The blood diamond trade is tearing the Central African Republic apart

A man displays a rough diamond, from the Boda region, for sale in Bangui, CAR, May 1, 2014.
A man displays a rough diamond, from the Boda region, for sale in Bangui, CAR, May 1, 2014.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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The Central African Republic (CAR)—one of the poorest countries in the world—has been embroiled in intense religious conflict since Dec. 2012. Fighting between the predominantly Muslim rebels (known as the Séléka) and Christian/animist anti-balaka militia broke out when the former accused Christian president François Bozizé of violating peace agreements laid down in 2007 and 2011. The Séléka supplanted Bozizé with their own president, Michel Djotodia, from Mar. 2013 to Jan. 2014; though he has since been replaced by two acting presidents—currently, former mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza.

Conflict has continued into 2015, marred by reports of massacres committed by the anti-balakas against Muslims (which constitute roughly 15% of the national population).

In the midst of one of the bloodiest conflicts the region has seen in recent years, with the death toll of more than 5,000, according to Amnesty International, Western companies have quietly carried out business as usual. Such is the hypnotic draw of Central Africa’s diamond industry.

Prior to the Séléka’s gaining the presidency, diamonds represented about half of the CAR’s total exports, and 20% of its budget receipts. Two months after the power shift, the Kimberley Process, a joint-government anti-conflict-diamond regulatory initiative, imposed a ban on diamond exports coming out of the CAR.

But the ban did not cover the trade of diamonds within the CAR. Subsequently, throughout the civil war, scores of small-scale miners have continued to extract diamonds and sell them to in-country traders, who in turn sell them to buying houses in Bangui, where they are being warehoused until the official end of conflict, and subsequent lift of ban. This, human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International admit, was unavoidable. “The continuation of the diamond trade within CAR was inevitable in a country where many tens of thousands of people rely on diamonds for their livelihood,” a report released Sep. 30 admits.

The problem is that both the Séléka and anti-balaka profit greatly from the ongoing internal diamond trade. The Amnesty reports relays instances of militia groups demanding taxes or protection fees from miners and traders, and, in some cases, fully taking over mine sites. Additionally, there are reports of child and otherwise forced labor at said mines.

Western companies—mostly out of Belgium—enter the picture in Bangui, where they are preemptively purchasing millions of dollars-worth of stockpiled diamonds, including some from areas where the Séléka and anti-balaka are known to be extorting money from and/or fully operating mines. “Amnesty International believes they have purchased diamonds without adequately investigating whether they have funded armed groups,” the Amnesty report details. “The UN has recently imposed sanctions on Badica and its Belgian sister company Kardiam for providing support to the Séléka and anti-balaka through their diamond purchases.”

Amnesty’s suspicions are not without precedent. Diamond interests have a habit of exacerbating conflict on the African continent—one notable and recent instance being the 11-year civil war that tore apart the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Between 1991 and 2002, more than 50,000 Sierra Leoneans perished in a power struggle between Liberian-backed rebels and the government of president Joseph Saidu Momoh.

“Rival mining companies, security, firms, and mercenaries—from Africa, Europe, Israel, and the former Soviet Union—have poured weapons, trainers, and fighters into Sierra Leone, backing the government or the rebels in a bid to win cheap access to diamond fields,” The Washington Post reported in 1999.

A similar system of military and paramilitary “protection taxes” popped up in civil-war-torn Angola—which exports roughly 9% of the world’s diamonds—too. And Belgian companies have continued buying diamonds from Zimbabwean mines, “long mired in allegations of killings, human-rights violations, and corruption,” according to the CBC.

The situation unfolding in the CAR is a familiar story: Not only are the people of the CAR generally excluded (if not minimally benefitting) from the extraction and trade of their natural resources, those exacting the greatest benefit are likely perpetuating horrendous conflict. Amnesty International has outlined a process by which the people of the CAR can seize said diamonds and sell them for their benefit—but also for sanctions on companies that have evidently, knowingly engaged in trade of diamonds that has funded armed groups, or failed to thoroughly vet supply chains to prevent business operations from doing so.

In the meantime, other players in the worldwide diamond industry should heed the Kimberley Process ban in full. If “diamonds are forever,” surely those in Antwerp can wait a few years for order to be restored.