Behind the Congo war: diamonds

Yesterday, Rwanda and Uganda faced off over control of an airport - andthe loot.

Ask anybody in this indolent town on the mighty river Congo why the armies of Rwanda and Uganda have pitched their tents here - hundreds of miles away from home. Most people will say it's for the diamonds, the gold, the timber, and the palm oil.

But Kisangani businessman R. Mokeni Ekopi Kane nearly explodes at the same question. "Let's make one thing clear," Mr. Mokeni hisses, "This is a war of plunder, of loot, of exploitation."

According to sources in the diamond industry, both Rwanda and Uganda have recently become exporters of diamonds, a natural resource that neither country possesses.

Both Rwanda and Uganda, which invaded Congo a year ago, say they have remained true to their declared objective: to topple Congo's President Laurent Dsir Kabila and clear their border areas of hostile forces under his patronage. They claim Mr. Kabila was - and is - harboring rebel forces in eastern Congo that try to destabilize their governments.

But if that were true, observers say, relations between them would be less turbulent, and the uneasy cease-fire that was signed last month might hold. On Saturday troops from Rwanda and Uganda, which share control of Kisangani, traded gunfire for the first time. Rwandan commanders accused Uganda of trying to take control of the airport where daily flights arrive with troops and supplies.

And every day, cargo flights loaded with diamonds, gold, and palm oil take off from this Kisangani airport. Mokeni, who is also the president of the Federation of Congolese Enterprises in Kisangani, says the flights head in the direction of Kampala and Kigali, the capitals of Uganda and Rwanda.

A security official in Kigali's Kanombe airport confirms this. "There are seven to 10 flights coming in every day from Congo," he says. "Most of the stuff they carry, diamonds, gold, and palm oil, doesn't even leave the airport. It gets loaded on planes for Europe and shipped right out."

Although there are no reliable estimates on the volume of diamonds the countries purchase in Kisangani, tax-free, Mokeni claims agents of the two countries buy about $20 million worth of diamonds each month.

In Rwanda's case, a diplomatic source in Kigali says there's evidence to suggest that the profit from its exports of Congolese goods is being used to finance its war against Kabila and his allies: Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

But the diplomatic source says that efforts to gather information about the activities of Tristar, a consortium contributing to Rwanda's war effort, had run up against "a wall of silence."

"Yes, this stuff goes through our airport, but we don't control the sale of it," says a Rwandan official. "We don't want to become involved. We let the Congolese [rebels] run the operation. We just tell them: We need so much for uniforms, equipment, arms. And they give it to us."

The Ugandan Army, on the other hand, has been dogged by reports of rampant corruption among its officer corps. According to the owner of a diamond counter in Kisangani, a medium-sized store that buys diamonds mostly from local diggers, "Every diamond counter in town has a Ugandan colonel behind it." The shop owner, who did not wish to be named, said that he has paid $124,000 in "taxes" to different Ugandan officers over the past six months alone. "There are 34 diamond counters in Kisangani, all of them in my same position," he says.

In May this year, the Ugandan Revenue Authority (URA) and the Civil Aviation Authority denounced top military officers for smuggling Congolese goods. Both agencies said they would set up a customs unit at the military airport in Entebbe, near the Ugandan capital of Kampala, and check the contents of each flight coming in from Congo.

According to the URA, there were 121 freight companies, some of them connected to the Army, which had been mysteriously licensed to operate unscheduled flights between Uganda and Congo. At the time, Maj.-Gen. Jeje Odongo, a senior officer in the Ugandan People's Defense Forces, promised full cooperation.

Zimbabwe - Kabila's ally in trying to thwart the Rwanda- and Uganda-backed insurgency - has faced similar accusations.

According to mining industry officials, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has interests in his state-controlled Societe' Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). In the town of Mbuji-Mayi, MIBA operates Congo's largest industrial diamond mine, with an annual production of $400 million.

The mining officials also say Mr. Mugabe has an interest in the Generales des Carrieres et des Mines, Congo's state-owned mining company.

Soon after the beginning of the war, the management of this mine was transferred to Billy Rautenbach, a white Zimbabwean who is based in South Africa. Over the past year, South African and Belgian press reports have linked Mr. Rautenbach to the Mugabe family. Rautenbach, however, has denied ever meeting President Mugabe.

Before the war, Kabila owed the Zimbabwe Defense Industries an estimated $40 to $200 million. Experts say that debt has at least doubled in the past year.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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