding that strategic resources are responsible for Africa’s ‘new wars.’ While this assertion is not completely false, it is not completely true either. Resources have been blamed for many African wars in countries such as Angola, Liberia and others.
The dominant role that violent contests over natural resources have played in the conflicts in Angola, Sierra Leone and the DRC lends some support to the econometric greed model of rebellion, according to which the statistical correlation between resource abundance and the risk of armed conflict is explained by rebel aspirations for self-enrichment and/or opportunity for rebellion that easy access to natural resources provides to would be insurgents (Ballentine and Nitzschke, 2003:3).
While the presence and availability of valuable and capturable natural resources did contribute to the feasibility of war in African countries, a closer perspective at these insurgencies shows that mere capturing of lucrative resources for self enrichment was not the key motive. Rather, resource exploitation was also a means to finance insurgencies driven by socio-economic and political grievances. For example, the civil war in Angola was initially against colonialism way before capturing diamonds became the goal for funding the rebels. In Sierra Leone, the social inequality prevalent, high unemployment as well as lack of basic amenities such as schools led to the initial rebellion by Foday Sankoh. If indeed resources were responsible for Africa’s ‘new wars’, then the wars in Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone would still be ongoing because strategic resources are still present. Infact, other countries rich in these ‘strategic resources’ would be at risk of war, which countries include Botswana, Namibia and South Africa which are rich in diamonds. They instead have stable societies and growing economies. Therefore, strategic resources are not the responsible culprit for Africa’s ‘new wars.’
Civil war requires a complex combination of political, social and economic factors. Countries that descend into war are typically weak, repressive, undemocratic and economically vulnerable. Often, as in the case of the DRC, they attract similar states but with greater power to invade and siphon off their wealth. Angola’s diamonds and oil were used by rebels and the Government to enrich themselves and to buy arms to fight one another at the expense of an impoverished, brutalized population.
To understand the responsible factor for Africa’s ‘new wars,’ it is important to have regard to the background political, historical and cultural factors. These (wars) are deeply embedded in the history of the continent, not only in colonial history and the transformation to independent states but in the totality of African history (Boas, 2007).


Ballentine, K. and Nitzsche, H. 2003. ‘Beyond Greed and Grievance: Policy Lessons from Studies in the Political Economy of Armed Conflict’ New York: International Peace Academy.
Boas, M. 2005. ‘The Liberian Civil War: New War/Old War?’. Global Society, Vol. 19. No. 1, January.
Boas, M,. and Dunn, K.C,. 2007. ‘African guerrillas, Raging Against the Machine,.’ Lynne Rienner Publishers,.
Collier, P. and Anker, H. 2000. ‘Greed and Grievance in Civil Wars,’ Boulder: Cynne Rienner Publishers.
Francis, J,.F. 2001. ‘Diamonds and the civil war in Sierra Leone.’ Online at (05.12.08)
Gberie, L,. 2002. ‘War and Peace in Sierra Leonne: Diamonds, Corruption and the Lebanese Connection.’ Online at (05.12.08)
Hirsch, John L,. 2000 ‘Sierra Leone: Diamonds and the Struggle for Democracy’, Lynne Rienner Pub.
Morpheus, R,. 2007. ‘Millions Already gone: Who hears cries for the Congo?’ on (05.12.03).
Nkoro, E., 2005. ‘Conflict in the Niger Delta: The way forward.’ Online at (14.11.08).
Shah, A,. 2008. ‘The Democratic Republic of Congo.’ On (05.12.08)
Tull, M. D. ‘The Democratic Republic of Congo: Militarised Politics in a “failed state” in ‘African guerrillas, Raging Against the Machine,.’ Lynne Rienner Publishers, by Boas, M,. and Dunn, K.C,. 2007.

[1] The scope of this essay (3 000 words) does not allow for an examination of all of Africa’s so called ‘new wars’.
[2] (5.12.08).
[3] These are Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa cross-River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers states.
[5] It should be remembered that fishing and farming were the primary sources of livelihood for the local people.
[6] Agriculture and fishing.
[7] A practical case of aforementioned is that of the Ogoni community in Niger Delta of Rivers state whose case is being spearheaded by the movement for the survival of Ogoni people (MOSOP) and the late human right activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. They pointed, like other communities in the Niger Delta region that their land has been devastated and degraded, their atmosphere has been polluted, water contaminated, trees being poisoned and that their flora and fauna have virtually disappeared, these as a result of the activities of oil companies in the area. To intensify this ugly issue, there are no infrastructural amenities in the locality such as electricity, portable water and access roads. Thus, on August 26, 1990 the Ogoni people issued a bill of right which was sent to the federal government of Nigeria, demanding political freedom that will guarantee political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, right to the control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as a right in all Nigerian national institutions and the right to protect Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradations.However, their demand was turned down, thus, MOSOP was mandated by Ogoni people on August 26, 1991 to make representation to united nations commission on human and people rights and European community, alleging that the Nigerian government has denied them their demand. MOSOP was also mandated to alert the organizations that federal republic of Nigeria has refused to pay them oil royalties and mining rents amounting to an estimated $20billion for petroleum mined from Ogoni land over three decades ago. On January 4, 1993, they followed this up. This eventually led to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa on the 10th of November, 1995 (Nkoro, 2005).

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