Global Policy Forum

UN Peacekeeps for Rival Gangsters


By Andrés Perez

Le Monde Diplomatique
June 2, 2000

Sierra Leone's diamond wars

It was a short-lived peace: signed last July between the Freetown government and the RUF, it broke down in early May when 300 blue berets were taken captive by the rebels. The arrest of the RUF's leader Foday Sankoh by British troops on 10 May did not bring a halt to the fighting. The background to the civil war is a no-holds-barred fight between the international mining companies for control of Sierra Leone's diamonds.

That a criminal economy can eat away at the heart of states and whole nations is nothing new. But recent events in Sierra Leone have shown that it can also divert to its own advantage an entire peace-keeping operation run by the United Nations and supported by the main foreign powers. The UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil) - the largest UN peace-keeping mission in the world with its 9,000 men - was supposed to bring an end to a ghastly, 10-year-long civil war and send a message of hope to the whole of Africa, highlighting the next mission to Congo Kinshasa (1).

We must be clear about who is involved. Barbaric, drug-crazed and dragooned by the warlords as they may be, armed and desperate young men could not have brought Unamsil to its knees all on their own. The UN has been ensnared by something different, something newer and more insidious: by a struggle between two rival groups supported by businessmen intent on gaining control of mineral wealth. By refusing to declare an embargo on diamonds from Sierra Leone, or indeed the economic exclusion zone that many experts have been calling for, the Security Council and UN Secretary General (2) have left the field wide open for a mafia-like conflict in which their soldiers have become pawns in the game.

On one side, the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the true masters of the territory, controls one half of the country and, over the other half, spreads an insecurity that renders impossible any heavy mining activity of the kind the small, "junior" companies would like to start up. Its base lies in the zone of military and commercial influence wielded by Charles Taylor, today the president of Liberia (dubbed Taylorland) (3). Monrovia, his base, is where a large proportion of the smuggled Sierra Leone diamonds are traded, channelling some $200m a year "linked with the markets in arms, drugs and money-laundering in Africa" and elsewhere (4).

Once it arrives there from Sierra Leone, a diamond automatically becomes "Liberian". The system profits companies like De Beers and Lazare Kaplan International, since the cottage-industry mining carried on in the rebel and militia-controlled area in Sierra Leone, coupled with contraband trading, makes it possible to buy at a low price rough diamonds that are among the most perfect in the world, and which are then sold on at an average $270 a carat before cutting. Operators with access to these stones are assured of the highest profit margin (5).

Facing the RUF are the "legitimist" forces around the president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. His government includes the powerful deputy minister for defence and head of the Kamajor militia, Samuel Hinga Norman, and Johnny Paul Koroma, an earlier coup leader and torturer, with his militia. The state has provided no services to its citizens for the past 15 years. Yet it continues to enjoy the international recognition that lets it sign contracts with Canadian, Belgian, American, British and South African mining companies. One square metre after another, the whole of "usable" Sierra Leone has been mortgaged off in the form of concessions for extracting diamonds, rutile, bauxite and gold.

Four companies have divided up the lion's share between them: Global Exploration Corporation, Rex Mining Corporation, DiamondWorks (BranchEnergy and BranchMining), and Sierra Rutile-Nord Ressources. At least two of these - Rex and DiamondWorks - made use of their concessions in Sierra Leone to boost their capitalisation on the Toronto Stock Exchange last year, even before the peace agreement was signed and before they could set foot on land controlled by the rebels. Each of the companies has a network of "agents" that allows them to keep their mining plant more or less in working order.

It has been the brutal clash between these two alliances that scuppered any hope of peace and changed the nature of a UN mission, after fanning for 10 long years the flames of a war whose only victims have been civilians, and especially children. And it is because what is at stake is real and sizeable - over a billion dollars'-worth of stones sold in the jewelers' shops each year, the world's second biggest field of rutile, and bauxite deposits that could have an effect on world prices - that Britain, the old colonial power, is coming forward and deploying its military strength to back up the government of Sierra Leone without having to hide behind the smoke-screen of the Sandline International mercenaries as it did before.

Given the stakes, Charles Taylor, lacking recognition, felt obliged to be seen as de facto responsible for the safety of the blue berets taken hostage by the RUF rebels in May.

"The Kalashnikov lifestyle helps our business" (6), sing the child-soldiers of the RUF. When these kids with guns - doubly cursed by a war in which they are born to live as killers and then die young - watched the blue berets moving towards the diamond fields last March, they did not see them as representatives of an international community intent on disarming them and generously giving them an education, health, social protection and work. This was just one more faction that wanted to take their territory away from them so as to deprive them of their source of wealth and their living, and to rob them of the exciting commercial and military adventure they believed they were living through, thanks to Taylorland.

As these children (7) saw it, the blue berets with their UN badges were no different from the mercenary Gurkha Security Guards hired by private companies in 1994, or the men of Executive Outcomes (1996), or of Sandline International (1997), or the Lifeguards they had been holding at bay since 1998. And besides, BBC radio had told them last December that the Indian battalions of the blue berets included Gurkhas who were to operate in the diamond-mining areas. It is even known that last March UN high-ups met the leaders of a number of private armies (including Executive Outcomes, Sandline International and Israel's Levdan), to look at ways of working together.

