The recent history of diamond production is inextricably linked with violence. Blood diamonds, also called conflict diamonds, come from diamond-producing African countries at war. These groups sell the gems to buy weapons and to support armies. This use of diamonds is a recent phenomenon. Since the 1990s, many wars have been fought over diamonds and with the aid of diamond money. Without diamonds, most of the civil wars fought in Africa during the last decades would have been briefer and far less bloody.
Image by USAID Guinea
A Geology of Violence
A consideration of the wars fought over diamonds begins with the history of colonialism in Africa, and continues through the years of independence. Until the 19th century, the vast stores of diamonds under Africa’s surface rested both unsuspected and unbothered. No one, neither native farmer nor European trader, were interested in the occasional glimmering rock that turned up in the soil. Diamonds were not culturally significant to Africans. The Europeans who might have seen a diamond in the dust would hardly recognize the famous gem in that ordinary grey pebble.
A series of accidental diamond finds led people who were interested, British politicians and jewelry merchants, to pay attention. A diamond industry soon developed in many African states. The discovery of alluvial diamonds in South Africa in 1867 would have effects on wars occurring in yet-unborn nations more than a hundred years later.
A Dangerous Inflation of Worth
Before the discovery of the huge deposits of diamonds in Africa, the stones were truly rare worldwide. Their high monetary value was a mark of their scarcity. With the abundance of African diamonds now becoming available to the world, 19th century jewelers and speculators felt the danger that the bottom of the diamond market would drop out.
In order to prevent this devaluation of their product, a consortium of diamond sellers led by Cecil Rhodes united under the name DeBeers. They determined to control the movement of diamonds throughout the world. In their headquarters at Antwerp, Belgium, they would hold back a proportion of diamonds from sale, in order to lend greater value to those in circulation.
This plan was sadly effective. Though other distributors have appeared on the scene, the South African conglomerate today controls two-thirds of world’s rough diamonds. They manage, as they have always done, to keep the price artificially high by hoarding the stones. Were the actual worth of diamonds reflected in their price, there would be no black market trade in them, they would not have funded bloody uprisings throughout Africa and millions of people would be free from the nightmare of civil war. The phenomenon of blood diamonds relates directly to DeBeers’s price-fixing scheme.
Colonial Beginnings of African Civil Wars
Though African diamonds were discovered beginning in the late 19th century, they were not known as blood diamonds until the late 20th century. Their economic role changed from a resource strictly controlled by the state or state-sponsored companies to one up for grabs by anyone.
When the colonial governments in Africa collapsed or transferred power, the degree of stability in each new nation varied. Whoever controlled the diamonds controlled the region’s wealth, had money to buy superior weapons and to influence important officials. Clearly, diamonds were a resource worth fighting wars over.
Conditions for the Diamond Miners
Much of the diamond mining in Africa even today is of the traditional pan and sieve kind. Diggers go down to river beds and sites of former beds and sift through silt or mud in search of diamonds of any size, but hoping for large ones. These earn them around a tenth of the ultimate retail price.
Miners work in circumstances often oppressive and frequently dangerous. Armed soldiers may take the diamonds straight from unarmed workers’ hands, and there is little to be done about it. Large mines may force workers to undergo full-body searches before they may leave work for the day. Hours of work are long, in cramped and dark conditions. Observers have noted a pattern of human rights violations. Beatings are common, as are bizarrely harsh punishments. Children in the mines are treated no more gently than adults. This personal violence is a both a product of and a reflection of the larger violence the blood diamonds have funded.
Blood Diamonds in Support of Violence
Diamonds became useful in funding civil wars for a number of reasons. They are plentiful and anyone may, in theory, search for them. Small as they are, diamonds are easy to hide. Border patrols will not look through every pocket of every shirt, and so diamonds are easily smuggled. Their size makes stealing them easy as well. They are difficult to trace, so stolen diamonds have the same value as others legitimately mined. Whether a diamond was sourced from a proscribed country is also impossible to tell, so countries banned from diamond selling can fence their goods through countries not on the forbidden list.
Military forces in different parts of Africa even today charge high rates to guard mines in what usually amounts to an extortion racket. By guarding the diamonds, they simply mean they will not take them all.
