The diamond industry Rapaport Group, in conjunction with movie maker Ed Zwick, have announced they will be holding a media conference in New York’s Hilton Hotel next Monday to address issues related to the sale of so-called "conflict diamonds". In the conference, Zwick will examine what the industry should do to eliminate conflict diamonds. Also, Martin Rapaport will announce the establishment of the Fair Trade Diamond and Jewellery Association. This will be a non-profit organisation devoted to promoting ethical and fair trade sourcing and production of diamonds and other gems in Africa and elsewhere. Rapaport will also announce the launch of an educational fund for children at risk in Sierra Leone.
The media conference is taking place now to take advantage of the international publicity on the issue generated by Zwick’s current movie release “Blood Diamond”. The film is based on a book called “Blood Diamonds” by Greg Campbell. The book and the film are set in the war torn West African nation of Sierra Leone in 1999. Sierra Leone is a major diamond producer but its exports were banned during the civil war to stop profits funding military arms. Campbell’s thesis was that although Sierra Leonean diamonds had been banned from the legitimate market, trading continued as exporting from non-diamond producing nearby nations such as Liberia and The Gambia rose dramatically during the war.
Sierra Leone was a former British colony which gained independence in 1961. Like most African countries, it has had a troubled subsequent post-colonial existence. The architect of independence was Milton Margai. Still regarded as Sierra Leone's greatest statesman, Margai merged the two British political entities (the coastal colony and the inland protectorate), became the country’s first prime minister, and oversaw the creation of a new constitution. He was idolised by his people but died in office in 1964 and was replaced by his brother Albert. The country then steadily deteriorated under weaker leaders leading to political violence and military coups. In the 1970s, Siaka Stevens consolidated power through the military and eventually declared a one-party state.
In 1991, a new opposition movement emerged called the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF's aim was to overthrow the government but it had no clear platform on what to replace it with. Its leader Foday Sankoh was bankrolled by neighbouring Liberian president Charles Taylor. In March 1991, Sankoh began to attack villages in eastern Sierra Leone from their base across the Liberian border. The RUF soon gained control of the mines in the Kono district which produces two-thirds of Sierra Leone’s diamonds. Armed with the profits from these mines, they pushed the army back towards the capital Freetown. The official government was overthrown in a coup and the RUF used the power vacuum to take over more of the country. By 1995 they were at the gates of Freetown itself with a victory seemingly inevitable.
But the increasingly desperate government turned to a mercenary army, a South African private military company called Executive Outcomes (EO). EO was a powerful paramilitary organisation founded from the nucleus of the shadowy South African Special Forces which were being disbanded as the apartheid era came to an end. Within a month of deployment in Sierra Leone, EO had successfully repulsed the rebels and recaptured the Kono mines.
With international pressure mounting, the central government agreed to hand over power to a civilian government via presidential and parliamentary elections, held in April 1996. The new government was led by an experienced UN diplomat Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Kabbah wanted to end the war which had already killed thousands, created a humanitarian crisis and ruined the country’s economy. He met Sankoh in Cote d’Ivoire where the two men signed the Abidjan peace accord in November 2006. But Sankoh was overthrown as leader of the RUF in May 1997 and the new leaders reneged on the agreement. Around the same time, a new military group in Freetown called the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council carried out a successful coup against Kabbah.
The AFRC then joined forces with the RUF to take united control of the country. But within nine months, the exiled Kabbah won back power with the aid of a Nigerian-led multi-lateral force called ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group). Kabbah signed a second peace agreement in Togo with Sankoh, restored as leader of the RUF, in 1999 called the Lomé Peace Accord. Once again, the RUF broke the peace. Finally an international force of British and Guinean troops entered the country in 2001 and routed the last remnants of the RUF. In 2003, Sankoh died in prison awaiting trial. The chief prosecutor said Sankoh's death granted him "a peaceful end that he denied to so many others".
The war claimed tens of thousands of deaths and two million (one third of the population) were made refugees. It was a war characterised by child soldiers, killings and amputations. By 2001, Sierra Leone was officially the poorest country in the world. Yet a 2002 report ranked Sierra Leone 11th of the world’s diamond producing nations with a total value of $70 million and 0.2% of the world’s market (Australia and Botswana are the world’s leading diamond producers with 50% of the market between them). Most of Sierra Leone’s diamond trade in the 1990s went overseas illegally to finance the RUF armed resistance against the government.
Half of the world’s trade in diamonds is controlled by the South African company De Beers. They control a cartel to keep the price of diamonds artificially high in order to maintain the precious status of the gem. Because of their status in the market, they were under pressure to lead the fight against the sale of conflict diamonds. Haunted by the obvious failure to stop Sierra Leonean diamonds reaching the market, De Beers and the New York based World Diamond Council, launched a certification scheme in 2002 known as the Kimberley Process (named for the South African city where the parties first met to discuss the issue). Countries signing up to the process guarantee that a) their diamonds do not finance rebel groups seeking to overthrow a UN-recognized government b) their diamonds are accompanied by a Kimberley Process certificate and c) they do not export or import diamonds to non-members of the scheme.
45 diamond producing nations (including Sierra Leone) have signed up to the Kimberley Process. But it is not without its flaws. A UK-based pressure group Global Witness criticised the process as lacking proper oversight of national registration schemes. It cited the Central African Republic as having has recently suffered a coup which gave rebel forces control over its diamond mines and yet is still part of the Process.
Meanwhile Sierra Leone is finally beginning to recover from the ravages of a decade-long war. The RUF metamorphosised into a political party. In the most recent election in 2002 they gained just 2.2% of the popular vote and no seats in the parliament. Kabbah was re-elected president in the same election with a landslide 70% of the vote. Sierra Leone will go to the polls again this year when his term expires and the constitution forbids him to stand for re-election. Many in the country are concerned that Charles Margai (nephew of the country’s founder Milton and son of second PM Albert) is about to set himself up a potential dictator when Kabbah finally calls it a day.