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Ian Martinez

excerpted from: Ian Martinez, Sierra Leone's "Conflict Diamonds": the Legacy of Imperial Mining Laws and Policy, 10 University of Miami International and Comparative Law Review 217-239, 217 232-239 (2001-2002) (141 Footnotes)


A common misconception is that the current civil war in Sierra Leone is the result of illicit diamond mining. True, diamonds were the fuel of the latest flare-up of fighting. Illicit diamond digging emerged simultaneously with the discovery of alluvial diamonds in the country. The British, unwilling to pay for the costs of patrolling or controlling the hinterland--where diamonds are found--sought a colonial compromise. Their policy was twofold: a) to institute indirect rule through the traditional paramount chiefs and b) to use a tributary system whereby miners received a share of diamonds they recovered in lieu of wages. Eventually this system degraded government rule and led to a rise in corruption. The efforts to control the illicit diamond led, in time, to the rise of a "shadow state." The colonial governance planted the current mindset that infects Sierra Leone like a malignant tumor. The patient lived, infused with donor medicine as its lifeblood, diamonds, were sucked away. Finally, the 1990s saw the tumor explode into an orgy of violence. This article explores the genesis of the illicit diamond trade and the continuation of that policy after independence.

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A. Government Collapse & Rebellion

Scandal rocked the government in 1991 when it was discovered that no work had been done on 32 government development contracts even though $2 million had been spent on those projects. In 1991, the government announced its intention of repurchasing 49% of DIMINCO, which had been privatized by Stevens. By 1993, the source of diamond production was mainly small- scale mining. DIMINCO ceased operations in March 1993 and went into liquidation in October 1993. In January 1994, the government instituted a new mining policy that allowed non-citizens to form companies while requiring the non-citizens to maintain minimum levels, or else their licenses would be revoked. Next, rebels entered the country through Liberia. Foday Sankoh, the 1971 coup instigator, whose personal friendship with Charles Taylor, the Liberian President, gained the rebels safe passage into Sierra Leone through Liberia, led the rebels. The rebels had left Sierra Leone in 1987 due to economic turmoil and had been training in Libya. In Libya, Sankoh teamed up with Ibrahim Bah, a Senegalese, who trained in Libya and had fought in Afghanistan and then with the Hezbollah Terrorist group in Lebanon. Bah, a close friend of Blaise Compaore's--the president of Burkina Faso and future arms supplier to the region--in turn, introduced Sankoh and another of Africa's infamous rebel leaders Charles Taylor, to Gaddafi. This group of would-be rebel leaders would form an "axis" of West African instability with its pole being Tripoli.

Once in Sierra Leone, Sankoh set about recruiting disaffected urban youths, many of whom had not benefited from illegal diamond digging and the "new economy." Sankoh would pay his foreign friends, like Stevens and Momah did, in diamonds.

The rebels of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) intended to encircle the regional centers of Bo and Kenema. Bo is 25 miles south of the former SLST Tongo Lease, which is a 15-mile long vein of kimberlite diamonds. The RUF executed those who refused to join their ranks and kidnapped boys and girls for guerilla training. The RUF began their hallmark campaign of crude amputations that included feet, hands, lips, ears, and noses. The focus of these brutal amputations was on women and children. The RUF amputated to usurp the power of the chiefs and introduce themselves as the new power brokers. The RUF soon turned to mining and diamonds in order to enrich themselves and their foreign supporters.

B. Of Guerillas, Diamonds & Mercenaries

By early 1992, the Sierra Leonean Army (SLA), with the assistance of the Economic Community of West African States Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), led by Nigeria and Guinea (who had a defense pact with Sierra Leone) pushed the RUF back to the Sierra Leone-Liberia border. In 1992, disaffected SLA soldiers (the leaders were sent to law school in the U.K. on scholarships after their removal) launched a coup due to conditions at the front and a lack of pay. The coup was successful, and the soldiers instituted a commission to look into corruption and soon discovered malfeasance at ministerial levels. Yet, the soldiers also succumbed to graft and corruption in no time. Soldiers sent to the front no longer fought the RUF, but instead turned to diamond mining. In October 1992, Koidu, the main town in the diamond mining areas, fell to the RUF. Seesaw battles raged, and by early 1995, the RUF had the upper hand.

Facing imminent defeat by mid-1995, the military government hired Executive Outcomes (EO), a private South African mercenary outfit consisting of former Apartheid troops, to fight the rebels. With experience gained from fighting South Africa's wars in Angola and Namibia, EO checked the RUF's advance and in less than a month had nearly cleared them from the country. Branch Energy, an offshootmining component of EO, was given a 25- year lease on Sierra Leonean diamond concessions. By 1996, EO had killed several thousand RUF combatants and forced the RUF into peace negotiations.

