Poverty and death amidst diamonds – the story of Western exploitation of Africa and its links with 9/11



The 10th anniversary of 9/11 was different for the Americans. The decade-long wait is over and even the perpetrator of 9/11 is dead. This 9/11 was also the first anniversary when Americans felt contented by the very fact that their revenge is over and they have again proved their supremacy over the world. But then, this very celebration amidst sorrow is far from complete. Perhaps the chief operative of 9/11 is dead, but the modus operandi is still active and running. Neutralizing Osama is just half the task done, but the very system that allowed Osama to execute the entire 9/11 episode, still thrives. Amidst the entire hullabaloo, what got swept under was the manner in which the entire operation was funded. It is a lesser known fact that the funding for 9/11 had its roots in Africa, and it was all possible because millions of Westerners bought stones that had been (since the last four decades or so) hyped up as the most precious gifts for women. Yes, I’m here talking about diamonds, or rather conflict diamonds – to be more precise, those that with time have earned the title of being ‘blood diamonds’. Several investigative reports post 9/11, including UN war crime reports, have revealed that the Al Qaeda joined Liberian President Charles Taylor in the African diamond trade, which was used for terrorist activities. The terrorists used illicit diamonds as currency for funding their operations, as the demand for illicit diamonds remains high, while tracking the movement of the same is extremely tedious.

If one goes back in time, the entire episode of conflict diamonds started post World War II, when natives of Sierra Leone, working for the British army, returned home to find that their nation was still being looted by the British. Although diamond mining was not just confined to Sierra Leone, what was unusual particularly in Sierra Leone was that unlike other parts of Africa where diamonds were found in specific zones only, diamonds in Sierra Leone were spread all across its geographic expanse, which made the loot easier and plentiful. Gradually, the natives (early 1950-60s) started mining these diamonds illegally and then selling them in the local market. Since the mining was in open fields (alluvial zones), security and protection became virtually impossible. The British used a police force to deter these natives from mining; but then, eventually, the natives learnt the art of warfare (thanks to the soldiers who returned home) and with time, illegal mining started to flourish. Moreover, Lebanon gave the natives of Sierra Leone the market they needed. Along with trade facilities and a thriving market, Lebanon provided the natives with mining equipments and tools as well. These diamonds also made their way to Liberia, since Liberia was a dollar-based economy and had flexible laws – selling and purchasing these diamonds became easier and in due course, they started getting traded internationally.

Simultaneously, pouncing upon the opportunity and in order to fortify its dominance in the diamonds and precious stones market, De Beers bought diamonds from all possible West African nations viz. Angola and Sierra Leone. The company purchased and stockpiled diamonds to keep the supply low and prices high. Concurrently, this is when De Beers started its campaign, “A diamond is forever.” This fuelled the demand for diamonds all across Africa. So much so that dictators and heads of states in the regions adopted brutal ways of mining diamonds. They killed and tortured the natives to keep them away from alluvial lands where diamonds were aplenty and also forced people (women and children included) into bonded labour for extraction of these stones. It goes without mentioning that these bonded labourers still work under the worst possible conditions. Dictators further sold these diamonds in exchange of weapons and arms. The sale of illegal blood diamonds allowed the diamond industry to thrive and also pumped money into Africa, which bolstered the arms trade. The groups and people involved in civil wars primarily created an atmosphere of instability and threat in order to control the regions, which were endowed with diamonds.

It was under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Siaka Stevens (in the late 1960s) that the diamond trade acquired the tag of illegality.

From 1968 to 1990, diamond trade in the region became obscenely violent and a corrupt array of ministers minted millions through the same. In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) started their violent protests against the government but gradually drifted away from their goal of eliminating corruption to controlling diamond endowed areas. The scenario became bleaker, as the labourers were tortured and punished severely under the RUF regime. Illegal diamonds worth $125 million were bought by Europe alone in this period – which was used by RUF to further funding their mining ambitions. The RUF killed innumerable people, even cut off the limbs of many, simply to keep them all away from diamond mines. So much so that they forcibly moved out those villagers whose villages had alluvial soil (where diamonds were available) and eventually brought the area under their control. From one village, they moved on to another and then to the next. In the entire process, more than 100,000 innocent people were killed or butchered while another 2 million fled Sierra Leone. The total number of killings over the years is estimated to be a staggering 4 million. Thus, the diamonds from the mines under the control of rebel forces came to be known as conflict diamonds, which later on took the title of blood diamonds. This transition from conflict diamonds to blood diamonds aptly describes the increase in social melancholy that the region went through. Initially, the diamonds were mined in zones that were under conflict – in simple words, in regions where rebels and dictators were both fighting to grab land. But then, with time, the very same people started practicing genocide and mass killing to spread the influence of their power; bloodshed became a common phenomenon, thus metamorphosing into the concept into blood diamonds. According to numbers released in 2001, more than one million Sierra Leoneans are internally displaced. All this has eventually pushed Sierra Leone to the bottom of the UN Human Development Index ranking.

