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Book Review: Blood on the Stone: The Diamond Wars in Africa

9 October 2010 at 02:28 | 1609 views

Smillie (Anthem Press, 2010)

Blood on the Stone: The Diamond Wars in Africa

By Ian Smillie, Ottawa, Canada.

This book is about how diamonds fuelled some of the most brutal wars in Africa.

More than three million people died as a result of these wars in the 1990s and the early 2000s; many more millions of lives have been damaged, and the
existence of entire nations has been called into question. The book is also
about a campaign that began in 1998 to stop these ‘conflict’ or ‘blood
diamonds’. It is a campaign in which I have been deeply involved, but in this
book I have mostly kept myself out of the story because it is one that involves hundreds of individuals, organizations and governments, each contributing in their own way.

How the campaign began for me, however, is a tale worth telling, not least
because of the places it has taken me over a period of ten years: from the
killing fields of Sierra Leone to the diamond bourses of Antwerp; from the back streets of Jaffa in Israel to the august Security Council in New York; from Moscow to the barren lands of Canada’s Northwest Territories, to refugee camps in Guinea, the Clinton White House and the witness stand of a war crimes trial
in The Hague.

In 1997, a small group of individuals began meeting at the Ottawa offices of a non governmental organization (NGO) called Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) to talk about the war then raging in the small West African nation of Sierra Leone.

It was an eclectic group of people who were concerned that this increasingly
horrific war had received so little attention – from the humanitarian aid
community, the media and the United Nations. Tens of thousands of people had
been killed, and fully half the population of the country had been displaced by marauding rebels, who marked their passing by chopping the hands off innocent civilians. Our little gathering, which we called the ‘Sierra Leone Working Group’ comprised two or three Sierra Leonean-Canadians, a couple of people like myself who had once worked in Sierra Leone, and others who had come to know the country in other ways.

Years before, and fresh out of university, I went to Sierra Leone to teach
secondary school. I was posted to Koidu Town in Kono District in 1967, the heart of the country’s lucrative diamond mining industry. It was, in almost every respect except for location and climate, a replica of the Klondike gold rush – a wild west kind of town with thousands of illicit diamond diggers, a vibrant Lebanese diamond mafia, and a company exporting two million carats a year worth of the best diamonds in the world to the cutting and polishing factories of Antwerp and beyond. In those days, people like me saw development in terms of roads, schools and hospitals. And all of these things were being built.

In Koidu, some of my students walked five miles to school every day, and most could expect trouble at home if they didn’t do well in class. Koidu Secondary School, the only high school in the country’s fourth largest town, was two years old when I arrived, but parents, town elders and especially the students, wanted it to grow and thrive. None of them, and none of the teachers, could possibly imagine what was to come. Twenty five years of bad government, mismanagement and corruption put Sierra Leone on the slippery slope to a war without precedent for its senselessness and its savagery. And the diamonds – which we teachers and students more or less ignored in those long ago days – would be at the epicentre of the tragedy.

I’m not sure if those of us in the Sierra Leone Working Group had a clear idea of where we were going in our 1997 and 1998 meetings. We raised a bit of money, and as the war worsened we talked with not a little irony about
‘peace-building’. Finally, towards the end of 1998, one member of the group
interrupted a discussion and said, ‘Look, this war is all about diamonds, and
until something is done about that, it will never end.’ It was a eureka moment.

Adrian Labor, a young Sierra Leonean who had recently immigrated to Canada,
worked as a computer programmer at the International Development Research
Centre. He had hit the nail on the head. Reports about diamond theft by the
Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were common, but none of the solutions proposed by those studying the war had addressed this issue. In fact, having lived in the diamond area, I saw Labor’s point so clearly that I wondered why I had not thought of it myself. Within a couple of months we had put together a modest funding proposal to study the issue. Working as a free-lance consultant and writer, I had the time that would be required if we could get some travel money, and if we could find others to work on it. We asked 12 Canadian NGOs to give us $2000 each, and all but one said yes. We then asked for a matching grant from the Peacebuilding Fund of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, and officials there too said yes.

I had known Ralph Hazleton as a casual acquaintance for several years. He had a Ph.D. in economics and a mixed career in academia and international development.

He had run CARE relief operations in Liberia and then in Goma during the Rwanda crisis, and we had met, coincidentally, in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in 1996. Following a quadruple-heart bypass, Ralph had gone into semi-retirement, but now he was itching for an interesting assignment. When I suggested our project to him – all work and almost no pay – he said yes without hesitation. Lansana Gberie was a journalist in Freetown for six years, reporting through the early days of the escalating war. He received a US government fellowship, and for a time worked on the Kansas City Star, alma mater of Ernest Hemingway, before going to Wilfrid Laurier University for a master’s degree. He called me out of the blue from Toronto, where he had entered a Ph.D. program, and in short order, we had the team.