Frenzied issuing of licences

Any peace agreement was undermined from the outset by the operations of the mining companies. Early on, between February and June last year, when the Lomé peace deal between the RUF and the government was in prospect, there was a scramble between the small mining companies to buy back from, or have renewed by, the government in Freetown diamond concessions on land that was in fact still in rebel hands.

Between February and June 1999, when the blood spilt in January's battle in Freetown (6,000 dead in two weeks, if one can believe the estimates) was still wet, the capital's top hotel was once again full of diamond merchants looking for consignments they could sell in Antwerp, Bombay, Tel Aviv or Mauritius. And there were the representatives of the junior companies seeking concessions in places where, after the rainy season, diamonds can be dug with a minimum of infrastructure and a dirt-cheap labour force. The government, newly reinstalled in March 1998 by the Economic Community of West African States monitoring group (Ecomog) and the mercenaries of Sandline International (a kind of privatised branch of the British Secret Service), set about allocating and renewing concessions by the dozen.

There was a new gold rush among the eager junior companies. The Belgian company Rex Mining, for instance, complained when the government gave its concession in the Tongo region in the south to its competitor BranchEnergy (registered in the Isle of Man tax haven, but owned 100% by the Canadian company DiamondWorks), which has organic links with the Executive Outcome mercenaries. Another strange thing is that various start-ups have risen phoenix-like from the pyre of Sierra Leone. Global Exploration Corp., belonging to Rakesh Saxena of Thailand (where he is being prosecuted for financial offences) announced to everyone's surprise that it had concessions being worked in the districts of Kono (in the east) and Tongo and Comboya (in the south). The multi-millionaire miner Jean-Raymond Boulle, famous especially for having signed contracts with Laurent Kabila to buy diamonds even before the latter was head of state, was getting his rutile-mining interests underway through his company Sierra Rutile, allied with Nord Ressources.

But this resumption of activity and feverish issuing of licences and concessions had not been given the green light by the man who was in control of the territory, ex-corporal Sankoh, at that time Taylorland's governor in Sierra Leone. The peace agreements signed in Lomé in early last July were designed to lift this burden: they provided for the disarming of the belligerents and the holding of elections. There was also an amnesty for war crimes committed by all the parties involved, including the extreme acts by Sankoh's men, while the mining cake was to be sliced up and shared out between the RUF and the government.

The UN launched its peace-keeping operation, progressively sending in its forces, but stopped short of declaring an embargo on the diamonds. Sankoh agreed to move into Freetown as vice-president and head of the pompously-named Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development. At the end of July deployment of the blue berets was cautiously begun and, equally cautiously, Nigerian forces started to pull out. On a visit to Freetown, the United States' secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, promised $55m in credits if the peace commitments were honoured.

To general amazement, Sankoh took his job seriously and called for a thorough review of all the licences that had been granted and oversight of fresh negotiations with the foreign companies. Clearly, he was preaching in the desert that his own massacres had created around him: no top civil servant in Freetown took any notice of his commission, and Unamsil was wholly hostile towards him. At the same time the Security Council decided to strengthen the blue beret contingents, and to send three battalions to take control of the diamond-mining region. A total force of 13,000 was aimed at. The escalating verbal exchanges that followed between Sankoh and Kofi Annan were of a virulence quite astounding in a UN secretary general.

Things went rapidly downhill last autumn. The leader of the RUF could see that his commission was an empty shell - it never even met. He realised, too, that he could not keep control of his troops from Freetown. Other strong men, like defence minister Hinga Norman, were gathering power. When Sankoh saw that Unamsil really was going to send the blue berets into his fiefdom, he chose to cut and run for the bush. But Taylorland knows how to ditch one of its "governors" when he ceases to be of use. He was captured by troops from the UK. The crisis of the blue berets who were taken hostage, the British deployment and the drama of the rebel chief's capture served to hide other realities.

* Journalist

(1) See Elisabeth Blunt, " Fragile peace for Sierra Leone ", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 1999.

(2) See the report The Heart of the Matter - Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security prepared by Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie and Ralph Hazleton for the Partnership Africa-Canada organisation. Launched by Canadian metal workers and Christian organisations, and financed partly from public funds, the report caused fury among many heads of mining companies, and worries among buyers dealing in stones from Sierra Leone. It is available in part on the Internet, at

(3) See William Reno, Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.

(4) The Heart of the Matter, op. cit.

(5) See Franí§ois Misser and Olivier Vallée, " Les nouveaux acteurs du secteur minier africain ", Manií¨re de Voir No. 51, " Afriques en renaissance ", May-June 2000, p. 27.

(6) William Reno, Warlord Politics and African States, Lyne Rienner Publishers, London, 1998.

(7) See Paul Richards, Fighting for the Rain Forest. War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone, Heinemann/James Currey, Oxford, 1996.

Translated by Derry Cook-RadmoreM

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