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ECONOMY-SIERRA LEONE: Is the Sparkle Being Restored to Conflict Diamonds?

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jul 5 2004 (IPS) - As members of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front go on trial this week for atrocities committed during the country’s civil war, the world is once again reminded of the toll that the trade in blood diamonds has taken on this West African state.

But, has government managed to clamp down on the illegal trade in diamonds which fuelled the fighting?

John Karimu, Commissioner General of the National Revenue Authority, believes that it has. And, he ascribes this in part to the introduction of the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme in the aftermath of the civil war, which was declared over in Jan. 2002.

This process was established by diamond-producing countries to close the loopholes that had allowed illegally-mined gems which were financing conflicts to be sold on the global market. It is named after the South African mining town of Kimberly, where talks about the process first got underway in 2000.

Under Kimberly regulations, rough diamonds have to be accompanied by certificates of origin – and buyers are supposed to reject gems which do not have the necessary documentation. The system envisages a process whereby diamonds can be tracked from mines to points of sale.

Karimu says there has been a substantial increase in the number of diamonds that are legally exported from Sierra Leone. He believes that lower export tariffs have also contributed to this trend.

"The dramatic rise in diamond export figures from Sierra Leone is due to a reduction in tariffs from 15 percent to three percent," he notes.

According to official figures, about 40 million dollars worth of diamonds were exported from the country during the first quarter of 2004. This figure is expected to reach 100 million dollars by the end of the year, surpassing last year’s total of 76 million dollars.

But Karimu has warned that there is little room for complacency, as intelligence reports indicate that smuggling still accounts for about 40 percent of diamonds leaving Sierra Leone – the certification process notwithstanding.

Although surveillance at the country’s only international airport appears to have been stepped up, smugglers continue to move with east across Sierra Leone’s porous borders. And, while government has employed monitoring officers at mines to track smugglers and halt their activities, many criminals continue to operate unchecked.

Certain monitors have little or no experience of the diamond trade, and have received minimal training.

"Those mines monitors are poor (ruling) party supporters who are been compensated for their loyalty to the party," says Aiah Fomba, a youth activist in the diamond-producing district of Kono, east of Freetown.

"We see smuggling of diamonds happening every day. The mines monitors are poor and broke, and can be bribed – as happens often," adds Fomba, who works for the Movement of Concerned Kono Youths.

Abdul Sanu, a spokesman for the Ministry of Mineral Resources in Freetown, told IPS that authorities were doing as well as could be expected in adverse conditions.

"The monitors are doing their best in tracking smugglers, and we have seen several positive strides made by them. I can only say that they are ill-equipped and poorly-paid – and without incentives you don’t expect them to perform excellently."

Sanu’s sentiments were echoed by mine monitors interviewed by IPS. One of them, who requested anonymity, said his monthly pay amounted to less than a hundred dollars.

"We get paid such a pittance to track down smugglers of millions of dollars worth of diamonds. We don’t even have vehicles and other logistics. It is such a difficult task," he observed.

In an effort to provide monitors with incentives, government has agreed to pay them a percentage of the value of diamond consignments which they prevent from being smuggled. Officials say there are also plans to increase the salaries of monitors, but would not disclose when these increases were to take effect.

While monitors wait for better wages, rumours abound that certain smugglers enjoy the support of powerful officials who will ensure they are not brought to book for their activities.

During the civil war which raged in the 1990s, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels seized control of diamond-producing regions in the east and south of Sierra Leone. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been accused of providing the RUF with support in exchange for the diamonds that it was illegally mining.

The war crimes court which is trying RUF officials has also issued an indictment against Taylor, alleging that he bears the principal responsibility for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. The RUF became infamous in the last decade for its willingness to amputate the limbs of civilians in areas that it controlled or attacked.

Nigeria, where Taylor has taken up exile, appears to have little inclination to extradite him so that he can stand trial. However, a Nigerian court agreed last month to review Taylor’s right to asylum in the country – this after an application by two Nigerians who claim to have been tortured by Sierra Leonean rebels.

Sierra Leone’s war crimes court, established in Freetown, employs both international and local legal staff – and is funded by the United States and Britain. The court, which also has the backing of the United Nations, began trials last month in a courthouse built specifically for this purpose.

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