Accusations of vote-rigging are flying in Zimbabwe, where voters went to the polls in a crucial election on Wednesday. Most observers think that Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president for the past 33 years, will find a way to hold on to power and fend off another challenge from his long-time rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. But as I write this, it could still be hours or days before the final election results become public. And before they do, this seems like a great chance to dream about what could happen if Mugabe actually lost. Because if Mugabe goes down in defeat, so could his bloody and corrupt diamond business.
In the world of blood diamonds, Mugabe is indisputably one of the worst offenders. Following the 2008 presidential election, which forced Mugabe into a power-sharing arrangement with Tsvangirai, Mugabe needed money and weapons to build his power base. He found the perfect solution: diamonds. A massive diamond deposit had been recently discovered in the Marange diamond fields of eastern Zimbabwe. Mugabe ordered his military to seize it.
This is where things turned ugly. In taking control of the diamond field, soldiers massacred more than 200 people, shooting machine guns from helicopters. The army then enslaved local adults and children, using rape and torture to keep them mining for diamonds. After an international outcry — and the placing of a temporary ban on Marange diamonds by the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification body — Mugabe turned over diamond mining operations to private mining companies. But problems continue. Local residents are still being beaten, attacked by dogs, and killed by company security guards. And most of the mining companies have ties to the Zimbabwean army, making it easy for Mugabe insiders to keep stealing. An estimated $2 billion has been lost to corruption since 2008.
What could a Mugabe loss mean for Zimbabwe’s diamond trade? There are no guarantees that Tsvangirai would be much better than Mugabe. But if he wanted to, Tsvangirai could wash away a lot of the blood and grime from Zimbabwe’s diamonds. If Tsvangirai won, he’d gain control of the Ministry of Mines, now controlled by Mugabe. Tsvangirai could then stop tolerating the violence and corruption. He could create legal and financial consequences for mining companies that kill. He could allow human rights groups the access they need to monitor abuses. And he could order new transparency measures, making public the shady backroom deals that have been struck and requiring an accounting of every diamond mined. With less graft, he could have millions of dollars more for his government to invest in Zimbabwe’s future.
What’s more, a Mugabe loss could reverberate in the global fight against blood diamonds. One of the current dilemmas in that fight is that the Kimberley Process is too limited in scope. Its “conflict diamond” definition, written as diamond-fueled civil wars raged in countries like Sierra Leone and Angola, is outdated. The only diamonds that it counts as “conflict diamonds” are diamonds that fund rebel groups trying to overthrow national governments. But when governments or mining companies kill people to seize or protect diamond assets, like in Zimbabwe, those diamonds are allowed into the diamond supply and certified as “conflict free.”
Despite an American-led effort to expand the conflict diamond definition, many African countries, including Zimbabwe, staunchly oppose a broader definition. And so, the campaign against diamond-related violence has been stuck in a rut for the past few years — with one big exception. Last year, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted by an international criminal court for using diamonds to foment the civil war in Sierra Leone. Taylor’s conviction raised an intriguing possibility: if the Kimberley Process can’t stop blood diamonds, maybe courts can create steep enough penalties to stop the perpetrators. Leaders might think twice before using diamonds as an instrument of violence.
In this context, the possibilities are tantalizing. If Tsvangirai were to win and clean up Zimbabwe’s diamond trade, maybe he’d agree to an expanded “conflict diamond” definition too. That might melt away opposition to a strengthened Kimberley Process among other African countries. And even without Kimberley Process reform, a Mugabe loss increases the chances that he or his generals could be held criminally accountable for the Marange diamond field massacre, either in a domestic or international court. If Mugabe joined Taylor in jail, the blood diamond villains of the future might forever remember the risks.
But wait — as this article gets posted, we are just getting word that Mugabe’s political party, ZANU-PF, has won control of Zimbabwe’s Parliament. Although the official presidential election results still haven’t been announced, it looks increasingly likely that Mugabe will win. For now, our dreams of a post-Mugabe diamond trade in Zimbabwe may need to wait.