Global Policy Forum

Diamonds Buy Peace for Sierra Leone City


By Chris McGreal

June 24, 2000

The rebels are easy to spot. The three young men huddled together in stylish clothes and wearing sunglasses in the light drizzle quickly catch the eye of the Lebanese businessman. He beckons them toward an array of chrome-enhanced stereos twinkling invitingly behind the counter. "What have you got?" Kamal Jawad asks them. "We pay more than the others. Let me see your diamonds."

Sierra Leoneans have long cursed diamonds for fuelling and funding their brutal civil war, but they are a mixed blessing in the government-held city of Kenema. Far beyond the city boundaries, rebels and members of the excitable Kamajor pro-government militia dig diamonds side by side and set war aside for the sake of wealth. When the young rebels have enough to sell they slip into Kenema in search of the Lebanese buyers whose shops line the main street.

It is no secret. Almost anyone can spot the rebels. Until a few weeks ago they stayed in town overnight to make the most of the bars and nightclubs before returning to the bush. But the war is approaching Sierra Leone's diamond areas, so the Revolutionary United Front fighters now confine their visits to selling their gems and buying supplies to take back to the rebel bases. "They are too busy mining diamonds to want to fight," says Kenema's provincial secretary, Richard Freeman. "But it is not a good situation. Unfortunately, many ordinary citizens help the rebels sell their diamonds, and sell them supplies. They do not look at it that they are betraying their country; they look at it that they are making some money. That's why you see diamond shops all over the city."

Kenema is a drab city of about 150,000 people. Not many of its buildings have seen fresh paint in the past decade, except the brightly decorated shops along the main streets. Many of their signs include a picture of a diamond, for those that cannot read the words "Friend of the diamond miner", or "Supporter of the diamond trade".

Mr Jawad sits in front of his shop on a white plastic chair eyeing the passers-by. Anyone whose attention lingers for more than a moment on the array of stereos, watches and fans is coaxed in. But the electronic goods are merely the bait for other business, and his favourite clients are those with the tell-tale signs of rebellion. The RUF fighters who wander into town are not in uniform and do not carry their guns, but that is no disguise. They may be dressed a little smarter. New jeans are a good clue. Rarely do they move alone. Virtually any resident can point out the rebels arriving on the back of a pick-up truck taxi.

The young men at Mr Jawad's shop do indeed have diamonds to sell, but they want to do it in private. Twenty minutes later they emerge. They are not keen to talk. The three - all apparently in their late teens - look blank on being asked where they are from. Are they rebels? How much did they get for their diamonds? What will they do with the money? Eventually one of them gruffly breaks the silence.

"Foday Sankoh [the captured rebel chief] is our leader and he says he wants peace," he says. "We do not want to fight anymore. This country needs peace, so the government should leave us to mine in peace. Then there will be no trouble." He thinks about it and then gives his name as "Man Killer".

Mr Jawad does not like to speak of his clients as rebels, or to discuss the scale of his business with them. But he does admit that the gems are what keep him and the rest of the dealers in business. "It's not my job to ask where the diamonds come from. It's my job to be able to know who is here to sell diamonds and to give him a price we are both happy with," he says. "How can I control what he does with the money? That's the government's business. The government lets these people walk into the city and out again."

Mr Freeman disagrees. "We can't stop everyone coming into the city and a diamond is a product that is difficult to control. A man can easily hide a diamond even if you search him all over The whole diamond business is a mafia business. It encourages people to deal with the rebels. We cannot control it," he says.

But he concedes that the government has taken few concrete measures, such as withdrawing the dealers' licences. The diamond buyers say they receive visits from government officials who expect to be paid off. Mr Freeman admits that the Lebanese are sometimes asked to "contribute to the war effort".

"Our forces are guarding the hydroelectric plant. Once in a while we go to the diamond dealers to solicit contributions for their upkeep," he says.

The truth is that Kenema survives in more ways than one on the rebel diamond miners. They not only generate money for the city but helps to stave off an RUF assault. The rebels rely on the city as a market for their gems and a source supplies. "They've enjoyed the diamond mining, they don't want to be disturbed. They need to keep the city running as it is," says Captain Mana Amponsom-Boateng, intelligence officer of the Ghanaian UN peacekeepers in Kenema. "In the north they prefer to attack, so they can loot to survive, but here they have diamonds."

Rising tension

But that cosy set up is threatened as the war spreads from the north. Tension has risen as government troops press toward the rebel headquarters at Makeni and pledge to seize their diamond areas.

It is possible that many rebels from the northern areas - more used to murder, rape and looting than mining - will move down to protect the RUF's diamond supplies. There are also sighns that the President Charles Taylor of Liberia plans to ensure that the rebels defend the mines, from which he, too, has profited. But for now Mr Freeman says he does not believe that the rebels around the city want to join the fight. "Some of these rebel commanders have relatives in the city here, so we send them to talk to them. They are indicating that they don't want to go on fighting, they don't see any gains after all those years," he says. "They are still holding on to their guns, but a lot of the rebels have wives in the city. If they attack, we will take control of their families. They know that."

The equilibrium was almost upset three weeks ago during a visit to Kenema by Sierra Leone's deputy defence minister, Samuel Hinga Norman. He is also the leader of the Kamajor militia and promised to rearm them and send them to attack the RUF. The city government and the UN were horrified.

"It wasn't a wise pronouncement," Capt Amponsom-Boateng says. "It incensed the RUF and made things very tense for a few days. We tried to do some negotiation. We wrote a letter, gave it to the chairman of the bus drivers' union and told him to deliver it to the RUF commander who used to call himself 'Man O'War'. Now he says he's called 'Man O'Peace'. The letter said we weren't planning to attack."

Militia disarmed

If it comes to a fight, Kenema will be in trouble. For years it relied on Nigerian troops of the west African intervention force Ecomog and the Kamajor to keep the rebels at bay. But Ecomog has gone and most of the Kamajors were disarmed under the collapsed peace accords.

There are 548 Sierra Leone army soldiers in Kenema, but not one has a gun. So the city looks to the nearly 800 UN peacekeepers for protection. But after the woeful performance of UN troops in other parts of Sierra Leone last month, when hundreds surrendered to the rebels without firing a shot, the residents are wary.

"Ecomog protected the city," Mr Freeman says. "I cannot say people have faith in the UN to do the same. People ask the question: how do you allow the rebels to surround you and take you prisoner?"

The lack of faith may be misplaced. The Ghanaians were previously with Ecomog near Freetown, and inflicted casualties on the rebels. In April, soon after they arrived in Kenema, the RUF attacked one of their posts. "They thought as soon as we heard pistol fire we would evacuate," Capt Amponsom-Boateng says. "That's when we made it clear we would fight. They haven't done it again." But the Ghanaians are quietly reassembling the guns taken from the Kamajors for the day when the order comes to rearm the militia.

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