Breakfast at Sodiam’s: The Central African Republic’s Diamond Nightmare
Civil war rages on in the Central African Republic for nearly three years now, with tremendous human suffering. The most recent figures put the number of displaced people at 800,000, with another 2 million in dire need of assistance. For a country whose pre-war population was close to 4.6 million people, these statistics attest to the chaos that has engulfed civil society. Before taking on its current magnitude, the conflict started with a quasi-routine coup d’état: President François Bozize was deposed by the Muslim Seleka militia after trying to transfer control of the nation’s diamond trade, up until then firmly in the hands of Muslim traders, to acolytes from his own ethnic group. After General Bozize’s fall, the Seleka proved unwilling to run a functional government. Instead, the ten months of Seleka rule under the leadership of Michel Djotodia were marked by widespread looting and terror, with entire villages often razed to the ground. With international pressure mounting, the rebels were forced to retreat to the north and east of the country as animist and Christian militias known as the anti-Balaka—literally, “anti-machete,” a reference to the Selekas’ weapon of choice—regained control of CAR’s most densely populated areas, including the capital, Bangui. In a sign of times to come, Djotodia followed Bozize’s path into exile. What followed was a war of retaliation of the worst kind: rapes, mass killings, and plundering have become commonplace.
Driving this brutal conflict, the struggle for CAR’s diamonds continues unabated. CAR’s 2013 suspension from the Kimberley Process, designed to prevent the mining and commercialization of blood diamonds, has not stopped the flow of conflict minerals from its borders. The Enough Project calculates that $5.8 million flows into the coffers of armed groups each year thanks to blood diamonds. A United Nations panel of experts put the value of diamonds smuggled out of CAR since the fighting began at $24 million, equivalent to roughly 140,000 carats. The transitional government, headed by Catherine Samba-Panza, has called for a lift of the international ban of its diamonds on the grounds that it desperately needs revenues to install order in the land. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Global Witness have spoken out against the move, claiming that it would allow companies to profit from stockpiles of illicitly mined diamonds.
“If companies have blood diamonds, they must not be allowed to profit from them,” says Lucy Graham, Legal Adviser in Amnesty International’s Business and Human Rights Team. “The government should confiscate any blood diamonds, sell them and use the money for the public benefit.”
Diamond trading companies have amassed stockpiles worth over $8 million since the Kimberley Process ban was implemented. One company, Sodiam, has built up a diamond reserve of at least 60,000 carats during the conflict, worth upwards of $7 million. Sodiam’s purchases continue to fund anti-Balaka militias. Sodiam representatives have also confirmed that the company has bought diamonds in western Seleka-controlled areas, and is waiting for the ban’s lift in order to export them. CAR’s second biggest trader, Kardiam, and its Belgian sister company, Badica, have been blacklisted by the U.N., with no discernible impact on their activities. Allowing such companies to sell diamonds bought during the conflict would in effect condone unethical and criminal practices ranging from child labor to fiscal evasion. In some areas, such as in the town of Boda, anti-Balaka militias have subjected Muslim diamond traders and their families to virtual ghettos, where the penalty for attempting to escape is death.
“The state is sort of fictional at this moment. It is more or less nonexistent,” states Ben Shepherd, a fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Programme.
Governmental authority seems limited to the 25 square miles comprising Bangui, if that. The U.N., alongside the African Union, has deployed 7,500 peacekeeping troops to the country, but they have been regarded as largely ineffectual. CAR’s former colonial power, France, sent in 2,000 troops during Operation Sangaris—but now plans to scale back its contingent to 500. On at least one occasion, French troops have requested assistance from fighter jets stationed in neighboring Chad. The fact that most resolutions asking for a concerted accord to end the fighting appeal to both “international companies and donors” makes it clear how true control over CAR has shifted away from the government’s hands and into those of international diamond merchants and local warlords. Elections postponed for this past October were cancelled due to security concerns.
Of course, the KP ban has not stopped the government from profiting from the diamond sale. It runs a diamond shop at the main hotel in the capital, and there’s another shop at the foreign troops’ compounds for greater convenience to AU and French soldiers.