Diamonds and Warfare, The Africa Connection

Have you heard the sayings: "Diamonds are our best friend," or that "Diamonds last forever?" Many societies highly value diamonds because they are considered to be beautiful and to symbolize love and friendship. However, few of us know where the diamonds we buy and proudly wear come from, or how they get from their place of origin to our jewelry stores.

Where is Sierra Leone?
World Map
Map of Africa showing Sierra Leone
Detailed map of Sierra Leone

Given their beauty, their worth, and the joy they often bring as symbols of love, we have trouble understanding that diamonds have caused great human suffering in parts of Africa. The illegal mining and selling of diamonds by rebels (groups opposed to legitimate governments) provides the money needed to buy guns and other weapons, which are being used not only to fight against armies, but to kill and injure innocent civilians, many of whom are children.

Much of what we North Americans read about Africa or see on the TV news relates to violence and suffering in less than a dozen countries in Africa. We are often not given the opportunity to read, see, or hear about the nearly 40 countries in Africa which are not suffering from civil wars and violence. When we concentrate on stories of war and violence, we should try to find out as much as we can about the situation in order better understand the reasons for the conflict, including ways in which we, North Americans, through what we buy and value, may be contributing to these conflicts, and how through our governments and relief organizations, we might also contribute to a solution to the conflicts.

In this African current events feature, we are going to focus on one of three violent regional conflicts in Africa in which diamonds play an important role. This is the conflict in Sierra Leone. However, before looking at Sierra Leone it is important to point out that diamonds continue to affect conflicts in two other African countries: Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All three conflicts share several common factors:

First, well organized rebel groups, often with support from neighboring countries and sometimes our own government, are fighting against governments which are recognized by the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity to be legitimate governments.

Second, these rebel forces often use extreme forms of violence against local populations in their struggle for power.

Third, state controlled armies often engage in similar human rights violation attempts to keep rebels at bay.

Finally, the illegal mining and sale of diamonds enable rebel forces to purchase weapons and ammunition. These diamonds are sold, often without our knowledge, in American, Asian, and European stores. Without this outlet for illegally mined diamonds, rebel forces would not have as ready a source of money to support their warfare.

Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Children, and Warfare

1. Teachers should encourage their students to look at the demographic data on Sierra Leone contained in the basic factbook.

2. Map of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Map

Early History

Sierra Leone has a unique history. Most of Africa’s 54 countries were colonies of European nation-states from the late 19th Century. Sierra Leone became a colony of Britain nearly 100 years earlier in the late 18th Century. This means that Sierra Leone became a colony of Britain just after the thirteen American colonies gained their independence from Britain.

Sierra Leone was also different in another way from other African colonies. Britain formed the colony to be a home for freed slaves from North America. The first freed slaves returned to Africa from Canada in 1787. In 1808, the British government outlawed the slave trade. In an effort to stop the Atlantic slave trade, the British navy intercepted slave ships from Africa which were heading across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. The slaves freed from these ships were taken to Sierra Leone. Tens of thousands of freed slaves captured from slave ships or groups who returned from North America (many coming from the West Indies), settled in Sierra Leone during the 19th Century. Only one other African country was founded by freed slaves from the Americas, Liberia, a name taken from the word liberty, Sierra Leone’s neighbor to the south.

If you have seen the movie Amistad, you may remember that at the end of the movie the slaves freed from the ship Amistad were sent to Sierra Leone.

Based on this information, we can see why the capital city of this colony was called Freetown.

For most of the 19th Century, the colony of Sierra Leone was limited to the area along the coast and nearby hinterland. Hinterland refers to an area to the interior of the coast. Since the freed slaves came from many different parts of West Africa, North America, and the West Indies, they spoke different languages. In Sierra Leone, these settlers developed a new language based primarily on English but with many words and phrases from African languages. This language is called Krio. By the end of the 19th Century, the descendants of the freed slaves became known as the Creole community.

Although the freed slaves who settled in Sierra Leone played an important role in the history of the country, most Sierra Leoneans are descendants of ethnic groups that have lived there for hundreds of years. Long term inhabitants of a given area are called indigenous people. Native Americans are the indigenous population of the United States; the main indigenous ethnic groups in Sierra Leone are the Mende and the Temne. Both of these ethnic groups spread across the boundaries of Sierra Leone into neighboring Guinea and Liberia.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, two important changes took place in Sierra Leone. First, British businesses and the British government became interested in expanding their control into the interior of the colony. Secondly, as a result of this expansion, many Temne and Mande peoples from the interior moved to Freetown and the coastal region.

British business companies were interested in taking advantage of agricultural and mineral resources offered by Sierra Leone. In the early part of the 20th Century, colonial officials encouraged the production of palm oil, cocoa beans (chocolate), and coffee. In the 1930s, diamond mines were opened. Later, bauxite (mineral from which aluminum is made) and rutile (gemstone) were found in deposits large enough to be mined. These raw materials became the basis of Sierra Leone’s export economy. However, the vast majority of the people made their living as small scale farmers, growing rice, cassava, and groundnuts (peanuts).