Sierra Leone had no foreign exchange to speak of, so the government, as usual, signed away the diamonds to foreigners. In 1996, allegations began to surface that EO officials were engaged in illegal mining. Between 1994 and 1996, Branch Energy had invested $12 million in exploratory mining. EO's success meant that a peace treaty would be signed in November, but with a provision requiring EO and ECOMOG to leave by January 1997. As EO prepared to pull out in late 1996, Branch Energy sold its entire stake in Sierra Leone to Diamond Works, a company with connections to Sandline International Ltd., which was itself a mercenary company composed of former British Secret Service members. Diamond Works' security would be provided by Lifeguard, a mining security subsidiary of EO.

Elections were held in February 1996. EO's success and the new president helped forge the Abidjan Accords in November 1996, which ended the war. The RUF would register as a political party and disarm, and international observers would keep and monitor the peace. Yet, the U.N. Security Council felt that the Clinton Administration would not support a U.N. peacekeeping effort in Sierra Leone, and hence, none was sent. The RUF failed to disarm or demobilize, and on 25 May 1997, RUF soldiers overthrew the civilian administration of President Kabbah and demanded $47 million before restoring the government. The RUF assumed power, and Kabbah fled to Guinea and asked Nigeria to intervene militarily. An orgy of violence gripped Freetown, with increased murder, rape, looting, and torture, while all formal banking and commerce operations ceased throughout the country. Even ECOMOG forces were overpowered.

In February 1998, Kabbah was restored to power by Liberia. The RUF was pushed into the countryside and exacted its humiliation on civilians by mutilating thousands more. The rebellion that began in 1991 claimed more than 75,000 lives, caused half a million refugees, internally displaced 2.25 million people, and left thousands of mutilated people.

C. From U.N. Protection to British Intervention

In 1997 the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Sierra Leone. The U.N. responded to the deconstruction of Sierra Leone in July 1998 by creating a peacekeeping operation, named UNOMSIL, which consisted of 70 observers. The U.N. Security Council modified the embargo in 1998 to allow the government to rearm itself, but maintained the embargo inasmuch as it denied the RUF any weapons. Regardless, the RUF continued to arm itself through the sale of illegal diamonds, and from 1991 to 1999, the RUF was estimated to have earned approximately $200 million a year from diamond smuggling. In 1998 and 1999, five flights carrying weapons from Ukraine to Burkina Faso--whose president was the Libyan-trained acquaintance of Sankoh, Compaore--were diverted to the RUF. In 1998 Bah, former Afghan freedom fighter and Hezbollah member and co-founder of the RUF, met with operatives of bin Laden's al Qaeda network in order to sell them diamonds. The connection to al Qaeda was cemented in September 1998, when Bah arranged for an al Qaeda visit to Monrovia. Bah and Abdullah flew into Sierra Leone to discuss buying diamonds on a regular basis. A few weeks later Bah arranged a visit for two more al Qaeda operatives now on the FBI list, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed--both prime suspects in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa--who took $100,000 in cash and received a parcel of diamonds in an introductory deal.

On the military front, in 1998 the RUF launched "Operation Spare No Soul" targeting civilians because of the capture of Sankoh by ECOMOG forces. In January 1999, the RUF attacked UNOMSIL and ECOMOG troops and reentered Freetown. During two weeks in Freetown, the RUF torched homes and buildings, murdered 6,000 people, dismembered hundreds and kidnapped 2,000 children before being repulsed by ECOMOG forces.

In July 1999 Kabbah and Sankoh signed the Lome Treaty, ending the rebellion by the RUF. Sankoh was made chairman of the Strategic Resources Commission, with responsibility over diamond mining. Anyone who wished to mine diamonds had to go through him to obtain a license. In essence a power shift had occurred, and rather than the chiefs controlling the issuance of licenses as was once done in the old economy, Sankoh would now personally seek to engage in this kleptocracy. Sankoh set out to sell his own personal collection of diamonds through the ministry, and rebels came out of the bush selling their own diamonds.

In April and May 2000, the Lom� Accords fell apart as U.N. forces came under attack in east Sierra Leone. In April 2000, ECOMOG (except the Nigerian contingent that came under U.N. command) pulled out. By May 2000, three key events had occurred: 1) 300 U.N. troops were kidnapped, leading to the unraveling of the U.N. force; 2) 1,000 British troops and six Royal Naval warships arrived in Freetown to restore order and train and arm Sierra Leone's army; 3) Sankoh was arrested. The RUF's leadership, including three ministers, their spokesman, the secretary general and two colonels, were also arrested.

