Published on Tuesday, May 8, 2000 in The Guardian
Sierra Leone Torn Apart:
Bloody Legacy Of Diamond Industry
by Ewen MacAskill
The people of Sierra Leone seeking a peaceful life will today be regretting the discovery of the first diamond on its soil in 1930. The fire that has fuelled the conflicts which have torn the country apart, and threatens to do so again, has been fed by that discovery. The civil war that began in Sierra Leone in 1991 has seen tens of thousands of its citizens mutiliated or killed, with half a million in exile, and an economy, apart from diamonds, near collapse.
The diamond industry has proved to be a bloody one in Africa, responsible not only for the death and destruction in Sierra Leone but also paying for conflicts in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Human rights groups round the world and governments, including the British one, recognise the debilitating impact of the diamond trade and have been working to curb it. The British government recently asked the group Global Witness, which has been monitoring the diamond industry, to produce a detailed report on recommendations for controlling the industry. The foreign secretary, Robin Cook, put the blame for the Sierra Leone crisis on both the rebel forces and the diamond industry.
He said: "This latest development does bring home the importance of the work that Britain has started through the G8 and through the United Nations to try and bring proper regulation to the diamond trade so that illicit diamonds being sold on the European markets do not fuel such civil strife within Africa."
The diamonds eventually end up in the Belgian port of Antwerp, the world centre of the trade. Few questions are asked about where they come from. Many are smuggled, with great pretence among traders that they have no knowledge of the country of origin.
Most of the diamond-producing areas in Sierra Leone are under the control of the rebel Revolutionary United Front. The UN forces sent in to try to police the peace agreement between the rebels and the government have moved into these areas to try to enforce decommissioning.
The UN has achieved some success in other parts of Sierra Leone but the diamond-producing areas were considered a step too far by the RUF. That is why some of the UN troops are dead and others held hostage.
Five years after discovery of the first diamond, serious production began. Sierra Leone quickly established a reputation for top-quality gems.
Until the 1980s, De Beers was directly involved in Sierra Leone but its involvement has since become indirect. It maintains a diamond trading company in Liberia and a buying office in Conakry, Guinea.
In a report The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security, authors Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie and Ralph Hazleton note that both countries produce very few diamonds themselves. Liberia is widely understood to be a transit country for smuggled diamonds. They say: "It is virtually inconceivable that [De Beers] is not in one way or another purchasing diamonds that have been smuggled out of Sierra Leone."
Liberia has established itself as a huge exporter of diamonds. The RUF, which controls the diamond-producing areas, receives in return for gems huge amounts of arms, mainly from the former Soviet bloc.
When De Beers ended direct trade, three companies moved in: Rex Diamond, AmCan Minerals, and DiamondWorks.