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Bleeding Africa dry: Blood diamonds

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Blood diamonds, also known as conflict diamonds, are raw diamonds that have been mined from within conflict zones such as Angola, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. Their sales are used by armed groups to finance conflict and insurgency. As they are illegal to trade, they are either sold illegitimately directly through merchants, or smuggled to neighbouring countries and surreptitiously merged into the legal market. Blood diamonds are an example of a conflict resource; a natural resource extracted from a conflict zone and sold to continue the fighting. The issue with getting to the root of this issue is that once a blood diamond is cut and polished, it is impossible to tell it apart from a legally obtained diamond. Despite this, estimates have been made that suggest the volume of conflict diamonds on the world market was about 15% of the global trade of rough diamonds in the 1990s, falling to less than 1% by 2010 according to the UN. Some human rights groups point out, however, that this figure may be meaningless, as the UN’s definition of what classifies a ‘conflict diamond’ is only diamonds that “fund a rebellion against a country’s government”. These groups say that redefining blood diamonds as gems whose trade is based on violence of any kind would see this ‘>1%’ figure increase dramatically and would provide a more accurate description of what conflict diamonds are. Looking to Zimbabwe as an example, where government officials use their control over legal diamond operations to further their careers and the careers of their associates at the expense of the human rights of the miners, we can see how even though the diamond industry here is classified as ‘legal’ and gems here are not branded ‘blood diamonds’, they’re still being discovered through the brutalization of the workers by corrupt government officials. Therefore, how ethical is it really to trade these diamonds and perpetuate these cycles of abuse, simply because they don’t meet the criteria of one definition?

Sierra Leone

The prevalence of blood diamonds first emerged in the 1990s as multiple brutal civil wars raged in parts of central and western Africa in countries that were especially high in one natural resource- diamonds. One country is particular has suffered terribly from the consequences of having this resource, and that’s Sierra Leone. The specific focus on child soldiers and the effects of conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone was brought to global attention after the release of 2006 the film ‘Blood Diamond’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou.

How Sierra Leone became one of the biggest sites for illegal diamond mining and subsequent human rights abuses is due to various factors throughout its past. It all began in 1935 when London-based diamond company De Beers legally took control of all of the mining prospects in the country for the next 99 years. As De Beers began mining diamonds legally, Lebanese traders realised the huge profits to be made by smuggling diamonds out of the country, into Liberia in particular, giving birth to illicit diamond mining in Sierra Leone. Multiple government moves over the following decades helped to inadvertently increase and continue the prevalence of illegal mining here. The government mostly gave up on policing the diamond industry by the 1950s, choosing only to tighten security in two areas: the Kono district and the Freetown diamond export centre. The Kono district is Sierra Leone’s most diamond rich district; for example, in 2017, Pastor Emmanuel Momoh discovered a 709-carat diamond here which subsequently sold for US$6,536,360 at auction that same year. However, by focusing security only in these two areas, the government had simply forced the trade of illegitimate diamonds to move from the now high-security cities into Liberia through smuggling, creating the illegal diamond pipeline between the two countries.

When the government passed the Alluvial Mining Scheme in 1956, they had once again unintentionally increased the prevalence of illegitimate diamond industries here, as the scheme allowed indigenous miners to receive mining and trading licenses. Following the Scheme’s passing, the number of illegal miners in Sierra Leone increased by over 75,000 people.

Illegitimate diamond mining increased tenfold when the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1961 and was subsequently taken over by populist Siaka Stevens in 1968. Stevens nationalised the diamond mines and De Beers through the creation of the National Diamond Mining Co. (NDMC), giving himself and his key advisor, Lebanese businessman Jamil Mohammed, full control of the mines. This saw legal mining fall from more than 2 million carats to 48,000 carats between 1970 and 1988. When Steven’s rule ended, his successor Joseph Momoh took over and De Beers left Sierra Leone. Momoh’s lack of political knowledge and leadership skills meant that more and more control was given to Mohammed, illicit mining grew and thrived, and Sierra Leone became a vulnerable site for armed rebellion due to continual pocketing of diamond profits by the corrupt government. On March 23rd, 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a group of 100 Liberian and Sierra Leonean fighters, invaded.


Foday Sankoh led the RUF. He was an ex-army sergeant and was of Temne background, a west African ethnic group. The RUF was received well and was popular with Sierra Leoneans due to their slogan, “No more slaves, no more masters. Power and wealth to the people.”. The corrupt government, which had been taking most of the diamond sales for themselves until this point, was already unpopular with the people, and so the RUF exploited this opinion to gain support, promising impoverished peasants a greater share of the mineral wealth that was being misused by the government.

However, Sankoh did not stick to these promises. The rebel group took control of a significant number of diamond mines, kidnapped locals as slaves to mine them, and used the profits to buy arms for Sankoh and his group of rebels. Throughout the conflict, fighting became concentrated in and around mining districts. Miners were forced to work in inhumane conditions for little to no pay, under oppressive and abusive ‘masters’, and were made to dig with their bare hands instead of with tools.

