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Diamonds the Heart of the Matter in CAR Conflict

Dark Grey DiamondIn 2000, a non-profit group called Partnership Africa Canada issued a path-breaking report on the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. It titled its report “The Heart of the Matter” after Graham Greene’s 1948 novel of the same name. The heart of the matter, the report said, was diamonds. According to the report, diamonds in Sierra Leone had been “the cause of widespread death, destruction and misery for almost a decade.”


It was one of the first times that anyone had put together a detailed, persuasive account of the destruction diamonds could cause. The war in Sierra Leone would end in 2002. But with the world’s eyes opened, the diamond industry was forced to acknowledge that blood diamonds were a serious problem.


So far, no group has put out a similar report on the role of diamonds in the war in Central African Republic (CAR). But over the past year, it’s become increasingly clear: diamonds are at the heart of this new war too.


The general outlines of the war are as follows. A year ago this month, a coalition of Muslim rebels, calling themselves the Seleka coalition, overthrew the government of dictator Francois Bozizé. The victory plunged the country into a period of lawlessness, with the victorious rebels committing atrocities against the majority Christian population. Christian militias formed, the country fell deeper into chaos, and the Seleka-appointed president, Michael Djotodia, resigned in December. Although a new president, Catherine Samba-Panza, is trying to restore order, Christian militias are now taking the offensive against Muslims. Altogether, violence during the past year has caused thousands of deaths and forced a million people to flee their homes.


This account may sound mostly like a religious conflict. And yet, putting together the different press and NGO reports, an account emerges of how natural resources, especially diamonds, played a role at each stage of the conflict and are driving it still.


At the earliest stages, before the Seleka took over, diamonds helped support the rebels and build their strength. The International Crisis Group warned in a 2010 report of how rebel groups in the country’s north and east, including the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), received much of their financing from the mining and selling of diamonds. Diamonds were so important in sustaining the rebel groups that they even clashed with each other. Those clashes ended in December 2012, when the UFDR and various rebel groups joined together to form the Seleka.


In the next stage of the conflict, the Seleka offensive and takeover, the thirst for diamonds and other resources such as timber, oil, and gold served as a motivating factor.  As a Voice of America (VOA) story explains, the Seleka “launched their uprising to gain access for northern peoples to resource wealth.” An Associated Press (AP) story in May 2013 told of how the Seleka used grenades and Kalashnikov rifles to gain control of diamond-rich territory in the north. “The diamond business is now forbidden to anyone who is not with Seleka,” a local official told the AP then.


In this latest stage of the conflict, diamonds may be playing a more central role than ever. Christian militias are targeting the Muslim minority as payback for Seleka atrocities. (Although most Muslims aren’t Seleka rebels, Christians believe that Muslims have been complicit in Seleka crimes.) But the vengeance, it seems, is also about diamonds and gold. An NPR story last month explained how historically, Christians have done the physical work of diamond and gold mining while Muslim traders bought those resources and sold them to foreigners. As traders, Muslim traders kept a greater share of the profits, causing resentments among less wealthy Christians.


Those resentments, as well as a wish by some Christians to become traders themselves, are now fueling the violence. A VOA story on Tuesday told of how Christian militias are poised to attack Muslims in the western town of Boda. The town is a major diamond trading hub and is home to 12,000 to 14,000 Muslims, making it one of the largest Muslim enclaves outside the capital.


The above is only a rough sketch of the link between diamonds and the civil conflict in CAR. What is needed is for an NGO or journalist to provide a more thorough account. The 2000 report by Partnership Africa Canada on the role of diamonds in the war in Sierra Leone led directly to the creation of the Kimberley Process (KP), an international diamond certification scheme. The KP has banned diamonds from CAR, but it’s too weak to enforce that ban.


Perhaps if the public better understands the role of diamonds in this war, and why the KP is ill equipped to do anything, momentum could build for a new round of more effective solutions to the blood diamond problem.


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