Magazine article UN Chronicle

Illicit Diamonds: Africa's Curse

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Illicit Diamonds: Africa's Curse

Article excerpt

Just as the history of Arab States is intimately tied to the discovery of oil in the region, the discovery of diamonds in Africa has not only impacted the continent's history, but has been one of the leading causes of conflict.

The link between diamonds and conflict in Africa and the role of international players in the illicit diamond trade were recently discussed at a seminar in Nairobi, Kenya, on resource-based conflicts organized by the Society for International Development's East Africa Chapter. It is interesting to note that Africa's most conflict-ridden countries--Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo--are also the most diamond-rich countries on the continent, as well as the most poor and under developed. Conflict or "blood" diamonds have fuelled wars and led to the massive displacement of civilian populations in many African nations. While conflict diamonds represent a small proportion of the overall diamond trade, illicit diamonds constitute as much as 20 per cent of the annual world production. The level of illegality gives an opportunity and a space for conflict diamonds.


The link between diamonds, poverty and conflict is evident in countries such as Sierra Leone, where the rich alluvial diamond fields of the Kono District and Tongo Field were among the most prized targets of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In 2000, Partnership Africa. Canada (PAC) published a report entitled "The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security", which placed much of the blame for the civil war in the country on diamonds, describing them as "small bits of carbon that have no intrinsic value in themselves, and no value whatsoever to the average Sierra Leonean beyond their attraction to foreigners".

The report recounts the corrupting of Sierra Leone's diamond industry, from peak exports of 2 million carats a year in the 1960s to less than 50,000 carats by 1998. The country's despotic President during much of this time, Siaka Stevens, had tacitly encouraged illicit mining by becoming involved in criminal or near-criminal activities himself. When the RUF began waging a war in 1991, Liberian leader Charles Taylor acted as mentor, trainer, banker and weapons supplier for the movement. The RUF also took on the role of diamond supplier to the illicit international trade. "It is ironic", says the report, "that enormous profits have been made from diamonds throughout the conflict, but the only effect on the citizens of the country where they were mined has been terror, murder, dismemberment and poverty".

The PAC report supports the idea that there was virtually no oversight of the international movement of diamonds. In the 1990s, for instance, billions of dollars worth of diamonds was imported into Belgium from Liberia, even though the latter produces very few diamonds. This can only be explained by the fact that big and small companies were colluding in the laundering of diamonds in West Africa, using Liberia as the conduit country. Much of the laundering was done by local Lebanese traders who have been living in West Africa for over a century.

Lebanese immigrants began arriving in West Africa as refugees fleeing the hardship caused by the silk-worm crisis which struck Lebanon in the mid-nineteenth century. Among the earliest recipients of those immigrants were Senegal and Sierra Leone, then under European colonial rule. According to Lansana Gberie, a researcher who has written about the Lebanese connection in Sierra Leone's diamond trade, since the 1950s, "diamonds have been the linchpin of Lebanese business and a range of subterranean political activities".

In her paper, "War and Peace in Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Corruption and the Lebanese Connection", published by the Diamonds and Human Security Project in 2002, Gberie describes the beginnings of the Lebanese trade in diamonds: "Diamonds were discovered in Kono District, in eastern Sierra Leone in 1930, and that same year, as word of the discovery spread, the first Lebanese trader arrived in Kono and set up shop, ahead of colonial officials who did not want to establish a district office there until two years later. …

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