As the civil war raged, Sierra Leone became completely dependent on outside support from Great Britain, South Africa and Nigerian security forces as its’ own army was corrupt (they were nicknamed ‘Sobels’; rebels by day, soldiers by night). The RUF terrorized the very ‘peasants’ they had promise to empower, pillaging homes, burning entire villages, raping women and killing, mutilating and enslaving thousands. They had a particular favouring for amputating people’s appendages, especially their arms. They said this was so that people could no longer mine diamonds, which could be sold and used to support government troops. They also quoted the election slogan of the time that said people’s power was “in [their] hands”, and so by severing their arms they were ‘preventing their ability to vote’. While the RUF and the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council- a group of Sierra Leonean soldiers who allied with the RUF during the war) committed most of the atrocities, government forces and their allies, in particular the Civil Defense Force (CDF), also committed multiple serious crimes, although on a smaller scale and of a different nature than the rebels.

Child soldiers

Thousands of child soldiers were abducted and recruited during the 11-year civil war, mostly between ages 7-12, although some were as young as 5. An estimated total of 11,000 were thought to have participated in the conflict, mainly used for attacks on villages and for guarding the mines and weapons stockpiles. Boys were abducted as soldiers, girls as sex slaves, and these children were subjected to various atrocities in order to brainwash and radicalise them. They were often forced to become addicted to heroin, murder their own parents, and use nicknames instead of their birth names in order to de-individuate them. The RUF initials were frequently carved into their chests, cocaine was rubbed into their wounds to make them maniacal, and ‘brown brown’ cocktails of gunpowder and cocaine were given to them before battles to ‘hype’ them up (the gunpowder allowed the cocaine to flow more freely through their bloodstream). The children were notoriously known for their unquestioning obedience and unimaginable cruelty.

The beginning of the end

Rumours and stories of these and other atrocities such as cannibalism and a particularly disturbing example, whereby rebels would guess and bet on the sex of an unborn baby before cutting the woman’s womb open to see who won, began to circulate, attracting the world’s attention. Aid agencies were already in the country helping to rehabilitate amputees and reconnect families, setting up huge refugee camps, one of which had over a million people in it.

As the world’s attention began to focus more on the conflict and related atrocities, forcing NGOs, charities, aid agencies and governments to take action, the fabric of the RUF was beginning to fray. Sankoh was under house arrest in Nigeria, where he had fled to in 1997, before later being released in 1999, when he was forced, under enormous pressure from the USA, UK and UN, to sign the Lomé Peace Accord. The Accord was an agreement signed between the warring parties in Sierra Leone: the RUF and the government.

However, only four months after it was signed, fighting revived in Freetown by the RUF against the government. The UN sent in troops in the hope of integrating the RUF into the national army, which failed, and instead ended up with the RUF holding 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. Despite this, the downfall of the RUF had already begun, as rumours of their depleting resources and weakening forces spread and they suffered several defeats at the hands of British special forces. India, Guinea, Bangladesh, Pakistan and others also sent in armed forces, all of which helped to bring an end to the revolution in 2001.


Sankoh was captured by a mob and handed to the British Army in Sierra Leone in 2001 before being indicted for several war crimes in a special, UN-backed court. Unfortunately, Sankoh died in prison in 2003 before his trial could take place. The UN and Sierra Leonean government set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone to try and convict all those who had committed in ‘crimes against humanity’ during the civil war. Crimes against humanity include offences such as murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, rape, sexual slavery and persecution. A total of 23 people were indicted, and proceedings against 22 were completed; 7 are serving sentences, one died while serving his sentence, 8 finished their sentences, 3 were acquitted and 3 died prior to being sentenced. 5 of those indicted were leading members of the RUF. The one person who proceedings haven’t been completed against is Johnny Paul Koroma; he’s currently a fugitive, however he’s believed to be dead. Koroma was a former dictator and chairman of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The SCSL’s jurisdiction did not extend to anyone under the age of 15.

The impacts

The social and economic experienced by Sierra Leone have been detrimental and long-lasting. An estimated 75,000 people died, 500,000 became refugees, half of their population of 4.5 million were displaced and some 27,000 people became amputees. Multiple remuneration committees have been set up since the war ended to help support those affected, although each have their own shortcomings.

In 2004, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was set up to try and deliver accountability for various human rights abuses. It issued a report calling for the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA) to provide reparations in the form of free education for children, free healthcare and skills training for amputees, war widows, children, victims of sexual violence and the seriously wounded. However, the NaCSA has been criticised for its’ various inadequacies. Of the 32,000 people who registered to the Commission (despite an estimated 100,000+ needing its’ support), only 20,107 received a cash handout of between US$70-200, and 12,000 received nothing at all. Sattie Kamara, a NaCSA reparations programme outreach coordinator, said that the commission has run out of funds to do anything more. It dedicated US$319,000 of its own budget and US$3 million provided by the UN Peacebuilding Funds to the project but has no capacity to commit any more. To complete the full recommendations for reparations from the TRC, previous reparations manager Amadu Bangura estimates it will take US$14 million.

