As political change rocks Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, another African country is braving a crisis of its own: Côte d’Ivoire. Laurent Gbago, the incumbent president, lost the country’s presidential election last November, but refuses to step down. Alassane Ouattara, the winner, has so far been unwilling to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Gbago. With violence breaking out in several cities, it looks like Côte d’Ivoire may be headed for civil war.
For anyone familiar with the history of diamonds and civil wars in Africa, it’s reasonable to be concerned that events are repeating themselves. Côte d’Ivoire is a diamond-rich country. Not long ago, terrible civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, and Liberia were being fueled by diamonds. However, in response to those wars, an international certification scheme for diamonds—the Kimberley Process —was launched in 2003. At its core, the purpose of the Kimberley Process is to prevent diamonds from funding civil wars. So with the Kimberley Process in place, there’s no reason to be concerned that diamonds will underwrite violence in Côte d’Ivoire—right?
Actually, there is. The present crisis in Côte d’Ivoire is really a flare-up in a longstanding civil conflict. And for years, the Kimberley Process has tried to prevent the export of diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire—but without success.
Since 2002, the country has been split between a rebel-controlled north, where Ouattara has his base of support, and a government-controlled south, which has been supportive of Gbagbo. Although there has been little violence since 2004, both sides have been preparing should hostilities erupt once again. In the north, the location of most of the country’s diamond deposits, a tax on diamond sales has been providing rebels with money for supplies and weapons. (Gbagbo’s government, meanwhile, has been receiving funding from the production of cocoa, used to make chocolate.)
To staunch the flow of conflict diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire, the Kimberley Process placed a ban on Côte d’Ivoire’s diamonds in 2005—that is, Kimberley Process member countries were prohibited from importing diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire. The United Nations also banned Côte d’Ivoire diamonds. What happened next? Surprisingly little. Rebels just turned to smuggling. Estimated diamond exports from Côte d’Ivoire barely dropped at all. Every year, about $20 million worth of Côte d’Ivoire diamonds are smuggled into the international diamond supply. Although this is a small percentage of world diamond production, it’s enough to provide rebels with money for guns and ammunition.
Diamonds are notoriously easy to smuggle. However, the Kimberley Process could make it more difficult to sell diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire on the international market – for instance, by increasing Kimberley Process monitoring capabilities and requiring Kimberley Process members to improve internal controls. What makes the situation all the more frustrating is that Côte d’Ivoire is one of the only countries whose diamonds the Kimberley Process has banned. The ease with which the Kimberley Process is being thwarted on its principal diamond ban is truly astonishing. The Kimberley Process should have addressed this problem, long ago.
The Chair of the Kimberley Process, Matheiu Yamba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has issued a letter urging countries to “exercise strong vigilance” against Côte d’Ivoire’s diamonds. But this letter may be too little, too late. Rebels in Côte d’Ivoire already have benefited from years of uninterrupted diamond revenues. War in Côte d’Ivoire may still be averted, but the possibility of another diamond-driven civil war should be enough for the world to take notice. The Kimberley Process isn’t working. It’s high time to reform it.