Not only Sierra Leone, but the entire Central and West Africa came under the grasp of blood diamond mining. Brutality gradually extended its tentacles from Sierra Leone and Liberia into Angola and Congo. Angola became a hotspot on account of its geostrategic location. Being in the hub of the blood diamond trade zone, the viciousness was too widespread and deep in the country. After it got independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola plunged into a gory civil war that continued till 2001. The US backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was the principal rebel group throughout the cold war period, and it enjoyed the largesse of American funding and fought bloodying battles against the Soviet backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) till the late 80s. Between 1992 and 1998, UNITA sold a massive $3.72 billion worth of diamonds that sent alarm signals to the international community and in particular to United Nations. Consequently, UN passed two resolutions – namely United Nations Security Council Resolution 1173 and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1176 – prohibiting the import of diamonds from Angola. Further, the Angolan government took the initiative of taking control of the illegally held diamond mines to tame the hunger of the rebels. However, the diamond trade by the rebels did not stop – in some tortuous way, the diamonds were smuggled to foreign countries where they were mixed with untainted diamonds and shipped to the European and American markets, where the demand was escalating! The company that markets these diamonds needs no mention here. Incompetent air traffic control in the corrupt African countries contributed further to the growth of this menace. The miners who work in the Angolan diamond fields (called Garimpeiros) are still subject to acute exploitation and bondage – working almost like slave labour and living in life threatening working conditions!

Most of the diamond fields in Angola are located in the remote provincial capital of Saurimo, a couple of hours’ drive from the capital Luanda.

But in spite of a number of diamond companies being present there, the region remains as impoverished as before, and is one of the poorest parts of Angola. Some of the coveted diamonds companies that have set up a base here include Petra Diamonds from Jersey, Trans Hex of South Africa and Catoca from Angola. De Beers was present too, but has packed up (this is what they have officially declared!) after a dispute with the government. Following the brutality towards the mining workers (even by the ‘big’ corporations) in these diamond mines, the UN Security Council did try to abolish diamond mining in Angola but has largely failed. The failure to rein in the blood diamond trade is exhorted by the fact that almost half of Angola’s yearly production, worth about $450 million, is drained off (as per 2002 figures) from the country and sold elsewhere under well-guarded stealth, where the government, UN and the international community, in spite of their noble intents, are only mere spectators – or pretend to have no control – all thanks to global lobbying and the economics that these diamonds bring with themselves!

Similar is the story with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like most other African nations, DRC is also strife-torn with rebels who constantly are in a tussle with the government to usurp power – this has created a humanitarian crisis that can beat even the egregious situation of Zimbabwe or Sudan! Their ever present objective is to get access to the diamond mines and other minerals in order to finance their armies and groups – and in doing so, rampant human rights violations are being carried out by almost all involved. A staggering 1.7 million deaths have occurred in the war-ravaged DRC since 1998! The deaths did not occur only because of homicides, but also because of a complete destruction of the healthcare system, as preventable diseases and malnutrition afflicted the poor and helpless at large. Some reports have suggested that during 1999-2000, at the peak of the conflict, approximately 2,600 people were dying each day! During this time, DRC faced shocking death rates – 34 per cent of all deaths being children (under the age of five) and 47 per cent being women and children. The irony is that even though DRC holds 26 per cent of the world’s diamond deposits, it is still one of the most impoverished and debt-laden countries of the world with a measly per capita GDP of $189 (as of 2010). The World Food Programme reveals that 15 million of Congo’s citizens suffer from malnutrition, 80 per cent of their population is in dire need of potable water and 70 per cent does not even have basic healthcare access. If that’s not all, it has the highest infant mortality rate in Africa, and a millstone of rampant corruption ensures that diamond money can be profited only by a handful of elites while the masses languish in abject poverty and wait for death in the most inhumane conditions.