Nations Where Diamond Wars Have Been Fought
Formerly a Portuguese colony, Angola was first found to have diamonds in 1912. Angola gained independence in 1975. From that year until 2002, with some short periods of relative stability, Angola was wracked by civil war. The main antagonists were the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). During the Angolan civil war, several million people were killed.
Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA, was the first African warlord to traffic in what became known as blood diamonds. Between 1992 and 1998, UNITA sold nearly $4 billion of diamonds in order to pay for weapons.
In 1992, the United Nations passed two resolutions forbidding the purchase of diamonds from Angola. Yet despite these measures, UNITA was still able to barter enough diamonds to keep the war going. In order to discover how, and who was buying the diamonds, the UN commissioned a special report. Called the Fowler Report, this examination of the trade in blood diamonds opened up the relationship between bloodshed and diamonds in several African nations. After Savimbi’s death in 2002, UNITA agreed to a ceasefire.
Though the war has ended, sporadic violence occurs among Angolan factions, and in the country’s diamond mines human rights abuses are common.
- Sierra Leone
Diamond mining in the British colony of Sierra Leone began in 1927, and became one of its biggest industries. Independence came in 1961 after many years of struggle. Its longest serving leader, from 1967 to 1985, was Siaka Stevens. Most of the diamond profits during these years went directly to him and his government. This encouraged a culture of smuggling among diamond diggers eager not to lose everything.
Because of the lack of central control, funds that diamonds could earn were available to anybody who could control the source. Beginning in 1991, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) occupied diamond fields and stole from workers to purchase weapons from neighboring counties.
The diamonds in Sierra Leone not only provided money to create violence, but were the cause of violence themselves. Because being in possession of the diamond fields was so lucrative, rebels and government both took extreme measures to expel workers on the other side. Beginning in 1992, R.U.F. fighters occupied the town of Kono, site of the country’s largest diamond mine. The government-allied National Provisional Ruling Council (N.R.P.C.) responded with a declaration of war. The R.U.F. rebels, faced with elections that threatened their dominance, cut the hands off of mine workers, potential voters and even children.
Through one regime change after another, the violence continued in Sierra Leone. The diamonds so prized by the rebels could not be sold internationally after 2000, when the U.N. banned the sale of Sierra Leone diamonds. Yet the R.U.F. found a ready market with Liberia, a neighbor whose leader Charles Johnson was an associate of Foday Sankoh, the head of the rebel group.
By 2002, after British and United Nations troops helped to end the war, around 50,000 people had been killed. Sierra Leone was permitted to resume its sale of diamonds that year.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
Formerly Zaire, this huge, resource-rich country has long attracted the worst kind of opportunist. Once a Belgian colony, it was ruled brutally by its overlords, who created little infrastructure to benefit the populace. Diamonds were discovered in Congo in 1912, and their mining was controlled by a Belgian group. After revolution put an end to colonialism, the divided factions that remained started independence on shaky ground. Joseph Mobutu seized power in 1965 and held on tenaciously, brutally squelching dissent. He also set about buying the Belgian-owned mines, and acquired them completely by 1973.
The early 1990s saw the commencement of a non-stop state of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After losing the war in neighboring Rwanda, many of the Hutu ringleaders fled over the border to what was then Zaire. In 1996, the Hutus joined forces with Mobutu’s government and proceeded to oppress the rural Tutsi population. The Tutsis now controlling Rwanda marched on the capital, overthrew Mobutu and installed a Tutsi leader, Kabila. He changed the country’s name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In time, Kabila alienated the Tutsis and was assassinated. His son now leads a weakened central government.
Wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have killed more than five million people. Millions more have been injured or displaced. In every part of the country there is violence or the threat of violence. Much of this warfare comes by way of smuggled diamonds. Diamond fields are so much in demand people living nearby are butchered to protect the resource.
- Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire)
Colonized by France in 1842, Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, was first mined for diamonds in 1927. The mining operation was run by the state, but operations closed down in 1978 when production slowed.
During a peaceful transition of power, Ivory Coast gained republic status in 1958, then independence in 1960. For a couple of decades it was a placid country, in marked contrast to much of the rest of Africa. When its main export, cocoa, suffered a fall in price during the early 1990s, the government looked to diamond mining as a possibility yet again. This was the period that saw African civil wars at their bloodiest. The country became a source for blood diamonds and a clearing house for those imported from elsewhere. The demand for diamonds caused more mines to be established throughout the country.