One amputee, James Ponbu, aged 43, had his arm amputated by rebels in 1999. After receiving treatment in hospital, he tried to return to his job at a canteen in a Freetown college but was not accepted back. Despite his college degree, he’s struggled to find work since. But the impacts, for James, aren’t just economic, he tells The New Humanitarian. Socially, he’s stared at by strangers and shunned by friends, some of whom refuse to let him into their houses as they assume he’s only coming for money.

Unlike John, many of the amputees are illiterate and relied on farming for income. With their farming ability impeded, they are left futureless and deprived as a result of these needless amputations.

Legislation has been subsequently introduced around the world to help combat the global issue of conflict diamonds. The Kimberley Process, a certification system for monitoring where a diamond has come from, was established in 2003 and has been adopted by 81 different countries. The scheme has been relatively successful, however there are various failings within the process, partly due to the gray area surrounding definition of conflict diamonds discussed earlier. This led to Zimbabwe, for example, being allowed to sell its’ diamonds on the international market as it met the standards for the Kimberley Process, despite several NGOs and other organisations arguing that diamonds here are mined unethically and illegitimately, at least in part. This was explored in a 2011 BBC radio documentary titled “Zimbabwe’s diamond fields” which found that officials of the Kimberley Process were unaware of various human rights abuses (such as torture and murder) going on in Zimbabwe. When officials responded, the implication was that they were only hired to do brief investigations of each country before certifying it, rather than in-depth ones. This highlights the shortcomings of processes such as this one, suggesting that despite legislation, blood diamonds still aren’t being regulated.

The USA is currently working on their own similar legislature called the ‘Clean Diamond Act’, whereby any diamonds with an unknown origin would be banned from being sold. Both this Act and the Kimberley Process aim to create a paper trail for diamonds to eliminate the mystery that often shrouds where they’ve come from.

The success of these and other schemes long-term is questionable. A study by UNAMSIL (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) stated that “more than 50% of diamond mining remains unlicensed and reportedly considerable illegal smuggling of diamonds continues”.

The biggest issue with trying to legislate and prevent the sales of blood diamonds is the current structure of the industry as a whole. DeBeers’ monopolistic hold over the market means it’s not a truly competitive one, and therefore the adverse effects that conflict diamonds would, in theory, have on the industry, haven’t really been felt. Diversifying the number of companies involved in the diamond industry as a whole would increase the competitiveness of the market. The benefits from this would be tenfold; conscious consumers would be attracted back to the market, the perception of the diamond industry would improve, as would the quality of the lives of the miners and the communities involved. Competitive markets are more focused on pleasing consumers, for example by improving their image as a more ethical trade, and so increasing this would likely improve the legitimacy of the diamond market as a whole.

Rebuilding communities is a process that is still ongoing. Critical infrastructure such as hospitals, clinics and schools were damaged during the war, leading to serious substructure concerns. With hundreds of villages burnt to the ground, many people didn’t have anywhere to go back to after being displace during those 11 years. Child soldiers often didn’t remember their names or where they came from due to the trauma and brainwashing they experienced during their tenure as combatants. PTSD, extreme anxiety and estrangement from their communities was frequently experienced by almost every person involved in the war, from innocent civilians to government soldiers.

Other than the harm done to amputees and child soldiers, social reparations for women has been another key focus of repairing Sierra Leone since the war ended. Thousands of women were left as widows, or without their children, who had been killed or abducted and were often never seen again. Women and girls were raped when their villages were attacked or were taken as sex slaves for the rebels, where they were also often gang raped, beaten, starved, tortured, forced into arduous physical labour and threatened if they complained. Girls and young women who escaped or were released were not ‘free’ from the chains of the war; many suffered from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, and were alienated from their communities. Cases of HIV/AIDS and physical effects such as serious scarring and gynecological problems (such as damaged uteruses and bladders) were disturbingly common across Sierra Leone. Large numbers of survivors were left impregnated by their assaulters or are now single mothers to so-called ‘rebel babies’. These factors only increased the already high rates of maternal mortality in Sierra Leone.

Repairing Sierra Leone is an ongoing process, and the country will never be the same. Even as the industry becomes more legitimate and the country makes (slow) progress in aspects such as health, education and human rights, it’s still 8th from the bottom on the UN Human Development Index (HDI), and the money made from diamonds it still not being funneled back into local communities. The Kono district, for example has been a mining area for 70 years, and yet locals here still don’t have basic amenities such as adequate roads and electricity.

And so, the question remains: at what point do human lives rank above economics?

Numerous examples throughout history point to the unfortunate answer… never. This needs to change, and you can help. Get involved; from volunteering in affected area to simply talking about conflicts such as this one with your friends and family all helps to raise awareness of the injustices happening around the world, now and in the past.

Let’s all DO MORE to hinder the cycles of injustice plaguing our planet.

Join the #MOREmovement on our Instragram @moresocials or by joining our mailing list here on the site.

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