Issue 16 - Article 2

Diamonds: A Guerilla's Best Friend¹

June 5, 2003
Ian Smillie
8 min read

Diamonds – small pieces of carbon with no great intrinsic value – have been the cause of widespread death, destruction and misery for almost a decade in Sierra Leone. Through the 1990s, Sierra Leone’s rebel war became a tragedy of major humanitarian, political and historic proportions, but the story goes back almost to the discovery of diamonds in the 1930s. By the 1960s and 1970s, a weak post-independence democracy had been subverted by despotism and state-sponsored corruption. Economic decline and military rule followed.

The rebellion that began in 1991 was characterised by banditry and horrific brutality, wreaked primarily on civilians. Between 1991 and 1999 the war claimed over 75,000 lives, caused half-a-million Sierra Leoneans to become refugees, and displaced half of the country’s 4.5 million people. There is a view that Sierra Leone’s war is a crisis of modernity, caused by the failed patrimonial systems of successive post-colonial governments. Sierra Leonean writers have rejected this analysis. While there is widespread public disenchantment with the failing state, with corruption and with a lack of opportunity, similar problems elsewhere have not led to years of brutality against civilians by forces devoid of ideology, political support and ethnic identity. Only the economic opportunity presented by a breakdown in law and order could sustain violence at the levels that have plagued Sierra Leone since 1991.

Unlike South Africa or Botswana, Sierra Leone’s diamonds are mainly alluvial, which means they are spread over vast areas and are relatively close to the surface. This makes it possible to ‘mine’ diamonds with little more than a shovel, a sieve and a good eye. And this accounts for the focus by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) on the rich diamond fields of Kono District. It also accounts for the sustained military backing of the RUF by Liberian President, Charles Taylor, not to mention the huge upsurge in diamonds being exported from Liberia, and the concomitant decline in legitimate exports from Sierra Leone.

The central characters

To understand the complexities involved, a brief cast of characters will help: De Beers, the Antwerp market, Liberia and junior mining firms. Until the 1980s, De Beers was a major player in Sierra Leone. Since then, however, the relationship has been indirect. De Beers says that it does not purchase Sierra Leonean diamonds. Through its companies and buying offices elsewhere in West Africa, however, and in its attempts to mop up supplies everywhere in the world – essential to maintaining the world price of diamonds – it is likely that the company is, in one way or another, purchasing diamonds that have been smuggled out of Sierra Leone.

Antwerp is the world centre for rough diamonds. More than half of De Beers registered buyers (sightholders) reside in Antwerp. Antwerp is also the principal ‘outside market’ serving as a funnel for more than half of all the diamonds produced in the world. A major problem with the Belgian environment – as it pertains to Sierra Leone or any other diamond producing country – is the lack of interest and information on the true source of the diamonds entering the country. A comparison of West African diamond export figures with Belgian imports is revealing. For example:

  • while the Government of Sierra Leone recorded exports of only 8,500 carats in 1998, the Diamond High Council (HRD), which records imports and exports on behalf of the Belgian industry and the Belgian government, records imports from Sierra Leone of 770,000 carats;
  • annual Liberian diamond mining capacity is between 100,000 and 150,000 carats, but the HRD records Liberian imports into Belgium of over 31 million carats between 1994 and 1998 – an average of over six million carats a year.

In fact Liberia has become a major entrepot for diamonds smuggled from many other countries in the region and further afield. It has also become a magnet for criminal elements with ties to the Colombian drug cartels, international gun runners and money launderers.

Sierra Leone too attracted its share of international criminals during the 1970s and 1980s. When a democratically elected government finally took office in 1996, it had its back to the wall, both economically and militarily, and what was left of the formal diamond industry was in the hands of a few international ‘junior’ mining firms. Principals in these companies (mostly traded on Canadian stock exchanges) became involved during the mid-1990s in the provision of mercenaries, guns and other military equipment in what some have termed a kind of protection racket – ‘guns for concessions’.

In June 1999, faced with the possibility of losing the war to the RUF and all but abandoned by the international community, the government of Sierra Leone signed a peace agreement giving RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, and others a general amnesty as well as several cabinet positions. (The irony of international outrage at the inclusion of the right-wing Freedom Party in the Austrian government cannot be lost upon Sierra Leoneans, who saw Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton and others urging them to make a deal with murderers.) Waking up to its responsibility after the fact, the UN Security Council finally agreed to a UN peacekeeping mission for Sierra Leone at the end of 1999. Since then, the peace agreement has held, but in the most tenuous fashion, and with continued RUF attacks on civilians, government facilities and even UN peacekeepers. The RUF continues to maintain its hold on the principal diamond areas.

Recommendations of the report

The Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) study began with the thesis that there will never be a sustainable peace in Sierra Leone until the domestic diamond industry is brought under the rule of law, and until there are major reforms in the international diamond industry. The report made several recommendations. The first involves the creation of an independent international diamond standards commission to establish and monitor codes of conduct on governmental and corporate responsibility in the worldwide diamond industry.

In Sierra Leone, the establishment of justice, the rule of law and human security are paramount, along with major investments in long term development. These must be accompanied by full transparency and rigorous probity in the management of the diamond industry. This, of course, is easier said than done. In addition to the services of UN peacekeepers, the government will need considerable international support to make this happen. In order to attract diamond miners and traders to Freetown rather than to Liberia and elsewhere, it is recommended that De Beers return to Sierra Leone, establishing a purchasing office in Freetown.

Much greater transparency, probity and an end to conflicts of interest in the Belgian diamond industry are essential to ending African smuggling. Because of the documented connections between diamonds and organised crime in Antwerp, it is recommended that a high-level governmental commission of enquiry into the overall Belgian diamond industry is established.

It is recommended that the UN Security Council place a complete and immediate embargo on all diamond exports from Liberia. The open trade in millions of carats of stolen diamonds between Liberia and Antwerp is unconscionable, and given the horror and death that has been perpetrated on Sierra Leoneans since 1991 it has to be considered a crime against humanity. Consideration should be given to similar embargoes on other countries where exports far exceed known resources, including Guinea and Ivory Coast. At a minimum, internationally mandated geological surveys should be done in order to determine the legitimate resource base of these countries.

In the long run, the identification of rough diamonds by source is critical to the curtailment of smuggling. Work is currently being done at various levels on new technologies and on new forms of certification. Investments in making these both workable and mandatory will be key to ending the problems of ‘conflict diamonds’.

Impact on the industry

The diamond industry has taken note of the work done by Global Witness (see accompanying article on Angola) and PAC. Despite industry denials, there are signs of positive movement and a recognition that change is essential. Neither GW nor PAC have talked of possible boycotts, but Nicky Oppenheimer, chairman of De Beers, has. The industry knows that it is vulnerable to consumer concern. But the industry itself can do much to clean up the problems. If, as industry insiders say, the bad apples represent only 10 per cent of what is essentially a clean enterprise, then the effort may not be that great. But however few the bad apples, their destructive impact on millions of innocent lives is enormous. The impact on the industry of inaction will also be enormous.

Ian Smillie is an independent consultant and writer based in Canada.

This article is based on a major study of the relationship between Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war and the international diamond industry. The study, The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone Diamonds and Human Security, was written by Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie and Ralph Hazleton, and was published by the NGO, Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), in January 2000.

A summary of the PAC Report can be found at The full report can be ordered for US$20 from PAC, 323 Chapel St, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 7Z2.


Comments are available for logged in members only.