We worked on the issue through 1999, and as we delved into it, we discovered
that diamonds in Sierra Leone were like a strand of wool dangling from a
sweater. If you pull on it, the entire sweater begins to unravel, and if you
pull on it long enough, you might find that it is connected to a lot of other
things as well. That was the case with Sierra Leone diamonds. They were
intimately connected to the war that had been fought in neighbouring Liberia
until 1997, and they were now a mainstay in the expansionist ideas of Liberian warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor. Conflict diamonds – as they came to be known – were what had kept a war in Angola going for almost two decades. The diamonds were laundered in half a dozen ways before they arrived in jewellery shops, but because nobody had ever asked questions before, most of those involved in the cover-up had taken no great pains to hide their trail. Antwerp, the centre of the world’s diamond trade, had for years been importing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of diamonds from countries where none were mined.

No questions were asked.

We discovered that we were not alone. A year before, a small British NGO, Global Witness, had published a hard-hitting report on blood diamonds in Angola. The people at Global Witness became allies as our work progressed. And we were helped indirectly by the United Nations. The UN Security Council had mandated its Sanctions Committee on Angola to set up an Expert Panel to study how and why the rebel group, UNITA, was able to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen diamonds into the legitimate trade every year, with complete impunity.

In January 2000 we released our report, The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security. The report accused Liberian President Charles Taylor of masterminding one of the worst wars on the African continent, paying for it with diamonds. We accused the diamond industry of complicity, and we said that Antwerp and the government of Belgium bore special responsibility for the traffic in illicit gems. And while we described the giant diamond conglomerate, De Beers, as part of the problem, we said that as the largest and most powerful player in the diamond world, it had a special responsibility to become part of the solution. The report helped take the war away, intellectually speaking, from the realm of what is often portrayed as mindless African savagery, placing it squarely into a more realistic construct: power and money.

The Heart of the Matter created a media sensation, at least it seemed that way to us. It resulted in front page stories in newspapers in Canada, Sierra Leone, Belgium and South Africa, and wide coverage elsewhere. The Belgian media accused us of being part of a Canadian plot to destroy the Belgian diamond industry.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy had more than one discussion with
Belgium’s Foreign Minister, Louis Michel, trying to persuade him that there was no conspiracy.

By the time the report came out, a peace accord had been reached in Sierra
Leone, and a UN peacekeeping force had at last been sent to supervise the
agreement. But in May 2000, the RUF kidnapped 500 UN peacekeepers as they moved towards the diamond fields, and the war began anew. Sierra Leone’s ‘CNN moment’ had at last arrived, and some of the world’s best journalists flocked to Freetown. But now, instead of interpreting the war in terms of ‘the coming
anarchy’ and a ‘clash of civilizations’, reporters could see more clearly what was at the root of it.

It is important to say that diamonds did not cause the war in Sierra Leone. Nor did they cause the wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They did, however, pay for the rebel effort in these wars, making them significantly more horrific and long-lived than could ever have been the case without diamonds. It is also important that these wars not be described only in terms of greed. An academic debate grew up as the conflict diamond issue gathered steam, as to whether wars funded by diamonds, oil and tropical hardwood were about greed, or about grievance. The real answer is both. Where grievance is concerned, it is worth noting that most power-hungry despots and warlords have grievances. Even a teenager who robs a corner store may have a grievance. UNITA had a grievance and a clear political agenda: power. In Sierra Leone, the RUF had a clear political agenda: power – even though it had no ethnic or political backing from anybody. What they failed to understand is that public support tends to dissipate when you terrorize the people you say you want to liberate.

In the Congo, it was about power. But in all of the cases described in this
book, there was a heavy overlay of greed as well. Whatever legitimate grievances the RUF may have had when it began, by the mid 1990s these had all been discredited by their terror tactics and their determined focus on diamonds. Going after the diamonds was their way of winning the war. Going after the diamonds was our way of trying to stop the war.

In the summer of 2000, I received a call from the United Nations Department of Political Affairs: would I allow my name to stand for inclusion on a UN Security Council Expert Panel that was being assembled to examine the connection between diamonds, weapons and the war in Sierra Leone? Not expecting for a moment to be appointed, I said ‘sure’. Not long afterwards, however, I received a second call saying that I had been appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations as a member of ‘the five-member Panel of Experts on Sierra Leone, to collect information on possible violations of the arms embargo and to report to the council with observations and recommendations.’ Other members of the team included a senior Indian police officer seconded from Interpol, a Belgian arms-tracking expert, a Senegalese air traffic control expert, and a Cameroonian diplomat who acted as our chairman.

