Diamonds fuel African conflict

Africa moved forward on the path to peace last week, but the temptations of the continent's riches remain obstacles to genuine progress.

On July 7, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone and Foday Sankoh, who has led a brutal eight-year revolt to oust him, signed a peace agreement.

That same day, President Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) agreed on the premises of a cease-fire agreement with the leaders of two rebellions seeking to overthrow him. Although neighboring countries have signed, two internal rebel groups have refused.

If these agreements are implemented and hold, they would bring to an end two of the tragic wars that have laid waste portions of the continent and its people.

Despite numerous efforts, however, a third conflict, between the government of Angola and the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi, continues. The UN and outside mediators have so far been unable to stop the fighting.

Many issues feed these wars - tribal rivalries, ethnic hatreds, and ruthless ambition. One obstacle to peace is common to all: the lure of diamonds. The control of diamond sources provides to those in a conflict the resources to buy weapons, influence people, and continue the battle.

Take a minerals map of Africa and see where diamonds are found outside of South Africa: northern Angola, southwestern Congo, and Sierra Leone - all areas of conflict. Accurate data are difficult to establish because of instability in the region.

Angola, with 11 percent of world diamond reserves, is probably the largest exporter - through both legal and illegal channels. Sierra Leone and Liberia report roughly equal exports, but most of the exports of the latter are smuggled out of neighboring Sierra Leone. The Statesman's Year Book for 1998-99 comments laconically: "The presence of rich diamond deposits partly explains the close interest of neighboring countries in the politics of Sierra Leone."

DeBeers Consolidated Mines Inc., headquartered in South Africa, maintains virtual monopoly over all diamond sales and, by various means, encourages governments to see that all diamonds are sold through DeBeers' outlet in London. But smuggling is, and has long been, a part of the picture.

Not only are diamonds valuable but, unlike precious metals, they are, in many places, easy to pick up, transport, and hide. One Lebanese diamond merchant in Angola reportedly moved from place to place with a pet boa constrictor which conveniently swallowed and disgorged diamonds on demand.

Stefan Kanfer in his 1993 book on DeBeers, "The Last Empire," writes about security arrangements in the diamond fields: "These things frighten the small man, but they don't frighten the big ones. The big ones have their own planes for landing in the bush - probably even frogmen swimming up the rivers."

Reports of the agreements involving Sierra Leone and Congo make no mention of diamonds, but, if Angola is any example, the issue may well arise. The United Nations, which imposed sanctions on UNITA in 1993 in an effort to force a settlement in the civil war, estimated that since sanctions were imposed UNITA has earned an estimated $4 billion from illegal diamond sales. Given the obvious failure of UN efforts to date, The (London) Guardian reported on July 9 that Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler, chair of the UN sanctions committee, is now proposing to name and, hopefully, shame the countries and companies involved in this trade. He reports that the DeBeers organization has promised cooperation.

Africa's riches have been both blessing and bane. Where properly managed, they've brought wealth and development. But, in a continent with often inadequate government structures, corrupt rulers and those challenging their power have been easily tempted to exploit these riches for their own designs. Peace and stability in Africa will ultimately depend on some effective method to curb such exploitation.

*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of State, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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