A global initiative to end the trade in “conflict diamonds” has been a mixed success in war-ravaged Sierra Leone with a sharp rise in export earnings along with a flourishing illegal mining, officials said.
Mineral Resources Minister Mohamed Swarray-Deen told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the Kimberley Process had helped to legitimize the industry in his country.
“It has returned the diamond industry back to the community which is rightly the main beneficiary. It was originally hijacked by a few greedy and corrupt people,” he told AFP.
The gems were one of the main causes of a savage 10-year civil war, which officially ended in January 2001, and the money the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) earned by smuggling the stones out of the country perpetuated the conflict by paying for their weapons.
Swarray-Deen said revenues from diamond exports had risen from $21 million dollars in 2002 to $23.8 million in 2003.
According to official figures, the legal diamond trade netted 10.1 million dollars in 2000 and a mere 1.2 million dollars in 1999.
The Kimberley process—designed to distinguish between legally and illegally mined diamonds—has been put in place by the Sierra Leonean government and buttressed by a United Nations embargo on all non-certified diamonds emanating from the west African country.
But influential diamond marketers say while the process has helped end the involvement of rebels in the trade, it had opened the way for others.
“The certification scheme has all but wiped out the syndrome, which the rebels used to finance the civil war,” Lebanese diamond merchant Ansa Farouk reportedly said. “But other individual powerful interests have stepped in to keep both illicit mining and smuggling alive. They have their contacts in Conakry and Monrovia (the Guinean and Liberian capitals) and where the diamonds go to after this, I cannot say.”
David Crane, the US prosecutor for the Special Court on Sierra Leone, set up in January last year to try people accused of war crimes, recently said he had uncovered evidence that al Qaeda operates in west Africa, principally to buy diamonds.
“Diamonds fuel my conflict, and diamonds fuel the war on terrorism,” Crane said, specifically naming Liberian President Charles Taylor as a guilty party.
Taylor has repeatedly denied giving support to extremist groups.
Locals in the diamond-rich area of Kono, where the highest number of legal mining licenses have been distributed, say illicit prospecting is rife involving about three times the number of the 435 registered licence holders, AFP reported.
Sahr Mbayo, a local chief in Kono, said the area was quiet during the day “but from eight at night to four in the morning it’s like a busy airport” with the sound of digging and the screeching of shifters separating the stones from gravel, AFP reported.
Another major problem is the high number of child miners employed by unscrupulous diamond exporters.
“They are leftovers of the civil war numbering between 2,000 and 3,000. Many of them were part of the rebel squads and now are living rough,” a Senegalese diamond exporter told AFP.
“They are aged between 10 and 15. They live in squalor and are paid a mere 50 cents a day. The manner of work is ruthless,” Salieu Mamadou, who himself recruited child miners at one time, reportedly said.
Minister Swarray-Deen said another hurdle was the fact that of the 50,000-plus people living in Kono, more than half were foreigners—Lebanese, Nigerians, Gambians, Senegalese. and Congolese—most of them illegal residents.
He reportedly said the government was “planning to reinstitute the permit system” dating from British colonial times which bars foreigners and Sierra Leoneans residing in other areas from entering Kono without special permission.