For the rebels in DRC, the diamond trade has been the most profitable business to illegally support their rebellion. Although the military conflict has dipped in many parts of the country, it still continues in the eastern part where the rebels have confiscated the diamond mines. The diamond pits there are not only the rebels’ domain but also the government’s as it wants to utilize the mines – by sharing them with Namibia – to raise funds that will be utilized for defence spending. The workers in the mines face myriad instances of human rights abuse and exploitation. Although they earn less than $2.75 a day, they consistently face extortion from both the government and rebels. DRC became a signatory to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2005 – however, a report issued in July 2006 accused DRC of being stained with extensive corruption and lack of transparency in diamond mining! For the uninitiated, EITI – which has the World Bank endorsement – is a subgroup formed under the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 that holds people accountable for transparency in governments and monitors the way diamond-rich countries use the money derived from diamond mining. Therefore, the priorities are set for DRC to comply with the EITI standards – reining in on rebel-controlled diamond pits; controlling diamond smuggling to neighbouring countries; reducing human rights abuse; practising International Labour Organization’s standards of safety; following pointers mentioned in the Health in Mines Convention; and improving overall transparency.

Unfortunately, the entire blood diamond saga is not a fable of past, but is in the now and the present. In the last month itself, Zimbabwe was found selling blood diamonds worth more than $200 million and using the money thus earned for criminal purposes. These diamonds were not certified and even had the stakes of a few Western corporations! Recently, the Zimbabwean Finance Minister, Tendai Biti revealed his worry on how $300 million of diamond trade revenue had not reached the official accounts. The money is expected to have reached the corrupt military and political parties headed by Robert Mugabe. A large sum of this money is used for manipulating elections. These blood diamonds not only have their market in the West but also have their trade lineage in our very own town of Surat as well. Surat’s local diamond merchants have been found dealing with such diamonds.

Today, more than 4 million people have been displaced from Sierra Leone; 1.5 million from Liberia and 1.7 million from Angola – this is the price that has been inflicted for all the diamonds the world purchased in the last couple of decades. The traumatic memories will live on for these people through generations. The brutal amputation of hands, feet, lips, ears and noses of civilians, that groups like the Revolutionary United Front practised, cannot be forgotten so easily. This inhumane and brutal callousness also makes the entire democratic process futile and eventually allows dictators to continue their regimes. Even children have not been left – forced to join these so-called revolutionary groups, they are forcible made addicts of drugs (a reason for widespread HIV/AIDS among children in the region) and small arms.

Diamond trading is not illegal in itself, but the way it is mined – that is. No transparency and certification process can ever be enough to check the brutality going on in Africa. What is needed is pure political will. For instance, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Botswana are those few nations that utilised revenues from diamonds for the social development of those in the mining zones. Botswana mobilizes money generated from mines for education and health care and further keeps a huge amount for rehabilitation during the rainy season – when mining is practically impossible. To effectively check the seepage of blood diamonds into legal markets, United Nations introduced a certification process in 2003 called the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) – diamonds without this certification were supposed to be rejected in organised markets. But even KPCS was not enough to stop the illegal diamond trade throughout the world.

The solution is straightforward. The global diamond and mineral forums should at the most urgent reduce the hype around diamonds, thus regulating the price and reducing the artificially created demand-supply gap. It is due to this hype and demand-supply gap that brutal dictators are killing each other and their own countrymen. Those who get drawn into this tale of killings for profits must see the landmark film Blood Diamond; it indeed will be an eye-opener, like it was for me; the movie pushed me to study this industry in greater detail.

Reducing the international diamond trade would obviously reduce revenues and destroy a huge cartel; but then, long term objectives have many positives. Reducing the diamond trade would stop corruption, smuggling, arms trade, terror attacks, mass killings, drugs trade and destitution – all these collectively represent issues that are far bigger, and have much more important and humane ramifications than what the glitter of blood diamonds create. But what is of more significance perhaps in this story of pain and death amidst diamonds is the Western greed and exploitation. To conquer the oil fields of Iraq to Libya, the West goes for an all-out war at the macro level; and similarly, to get diamonds at a cheaper price for profits, the West has time and again allowed profit-hungry private companies to directly and indirectly finance mass murders and inhumane regimes in Africa. But of course, to stop such killings, neither America nor the West has any army to dispatch – even if such a diamond trade indirectly caused 9/11 and can cause more such destruction, for who cares in reality to what happens to the millions of blacks in impoverished Africa. So what if the man at the helm of affairs in America itself has his roots in Africa. After all, greed and profiteering finally are more important than ‘Dreams From My Father’.

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