Much of our work took place in Sierra Leone, but the unravelling sweater took us much farther afield. In South Africa we investigated individuals suspected of diamond trafficking and gunrunning. In Israel, three of us visited the flat of a mercenary who was wanted in Colombia for training the paramilitary force of a Medellin drug cartel, and who had a chequered career in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. He served us tea and cookies and kept a pistol on the sideboard during our discussion. Some of my colleagues went to Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates in search of gunrunners, and I spent a lot of time in Antwerp and Tel Aviv talking to people in the diamond industry. I came to realize that while there is a great deal of corruption and denial in the world of diamonds,there are also many decent people who were appalled to discover what their industry was contributing to. And though we met thieves, smugglers, killers and some of the world’s most repulsive scum, we also met some very brave people who told us things that would have cost them their lives had they been discovered. One of the most harrowing interviews for me was an hour-long session with the President of Liberia, Charles Taylor.

Taylor had been billed as one of the star villains in the PAC report, The Heart of the Matter, and I had been told by a senior Liberian exile that I was regarded in his country as an enemy of the state. Under no circumstances should I go to Liberia. But I assumed I would be safe enough under the banner of the UN Security Council. And as it turned out, Taylor, assuming we were inclined to recommend sanctions against his government, wanted to put his best foot forward.

As a result, we were able to interview almost everyone we asked to see, even
though, from most, we received the company line: Liberia was in no way involved in the Sierra Leone conflict, and wanted only peace in the region. We asked a lot of questions to which we already had answers – in the form of international flight plans of weapons-carrying aircraft, radio intercepts, photos, and information from half a dozen different police and security agencies. In Liberia we were mostly told lies. Then, on our last day we were taken to the Presidential Mansion for an interview with the big man. The event had a surreal quality to it, because until that morning, I had begun to assume that they might not have connected me with The Heart of the Matter. The Monrovia Guardian that morning, however, quoted directly from the PAC report, using my name and saying that the UN Panel had come to Liberia to ‘concoct facts’ that would condemn the country to hardship sanctions. As we waited in an anteroom of the Mansion – which is more like a dilapidated five story hotel than a Presidential palace – a television in the corner gave us the latest news from CNN’s Elsa Klensch ‘Fashion File’. I stared at the screen. What in the name of God am I doing here, I wondered.

We had been warned against anything more than pleasantries if Taylor was in a
bad mood, and ‘bad mood’ would reveal itself to us soon enough. But he was in a good mood. His windowless office was draped in brocade, with seriously scuffed imitation Louis XVI furniture, and large colourful pictures of Jesus, Mary and diverse saints hung high enough around the room to avoid reaching fingers.

Taylor was charming and disarming and he told us lie after lie. He said that he had not provided training, sanctuary or weapons for the RUF. He denied knowledge of foreign gunrunners to whom he had given huge amounts of money and diplomatic Liberian passports. He said he had nothing to do with stolen diamonds. He said he was only interested in peace, and had enough problems of his own without meddling in those of other countries. He denied breaking the UN embargo on weapons, but said he did need weapons to fight his own dissidents. He asked, rather oddly, that we recommend a lifting of the UN arms embargo on Liberia, because he needed guns.

Instead, we recommended that it be tightened. We had found much more evidence
than I had thought possible on weapons trafficking, diamond smuggling, and even management of the RUF war from behind the Liberian border. We recommended a ban on all ‘Liberian’ diamonds and we recommended a travel ban for Charles Taylor, his family, his cabinet ministers and other senior officials. We also recommended a ban on timber exports from Liberia, because Taylor’s deforestation project was another source of hard currency for hard weapons. That part of the recommendation never made it into the Security Council resolution that eventually passed. China and France said that they were unwilling to harm the pathetically weak Liberian economy any more than necessary without clear evidence that timber sales were being used to buy weapons. Although the International Monetary Fund had complained that the proceeds from timber sales were going into ‘off-budget’ accounts – that is, to accounts controlled directly by Taylor – France and China nevertheless held the day on timber, coincident with the fact, perhaps, that they were the two largest importers of Liberian hardwood. It would take a lot more war and many more deaths before the Security Council would return to the issue of Liberian timber, eventually agreeing to an
embargo in May, 2003.

When the resolution against Liberia was being debated in the Security Council, my fellow panel members and I were present in the chamber. We heard praise for the quality and depth of our report from several countries, and criticism from Russia, whose delegate said that some of the recommendations on diamonds were ‘too radical’. We heard a long rant from a Gambian delegate who seemed to have missed the entire point of our exposť of diamond trafficking through his country. The Liberian Foreign Minister, Monie Captan, had come to New York to listen to the debate and to make Liberia’s case one last time. A lawyer by training, Captan was smooth, even persuasive, especially for journalists who had not followed the story in any detail. He attacked me personally in his speech, something not often done in the Security Council. Later I was asked by a journalist how that made me feel. ‘Proud,’ I said, ‘The truth hurts – at last.’

