Africa: The Role of Natural Resources in Civil Wars

A 23 year old Congolese woman told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers “raped us and dragged us to their camp which was not far away. I stayed there for one month, under constant supervision. Even when I went to fetch water, he came with me to ensure that I did not run away…. There was no conversation between us, he had sex with me at any moment, when he felt like it, and with a lot of violence. I spent my days crying. I begged God to free me from this hell.”

Stories of this nature are not unusual in the DRC. This is a country where over six million people have been killed since the insurgency against Mobutu’s tyranny in 1996, and, according to Oxfam, armed gangs sexually assault about 416 women every month. Age doesn’t really matter to the militias, girls as young five and women as old as 70 are brutally raped.[1]

Rape is not the only problem the DRC. Poverty, malnutrition, diseases, and forced displacements are among the pressing issues facing the Congolese. According to IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre), there are over 2 million displaced people in the DRC.  

The Congolese, most particularly the ones in the Eastern provinces have been living in what some might call “hell on earth,” for the past 14 years.  

On the surface, it might look like the Congolese have no one to blame but themselves, since they are the ones doing the killing, and to an extent, this argument seems sensible. However, when we go beyond the facade, the facts tell us that foreign governments and multinational companies, greedy for the natural resources found in the DRC, are in cahoots with the militias and they too, are responsible for the plunder and the killings.

Political analyst and linguist Noam Chomsky is of the view that the conflict in the DRC is the "worst catastrophe in Africa if not the world." I agree with this analysis. In addition, I argue that the DRC conflict ought to be understood in the context of other ‘intrastate wars’ that we have seen in the last two decade.

For instance, according to a report released by UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) last year, the eighteen intrastate conflicts that have occurred since the early 90s have, among other things, one interesting feature in common, and that’s the fact that mineral resources, like cobalt, gold, tin, oil, and etc are fueling and sustaining these deadly conflicts.[2]

Studies suggest that militias are able to purchase items like weapons from the funds they get from foreign companies. Global Witness, the UK based advocacy group, for instance states, that the Khmer Rouge (KR) in Cambodia, after the “sponsorship from China, Thailand and the West came to an end” was able to “fund their operations” by trading with multinational corporations.[3]

Global Witness, in an earlier report, notes that the “KR derived the funds necessary to continue their conflict predominantly from trading timber and gems (sapphires and rubies)… with foreign companies. Without this trade the KR would not [have been] able to continue their war.”[4]

The same thing could be said about Liberia where Charles Taylor -a mass murderer- earned an “estimated $200- 250 million per year from sales of timber, iron, ore, gold, diamonds and rubber.”[5]

In Angola, it was the same thing. Both the MPLA government and the UNITA rebels ended up relying on the exploitation of natural resources to fund their missions. Tom Hodges for instance, argues that “while the government bankrolled its war machine with the proceeds from oil, UNITA was able to secure control of lucrative diamond mines, generating revenues that would substitute for the loss of foreign [government] military assistance in the early 1990s…”[6]

Even the situation in Darfur, in Sudan is not different from these conflicts. Contrary to popular belief, Mamdani argues that the situation in Sudan is not a matter of Arabs killing ‘black Africans’, rather the violence was sparked by “drought and desertification”. The people who lived “in the Northern part of Darfur, led a massive movement of population groups and livestock into the farming South Darfur… [a region] with a long tradition of rain-fed cultivation”, writes Mamdani. Thus, the conflict in Darfur was partly caused by land issues.[7]  

Whether we are talking about the wars in Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, the Middle East, Kosovo, Burma, Cambodia, Colombia, Indonesia and all the other 18 countries that have been devastated by brutal civil wars in the last two decades, we see the decisive role natural resources (and multinational corporations) play in civil wars.  

If nothing is done about the link between natural resources and intrastate conflicts, people in places like the DRC will continue to live in terrible conditions. The least we can do is to pressurize the people who are financing militias. Corporations who are trading with armed gangs ought to be punished, just like the warlords, for the heinous crimes that the militias commit. Without funding from foreign corporations, militias would struggle to access basic items such as food, fuel for vehicles and most importantly they wouldn’t have the means to sustain their war efforts

Global Witness proposes sanctions as one of the ways of ensuring that natural resources are not used to fund armed gangs. “Sanctions play a crucial role in international responses to self-financing wars in general, and those involving illicit trade in natural resources in particular,” says the report.  

Global Witness, however, also points out that if sanctions are not applied cautiously, they can be disastrous, “like [in] Iraq, where a system of exemptions to an oil trade embargo was abused to the benefit of the country’s political elite, while ordinary citizens were hit with the sanctions’ punitive impact.”[8]

Furthermore, though in countries like Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, among others, ‘commodity sanctions’ seem to have been helpful, GW warns that if they are not applied in a right manner, “commodity sanctions may punish people who are not associated with any illegal or violent activity means that they are not always an appropriate means of disrupting a war economy.”[9]

Nonetheless, there are effective ways of implementing commodity sanctions. For instance, Global Witness suggests that the international community (i.e. the UN) can implement commodity and targeted sanctions. Which means that the sanctions would “be aimed at groups and individuals [i.e. warlords], as well as commodity flows.”

Available evidence show that we could see more conflicts over natural resources if the UN does not intervene. The UNEP report argues that “as the global population continues to rise, and the demand for resources continues to grow, there is significant potential for conflicts over natural resources to intensify in the coming decades.”


Phumlani Majavu is an activist and a freelance writer based in Cape Town. Email:


1. Oxfam

2. UN EP

3. Global Witness

4. Global Witness

5. Adebajo, Liberia’s Civil War: Nigeria, ECOMOG, and Regional Security in West Africa (2002), p 137

6. Hodges, Angola: Anatomy of an oil state (2003)., p 170

7. Mamdani, Saviours and Survivors (2009)., p 237

8. Global Witness

9. Ibid.