In the first century of colonial rule, the British allowed the Creole (freed-slave) community to participate in the administration of the colony. However, by the beginning of the 20th Century, as they expanded colonial rule into the interior, the British reduced political participation by Sierra Leoneans. The British colonialists, as they did elsewhere in West Africa, instituted a system of indirect rule. In this system, the colonialist appointed local chiefs and headmen to help them govern. While this system helped traditional rulers to maintain some of their power, it did not allow for the majority of Sierra Leoneans to participate in governing their own communities or country.

During the time of colonial rule, Christian mission societies began to build schools. Through these efforts, and with some support from the colonial government, a system of elementary and secondary schools was built in Sierra Leone. At independence in 1961, approximately one third of the population was literate, could read and write in either English, Mende, or Temne. These efforts were complimented by Islamic schools, which taught students to read the Q’uran (Muslim holy book) in Arabic. In spite of the low levels of school attendance, Sierra Leone has a proud history of higher education. In 1827, Fourah Bay College was founded by the Church Missionary Society. This college was the first English-media college in all of West Africa. Indeed for almost 100 years, it was the only college in British governed West Africa that offered degrees. Students came to study at Fourah Bay from as far away as Nigeria and Ghana.

On April 27, 1961, Sierra Leone gained its political independence after nearly 160 years of British rule. All of Sierra Leone’s neighbors in West Africa also gained their political independence from either Britain or France between 1957 and 1962.

To understand what happened in Sierra Leone after independence, particularly the current crisis in the country, it is important to remember what the country inherited from their colonial history.

1. Political Inheritance. Three political facts from the colonial history of Sierra Leone are important to remember. First, the British colonial government did not allow Sierra Leoneans to actively participate in governing themself. Consequently, they had very little experience in running a modern government. Secondly, during colonialism the British did very little to encourage the coming together (integration) of the Creole freed slave communities and the indigenous Mande and Temne ethnic groups. In fact, such integration was often discouraged. Thirdly, through the system of indirect rule, which favored traditional rulers, participation in the political system was denied to most Sierra Leoneans. In addition, indirect rule accentuated the differences between the various ethnic groups, making it difficult for people to see themselves as being Sierra Leoneans first and foremost.

This political inheritance made it very difficult for Sierra Leone to build a strong democratic government.

2. Economic Inheritance: The colonial government did very little to improve the economic condition of the majority of Sierra Leoneans. Most economic effort went to extracting, or taking out for export, raw materials from Sierra Leone. These products included agricultural products such as cocoa and coffee, and minerals such as diamonds and bauxite. Profits from the sale of these materials went to companies in Britain. Very little was done to improve the situation of the majority of the people who made their living on small farms growing rice and cassava.

At independence, Sierra Leone inherited a very poor and not very developed economy. Yet, the citizens felt that independence would help them to overcome their poverty quickly and would assist them in getting things denied to them during colonial rule: education, health care, adequate housing, good jobs, etc.

3. Social inheritance. In spite of the efforts of many missionaries, schooling was available to only a minority of Sierra Leoneans before independence. In fact at independence, less than 20 per cent of school age girls attended school. Can a new country develop and meet the needs of its people if the people are not educated?

In addition to these specific inheritances from colonial rule, Sierra Leone at independence also had address the question of how to build a nation out of a religiously diverse population. About 60 percent of the population is Muslim; 30 percent follow indigenous religious beliefs/practices; and ten percent are Christian.

Post Colonial Sierra Leone

In the nearly forty years since Sierra Leone gained its political independence, it has suffered from political instability, economic stagnation, and social upheaval. During this time, Sierra Leone has been ruled by eight different governments, only two of which were democratically elected. Faced with huge social and economic problems and no resources to deal with the problems, many of these governments used what little resources were available to them to help maintain their power. This often meant that the governments practiced corruption and used the police and army to punish individuals and groups that it felt opposed it. Such a political situation led the army on four occasions to overthrow the established government.

The army leaders, facing the same economic and social situation as the civilian governments they replaced, used the same corrupt and repressive tactics to stay in power.

The continuous political crisis in Sierra Leone was made worse in the 1990s by a down-turn in the Sierra Leonean economy. Like many Africa countries, Sierra Leone had borrowed a lot of money in the 1970s and 1980s from European and American lenders. In the 1990s, these loans needed to be repaid, but the Sierra Leonean government did not have the resources to make the payments. If the loans were to be repaid, the payments would take more money than the country earned from all of its exports, including diamonds and bauxite. Yet, if they refused to make payments, international lenders and DONORS would refuse to provide monies which Sierra Leone needed to survive.

