Diamonds Are for Terror

Many people think that Africa is a poor continent. The African people are poor, but the continent itself is the richest in the world–which is the very reason why the African people were (and are still) subject to colonialism, long-running civil wars, and governmental corruption. One example of this is Angola.

Angola has some of the most productive diamond mines in the world. Unfortunately, some of those diamond mines are in the hands of Jonas Savimbi and the UNITA rebels, who are responsible (along with the CIA, which helped to fund and train UNITA in the 1970s) for a bloody civil war that has lasted over a quarter of a century. In the mid-1990s it looked as if the Angolan civil war was finally over: a ceasefire was in effect, the UN had brokered an agreement between the two sides, the new government in South Africa was not supporting UNITA (as the old, apartheid regime had), and UNITA had agreed to disarm. But something went wrong.

It’s not unusual for rebels to hide their weapons and instead turn in a handful of broken guns, hoping that this will satisfy the UN. In the case of UNITA, however, there weren’t many weapons left to stash away–it was a movement on the wane, with few soldiers left in the ranks and not much territory under its control. And then the diamond merchants took notice. They didn’t want to deal with the socialist government in Luanda, its state diamond company, Endiama, and the National Bank of Angola.

Suddenly, in 1998, UNITA revived, Savimbi willingly broke the four-year-old ceasefire, and his troops began to take over large areas of the Angolan highlands–diamond country. UNITA had new tanks and guns. White mercenaries appeared among its ranks. In 1993 the UN had imposed an arms and fuel embargo on UNITA, and on July 1, 1998, the UN slapped diamond sanctions on UNITA. But the new sanctions relied on a system of honor: the diamond industry was to simply make an effort not to buy diamonds directly from UNITA rebels or the areas they controlled.

The diamond industry has given lip service to the sanctions, especially the South African diamond company De Beers, which views southern Africa as its territory. De Beers continues to this day to buy diamonds from UNITA–as well as the rebels in Sierra Leone–in violation of the sanctions. Diamond sales have brought in an estimated $8 billion to UNITA.

In early January of this year, the UN attempted to tighten the sanctions by requiring each diamond purchased in southern Africa to carry a certificate of origin and a document from the exporting country. This has “started to disrupt the world trade” in diamonds, according to industry observers. De Beers has announced that it won’t buy from UNITA, but observers point out that UNITA usually sells its stock to diamond traders–middle men–who then mix the UNITA diamonds with legitimate gems and sell them in a package to De Beers and other companies. Certification documents are easily forged, and corruption within the Angolan government makes this easy.

UNITA has spread its $8 billion dollars all around the African continent and beyond. Togo, Burkina Faso, and the Ugandan military have sold supplies to UNITA. The Zambian government recently impounded a Ukrainian airplane flying supplies into UNITA territory and arrested the Zambian businessman and nine Ukrainians involved in the flight. Even airplanes from the Angolan state oil company have been spotted at UNITA landing strips; corrupt Angolan officials are cashing in by selling fuel to the rebels in violation of the sanctions. UN observers have found chemical weapons among caches abandoned by retreating UNITA troops. UNITA forces have been active in Namibia, capturing and killing French tourists, and have been making incursions into Zambia, too.

But the Angolan government has resources to fight UNITA. Rich with oil revenue from offshore drilling and sitting on one of the richest oil regions in the world, the Luanda regime can afford the airplanes, anti-tank guns, and helicopters needed to destroy UNITA. But every penny spent on the war is wasted money that could be spent on social programs for the general population, and it’s the civilian population, as usual, that is suffering the most in this war. Landmine victims, refugees displaced from their homes, and pockets of starving civilians surrounded by UNITA rebels in the Angolan highlands have highlighted the absurd nature of a civil war fought over shiny stones.

It’s a conflict being repeated all over Africa, from Sierra Leone to the Congo. For Africa, diamonds are not a symbol of romance and eternity, they’re a symbol of terror.