Central African Republic: The Dark Side of Diamonds

guest column

The international watchdog which seeks to prevent diamonds from fuelling conflict, the Kimberley Process, should take a very close look at the situation in the Central African Republic, writes AllAfrica guest columnist Ned Dalby.

Change is elusive in the Central African Republic (CAR). Long-awaited elections, now in their final stages, will not mark the beginning of a shiny new political era as some had hoped. President François Bozizé, the former head of the army who took power by force in 2003, stays on. It's time to turn attention back to the gritty problems of everyday life and what can be done about them.

In the remote north-eastern corner of the country, bullies with guns are digging up diamonds and making life a misery for everybody else. It's coming up to four years since these former rebels, unimaginatively called the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (known by their French acronym, UFDR), signed peace with Bozizé.

They had realised there wasn't much chance of taking power, especially not when French troops were helping government forces. But they've refused to turn in their guns: life in the CAR turns out to be significantly more lucrative with an AK-47 slung over your shoulder.

The village of Sam Ouandja, near the border with Sudan, is diamond central. Diamonds are the only reason the place exists. In 2006, the rebels took control and haven't let go.

Some villagers farm or sell kitchenware from Sudan but most have come to dig for treasure. Officially the UFDR are "providing security". It's true they put up a fight when heavily armed Sudanese poachers intrude, and last year they gave chase when a posse of Joseph Kony's vicious Lord's Resistance Army passed through, killing and taking prisoners on the fly. But the UFDR boys are not so saintly themselves.

Using the flash of a rifle as persuasion, they extort money and diamonds from diggers and dealers and force miners to vacate pits which are producing the goods. After taking over pits, they pay their own diggers enough to keep them alive and working, but not much more, and sell the pricey little stones to buyers in the village for a handsome profit.

The few licensed traders send diamonds to Bangui by plane, from where they're sold on to dealers in Belgium, Israel or Dubai. But other diamonds are smuggled overland to Nyala in Darfur.

Blood diamonds? Not technically. The Kimberley Process is the well-meaning club of countries (including the CAR), diamond businesses and non-governmental organisations together trying to make sure no diamonds flogged to fund civil strife reach the international market. It defines conflict diamonds as those sold by rebels "to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments". The UFDR professes no such goal, not any more. So its diamonds don't count.

But nor is the UFDR at peace. On the contrary, the group is at the centre of several prolonged inter-ethnic feuds.

From the start, most of the UFDR's disgruntled foot soldiers belonged to the Gula tribe. Over time, the Gula recruited more of their own and pushed other tribes out. They kicked the ethnic Runga off diamond mines in 2008 and the latter formed their own militia, the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP). In 2009, the killing of a boy of Kara ethnicity sparked fighting between Gula and Kara that left 27 dead.

Last year, ministers waving olive branches invited all the ethnic groups in the north east to a reconciliation ceremony to cool the air, but mutual fear and suspicion run deep. This will continue as long the UFDR is allowed to rule other ethnic groups by the gun and profit illegally from Sam Ouandja's stones.

For the Kimberley Process to keep its name intact and to help improve the lives of honest miners, the international body should take a very close look at both the UFDR and the CPJP. The latter is also blamed for banditry in eastern diamond zones.

It's up to the government, though, to admit there is a serious problem. It should urgently stop rebels selling diamonds into legal channels, formalize artisanal diamond mining and help diggers at the bottom of the hole earn a decent living in humane conditions.

Donors have a part to play too in strengthening the state's frail institutions. The mining authorities need technical and financial support if they are to make the most of this invaluable source of state revenue.

Now elections fever has almost subsided, the sooner the CAR's political leaders get back to dealing with the real challenges of chronic insecurity and suffocating poverty the better. Improving governance of the mining sector is an important part of that and essential to ensure diamonds feed development, not bloodshed.

Ned Dalby is Central Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. In December 2010, Crisis Group published "Dangerous Little Stones: Diamonds in the Central African Republic". 

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