At the beginning of 2001 I returned to PAC where we were beginning a larger
program of study on diamonds in Southern Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Canada, India and elsewhere. We teamed up with a courageous Sierra Leonean organization, the Network Movement for Justice and Development, and a Belgian organization, the International Peace Information Service, which had done outstanding work on the illicit weapons trade. PAC became a member of the Kimberley Process, a conclave of governments, industry representatives and NGOs that met a dozen times between May 2000 and November 2002, trying to create an international certification system for rough diamonds.

There were more adventures ahead for all of us. The UN reports on Angola and
Sierra Leone had named Burkina Faso as a supplier of illicit weapons to Charles Taylor and as a conduit for diamonds moving out of the region. Lansana Gberie volunteered to go there to investigate the story in greater detail. Such was the paranoia in Burkina Faso that Lansana was immediately arrested on arrival at Ouagadougou airport. Our telephone calls and e-mail traffic, it turned out, had been intercepted by the authorities. It was only after a few tense hours of interrogation that he was put on a plane back to Abidjan. Other odd things happened. Some of the many people who assisted us were not what they seemed.

John Pape, Director of the International Labour Resource and Information Group
in Johannesburg, provided Ralph Hazleton with useful information and advice for a paper about the economic impact of diamonds in Southern Africa. Pape was well regarded in South Africa as a gentle and committed researcher. He was also something else. His real name was James Kilgore, and he was the last fugitive member of the Symbionese Liberation Army which in 1974 had kidnapped media heiress Patty Hearst, robbed banks and left a trail of murder and mayhem across Southern California. In November 2002, the FBI finally caught up with him and he was extradited to the United States where he was eventually tried and sentenced to six years in prison. In May, 2009 he was the final member of the SLA to be released from prison.

Among the hundreds of diamond meetings I have attended, a few stand out. In
January 2001, the White House organized a meeting on conflict diamonds. If the visit with Charles Taylor was surreal, this meeting had similar overtones, not least because the Clinton administration had only ten days remaining, and had left the conflict diamond issue too late to make any difference. At a coffee break, I spoke to Alex Yearsley of Global Witness. As we stuffed paper napkins with the White House crest into our pockets, I asked him where he thought we could possibly go from here. What neither of us imagined was that three American politicians would nominate Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Tony Hall, a Democratic Congressman from Ohio, and Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, had been indefatigable champions of the conflict diamond issue in the United States. Along with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy they wrote a three-page nomination letter to the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament. Considering how much Hall and Wolf had done themselves, and considering how many organizations and individuals had contributed to the effort, this was an unusually generous act, one that helped strengthen our resolve when the battle for a genuine, credible system of diamond controls sometimes seemed too distant.

But there were other incentives. During a visit to Sierra Leone in 2002, I ran into one of my former students from Koidu Secondary School. Esther was 14 in those days, a shy Form 2 student from a wealthy Kono family. Now 49, she sat in the guest house where I was staying and told me her story. She had finished school and married, and she and her husband had developed a profitable little diamond business in Koidu. As the war closed in on them, they made plans to escape ‘out the back way’ with their two teenage daughters if the rebels ever came. Inevitably they did come. They came from the front, and they also came ‘the back way’. Their first order of business was to behead Esther’s husband in front of the family, splattering them all with his blood. The next was to start demanding. She gave them everything – the keys to the car, the house, whatever money she could lay her hands on, and for some reason they let her and the girls go. Esther’s only thought was for the girls as they walked for weeks through the bush, eating grass and berries and drinking bad water. Esther’s arms are permanently scarred from insect bites and the cuts inflicted by elephant grass.

Finally they reached a refugee camp in Guinea, and after many months were able to make their way to Freetown.

In Freetown they stayed with an uncle, and Esther managed to get the girls into school. They created whatever might pass under such circumstances for a normal life. When I saw her, the war was over, and Esther was about to go back to Koidu to see what had happened. She knew that the town had been destroyed, but the family still had land, and there were still the diamonds.

If she could get a little money together, she would be able to rent a pump and do some digging again. ‘Esther,’ I said, after some thought, ‘Don’t you think the diamonds are a curse?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘A curse. But what else is there?’

*Ian Smillie (photo) has lived and worked in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Bangladesh. He was a founder of the Canadian NGO, Inter Pares, was Executive Director of CUSO and is a long-time foreign aid watcher and critic. He has worked at Tufts and Tulane Universities and as a development consultant with many Canadian, American and European organizations. He is the author of several books, including The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World (with Larry Minear, 2004) and Freedom from Want; The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC (2009). Ian Smillie served on a UN Security Council Expert Panel examining the relationship between diamonds and weapons in West Africa, and he helped develop the 48-government ‘Kimberley Process,’ a global certification system to halt the traffic in conflict diamonds. He was the first witness at Charles Taylor’s war crimes trial in The Hague and he chairs the Diamond Development Initiative. Ian Smillie was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2003.