D. The RUF's Renewable Fuel: "Conflict Diamonds"

The RUF supported their offensives through illegal diamond mining in the occupied regions, which continued after the Lom� Treaty required the RUF to turn over occupied regions to the U.N. Like its predecessors, the RUF was aware of the resources to be had in the diamond sector. Sankoh lined his pockets and encouraged his cronies--just like Stevens and Momah before him--to rape the diamond industry and co-opt the chiefs. Thus, the RUF did the same as others before them, but co-opted the chiefs through violence. In May 2000 the Sierra Leone Attorney General charged Sankoh with corruption and diamond smuggling.

As for the RUF's diamonds, they were smuggled through the old smuggling routes to Liberia and sold in RUF-friendly Monrovia. From 1998 to 2000, diamond exports from Sierra Leone were around $30 million while diamond exporting from Liberia--which possesses fewer diamond fields--exploded to over $300 million. In July 2000, Charles Taylor, President of Liberia, responded to allegations of his involvement in arms and diamond smuggling to and with the RUF: "When someone gets up and says that Liberia is involved in diamond smuggling and gun running like a movie, you've got to be joking. What we have said, is with all of the Western intelligence--for God's sake, these people have satellites ... please bring me one photograph of a convoy." In August Western Intelligence, mainly the U.K. and U.S., showed Taylor and the world his convoys. The evidence was presented to the U.N. Sanctions Committee, thereby implicating Charles Taylor and Blaise Compaore, President of Burkina Faso. The evidence included allegations that Taylor orchestrated the rebels, supplied food, medical supplies, and military equipment, all in return for 60% of illegal diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone. Burkina Faso, which received around 30% of illegal diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone, made fraudulent end user certificates for weapons purchased in Bulgaria, which were then diverted to the RUF. But even the U.N. became tarred when, in September 2000, Nigerian troops, originally part of ECOMOG and later part of the U.N. operation, were accused of diamond smuggling by the Indian individual commanding the U.N. force. As late as July 2001 Bah and the RUF were mining diamonds for al Qaeda operatives.

Presently, Sierra Leone's legal system has collapsed because of corruption and the recent civil war. The country's institutions for the administration of justice (both civil and criminal) are barely functional. The courts in Freetown have no law library for research, recording facilities, or secretarial staff. The court system outside Freetown is nonexistent, with courtrooms destroyed and personnel killed. There is no police force to bring perpetrators to justice. Jails do not provide food for inmates. The British have provided assistance to the rebuilding effort by developing programs aimed at re-establishing and training the national police force.

. . .

British colonial policy in West Africa created a system of patronage. Unlike other countries in West Africa, Sierra Leone also had a Creole urban population of freed slaves. These Creoles were educated and given jobs in the civil service. The interior was known as the "white man's grave," and no systematic effort was made to develop the hinterland until pressure from another expanding colonial power pushed the British colonial officials to go to the hinterland to protect Freetown. Unwilling to pay for the administration of the interior, Sierra Leone became a hybrid of British Imperialism using both systems employed in Africa. The discovery of diamonds led to the granting of a monopoly over the diamonds, in response to colonial protectionism in the face of the Great Depression. The monopoly followed the colonial policy of using local chiefs and co-opting them.

At independence, Sierra Leone inherited a system of reliance on one major export--diamonds. It also inherited the economic dominance of the Creoles and the subservience of the chiefs. Resentment for the Creoles, and to a lesser extent, fear of Mende domination, led to Stevens' political victory. Stevens' rule was akin to Mobuto's in Zaire, but much less publicized. Where the West financed Mobuto's kleptocracy, diamonds financed Stevens. Stevens' creation of a new economy eliminated the inherited monopoly and alienated the Creoles and co-opted the chiefs. The economy suffered widely as Stevens and his cronies sought to enrich themselves. This disconnect led to the rise of frustrated urban youths who eventually became the backbone of Sankoh's RUF. The RUF needed to finance their movement and what better way than through diamonds--symbol of the elite that had caused great misery and had instituted the new "Black Colonialism."

Sierra Leone has now come back full circle. Freetown is the economic heart of the country with the diamond district tenuously held by a foreign force--the U.N. The U.N. and the country are watched over by British troops who do not stray too far from Freetown and leave the interior as the black man's grave.