To make matters worse, international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, developed conditions that African countries, including Sierra Leone, had to fulfill in order to get their help. These conditions formed what are called economic structural adjustment programs. These international organizations argued that since African countries were so poor and so much in debt, they needed to greatly reduce their spending. But in lessening its spending, Sierra Leone had to dismiss many people who were working for the government. They also had to reduce the amount of money they spent on social services, such as education and health care. As a result, already suffering, the Sierra Leone people suffered even more from a lack of jobs and lack of social services.

In this environment, a brutal civil war developed in Sierra Leone. In 1991, a former army corporal, Foday Sankoh, formed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). At first, Sankoh claimed that the RUF was fighting for the average Sierra Leonean, fighting against corruption, political repression, and poverty. However, it soon became clear that these were empty words. The RUF began to use the most brutal of practices. They forcefully recruited children as young a 10 years and trained them to fight. They addicted these children to drugs so as to turn them into brutal soldiers. The RUF indiscriminately attacked rural villages, kidnaping children and cutting off the arms, legs, ears and noses of villagers. The RUF caused a reign of terror in Sierra Leone. Indeed between 1991 and 1999, 75,000 Sierra Leoneans were killed in the conflict, over 200,000 were injured, a half million Sierra Leoneans fled the violence and became refugees in the neighboring countries of Guinea and Liberia, and nearly half of the country’s 4.5 million citizens were forced to leave their homes to seek safety in other areas of the country.

The RUF was able to fund its brutal war because it was able to gain control of the diamond mines in south eastern Sierra Leone and illegally export these diamonds through neighboring Liberia for sale in Europe and North America. With the profits from the sale of diamonds, Sankoh and the RUF were able to purchase the guns and ammunition they needed to keep up their reign of terror on the people of Sierra Leone.

Diamonds and the Conflict in Sierra Leone

Diamonds were first found in Sierra Leone in 1930. By 1937, one million carats of diamonds were mined and exported to Europe. According to a recent study by the Canadian government, between 1937 and 1996 Sierra Leone exported AND SOLD nearly $15 billion of diamonds. Unfortunately, most of the money earned by these exports left Sierra Leone. Very little of this money stayed in Sierra Leone and few Sierra Leoneans benefitted from the diamond wealth. One of the main reasons why Sierra Leone remained poor in spite of this wealth is that the diamond mines were controlled by foreign, non-Sierra Leonean companies. The most important of these foreign companies was the De Beers group of companies. In 1935, the De Beer company formed the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, a company which controlled most of the country’s diamond production. In addition for more than 50 years, the De Beer company has controlled most of the world’s diamond trade.

De Beers continued to control Sierra Leonean diamond mining and trade even after independence in 1961. In 1971, the diamond industry was a nationalized diamond industry and the National Diamond Mining Company (NDMC) was formed to manage the mines. However, this new company still had to sell its diamonds through the De Beers company. So the new set-up did little to change the impact of diamonds in Sierra Leone. Only a small percentage of Sierra Leoneans benefited from wealth generated by their country’s natural resources.

Diamonds and violence

Beginning as early as the 1970s, groups who were opposed to the government tried to gain control of part of the diamond mining and trading industry in the southern and eastern part of the country. The rebel groups were interested in diamonds as a way of gaining money to buy weapons to use in their struggle against the government. The Revolutionary United Front, formed in 1991, was particularly effective in gaining control of part of the diamond trade to fund their war effort. The RUF was able to benefit from the diamond trade because of help they received from neighboring Liberia. Diamonds were smuggled across the border into Liberia. Look at your map of Sierra Leone, locate the diamond mining areas, and notice how close these areas are to the border Liberia.

Liberia, produces very little diamonds of its own, yet between 1991-1998, Liberia exported over 31 million carats of diamonds to Brussels, Belgium, where the Diamond High Council is located. The Diamond High Council is an organization which controls the world diamond trade. Diamonds imported into Belgium are then re-exported to countries around the world where they are cut into cosmetic gemstones to be sold in jewelry stores.

Clearly, the diamonds exported from Liberia were smuggled from Sierra Leone, many by supporters of the RUF. The money earned from the sale of these diamonds bought weapons and ammunition for the RUF. There is considerable evidence that the president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, has personally supported the RUF and has made it easy for smuggled diamonds to reach Belgium. And President Taylor has allowed weapons for the RUF to be imported into Liberia. The weapons are then smuggled across the border in Sierra Leone.

Diamonds have been used to bring terrible suffering and, at times, death to innocent people throughout Sierra Leone. Had these diamonds been traded legally, the hundreds of millions of dollars earned could have been used to help deal with the many problems facing the people of Sierra Leone. For example, money earned by taxing the sale of diamonds could have been used to build new schools and hire new teachers to teach in the new schools.

A Canadian group working to stop the illegal sale of diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone warn us that:

Diamonds are not always our best friends given the brutality of rebel groups funded by the sale of diamonds.

For some people, diamonds are more than "forever", witness the death of more than 75,000 civilians in the Sierra Leonean civil war. A war funded by diamonds.

Click here to read a Frontline piece about how diamonds buy guns for wars in Africa.

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