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What Does Mugabe’s Fall Mean to the Diamond Trade?

PHOTO: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released

 When Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, resigned last month after 37 years in office, it marked the end of an era. Zimbabwe’s people are heaving a sigh of relief at the downfall of a corrupt dictator. But will Mugabe’s demise bring about real change in the country—such as reduced corruption and a diamond trade that benefits all Zimbabweans?

It is hard to say. Our best guess is that it would be unwise to expect change, but foolish to discount the possibility. We also know that this is a question of vital importance both to the people of Zimbabwe and to the global diamond industry.

Diamonds from Zimbabwe have long cast a shadow over the world’s diamond supply. Following the discovery of a massive diamond deposit in the Marange area of Zimbabwe about a decade ago, Zimbabwe’s army violently seized control of the area, massacring civilians and enslaving adults and children. After an international outcry, Mugabe’s government turned over mining operations to a group of companies controlled mostly by members of Zimbabwe’s security establishment. NGOs suspect that these companies have stolen billions of dollars worth of diamonds and that the money has been used to enrich military leaders and fund oppression by the government’s secret police. Despite this, diamonds from Zimbabwe continue to be labeled “conflict free” under the Kimberley Process’s limited conflict free definition.

Advocates for responsible mining have repeatedly urged Zimbabwe’s government to clean up its act.  Two steps are long overdue.  Zimbabwe needs to end military involvement in diamond mining. It must also require mining companies to open their accounting books, which would force them to share their profits equitably with Zimbabwe’s treasury. With increased diamond revenue, Zimbabwe’s government could take steps to alleviate poverty and promote development.

As long as Mugabe was president, there was little chance that Zimbabwe’s government would undertake needed reforms. His resignation led to joyful celebrations by Zimbabweans who were tired of his rule. The question now is whether Zimbabwe’s new government, led by former vice-president Emmerson Mnanagagwa, will be any better.

There is reason to be skeptical. Mnangagwa, whose nickname is “the crocodile,” has a reputation as a wily and ruthless politician. He has been accused of playing a role in the persecution of citizens of the Mtabeland region in the 1980s. When it comes to diamonds, his record is not exactly spotless. UN records show that he may have profited from blood diamonds during a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2002. He is also mentioned in a September Global Witness report as the defense minister who attended a ceremony awarding a mining license to a company that is 40 percent owned by Zimbabwe’s defense forces.

The biggest reason to doubt Mnangagwa’s reform credentials has to do with how he came to power—through a military coup. Prior to the coup, he was known as being closely aligned with the military and security wing of the ruling ZANU-PF party.  It could be hard for Mnangagwa to now turn on the military leaders who brought him to power and require them to give up their diamond profits.

And yet, there is always the possibility that Mnangagwa has some surprises in store for his military friends. One reason for optimism is the example of Angola, another African country with a record of human rights abuses in its diamond trade. In August, Angola elected a new president, João Lourenço, after 38 years of rule by dictator José Eduardo dos Santos. Lourenço has defied expectations by taking steps to reduce corruption. These include replacing the head of Endiama, Angola’s state-run diamond company, and standing up to the business empire of the corrupt dos Santos family—despite being handpicked by dos Santos as a successor.

We hope that Mnangagwa, in Zimbabwe, will similarly decide to act independently of political and military insiders and enact a reform agenda. One of his first moves has been to appoint Winston Chitando as his new Minister of Mines. It is somewhat encouraging that Chitando is not a military leader and that he appears to have international mining expertise.  Perhaps Mnangagwa, the crocodile, is already using his political skills to take a bite out of corruption.  We will be watching closely.

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