It was the 1999 military overthrow of only the second president of the young nation, Henri Konan Bedie, that precipitated Ivory Coast into turmoil. A contested election in 2000 created a rivalry between the historian Laurent Ggabo, who was elected president, and the economist Allassane Outtara, who disputed the election. Outtara’s failed coup of 2002 marks the beginning of the Ivory Coast civil war.
The great mineral wealth of Ivory Coast helped to contribute to the continuation of the war. Seeing Ivorian diamonds as a primary source for continued arms-buying by the rebel insurgents, the United Nations instituted a ban in 2005. Even today, rebels still manage to smuggle diamonds through the borders to Guinea and Mali. While the diamonds from Ivory Coast contributed disastrously to the horrors of war, the country’s diamond production was always relatively small. Most diamonds are gathered by panning by the riverside rather than by big mining facilities.
The first civil war in Ivory Coast claimed around 3,000 lives. While it has been over since 2004, factions continued to fight sporadically. After Alassane Outtara’s election as president, a second civil war began. Liberian mercenaries, likely paid in diamond money, attempted an assassination of President Allasane. So far around 500 people have died in violent skirmishes. The U.N. has decided to renew its embargo on Ivory Coast diamonds. The political situation remains very unstable, and could easily tip back into full-scale war.
- Central African Republic
The Central African Republic is a former French colony just north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Diamond mining began there in 1927. The mines were exceptionally productive, and allowed diamonds to become the second leading export after cotton. Like Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic became independent in 1960. Immediately an internal power struggle began that has continued for decades.
Central African Republic diamonds smuggled over the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo helped the rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba and his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) with his 1998-2003 war against the state. In exchange for the help, Bemba sent troops to aid Central African Republic President Ange-Felix Patasse in battles fought during 2002-2003. Bemba’s army was accused of committing atrocities during these incursions.
The struggle for leadership of the Central African Republic continued with different iterations of politicians and parties until 2005. Even now, during a stable period for the Central African Republic, as many as half of the diamonds mined are smuggled out. Current President Francois Bozize’s demand for an enormous cut in profits has driven away industrial diamond mines. The president’s personal control over licensing mines and export businesses keeps the profits within his circle. The lack of a responsible managing authority means that many diamonds leave the country illegally, possibly sold to neighbors with bad intentions.
The rebel group UNITA continued to pursue warfare in Angola despite being sanctioned several times by the UN. Canadian Ambassador led a commission investigating how UNITA was funded. In 2000 the Fowler Report revealed the network of connections through governments, diamond sellers and arms dealers that made the Angolan civil war so long-lived.
While the findings of the Fowler Report could do no more than reveal unpleasant truths, some action in the face of its evidence seemed necessary. The Kimberly Process Certification Scheme was developed in 2003 as a means of preventing the illegal sale of diamonds such as those which supported UNITA.
The Kimberly Process Reduces Corruption
Countries may earn a Kimberly Certificate if they can prove that their diamonds will not be sold to benefit rebel causes or to contribute to the instability of a UN member nation. Security must also be tight; diamonds ship out in securely sealed containers to prevent loss or theft. Finally, diamonds can only be sent to other countries holding Kimberly certificates.
Countries may be stripped of their certification if they fail to meet any of these criteria.
Conflict-Free Diamonds From Africa
Countries that adhere to the Kimberly scheme have made an effort to distance themselves from the violent past that diamonds bought them. Some African countries, however, have no history of wars associated with diamonds. South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, for instance, produce diamonds not associated with military conflict.
Botswana, especially, provides an example of what diamonds can do when everything goes right. Parted painlessly from its colonizer Britain in 1966, Botswana was too poor for anyone to bother with. This gentle separation left intact old forms of leadership. The independent country picked up where it left off with an orderly government.
Not until a year after independence were diamonds found in Botswana, and with a stable leadership, there was no grabbing for resources. Botswana entered into a symbiotic relationship with DeBeers, which ran and administered the mine. In exchange for the diamonds, DeBeers provided money for infrastructure, education and health care, all of which guarantee a healthy and contented population.