Dangerous Little Stones: Diamonds in the Central African Republic
Dangerous Little Stones: Diamonds in the Central African Republic
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Fixing the army is key for CAR’s stability
Fixing the army is key for CAR’s stability
Report / Africa 3 minutes

Dangerous Little Stones: Diamonds in the Central African Republic

Extreme poverty and armed conflict in the diamond-rich areas of the Central African Republic (CAR) put thousands of lives in danger and demand urgent reform of the mining sector.

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Executive Summary

In the diamond mines of the Central African Republic (CAR), extreme poverty and armed conflict put thousands of lives in danger. President François Bozizé keeps tight control of the diamond sector to enrich and empower his own ethnic group but does little to alleviate the poverty that drives informal miners to dig in perilous conditions. Stringent export taxes incentivise smuggling that the mining authorities are too few and too corrupt to stop. These factors combined – a parasitic state, poverty and largely unchecked crime – move jealous factions to launch rebellions and enable armed groups to collect new recruits and profit from mining and selling diamonds illegally. To ensure diamonds fuel development not bloodshed, root and branch reform of the sector must become a core priority of the country’s peacebuilding strategy.

Nature scattered diamonds liberally over the CAR, but since colonial times foreign entrepreneurs and grasping regimes have benefited from the precious stones more than the Central African people. Mining companies have repeatedly tried to extract diamonds on an industrial scale and largely failed because the deposits are alluvial, spread thinly across two large river systems. Instead, an estimated 80,000-100,000 mostly unlicensed miners dig with picks and shovels for daily rations and the chance of striking it lucky. Middlemen, mostly West Africans, buy at meagre prices and sell at a profit to exporting companies. The government lacks both the institutional capacity to govern this dispersed, transient production chain and the will to invest diamond revenues in the long-term growth of mining communities.

Chronic state fragility has ingrained in the political elite a winner-takes-all political culture and a preference for short-term gain. The French ransacked their colony of its natural resources, and successive rulers have treated power as licence to loot. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the CAR’s one-time “emperor”, created a monopoly on diamond exports, and his personal gifts to French President Giscard d’Estaing, intended to seal their friendship, became symbols of imperial excess. Ange-Félix Patassé saw nothing wrong in using his presidency to pursue business interests and openly ran his own diamond mining company. Bozizé is more circumspect. His regime maintains tight control of mining revenues by means of a strict legal and fiscal framework and centralised, opaque management.

Since Bozizé came to power in 2003, industrial diamond mining companies have almost all left, in part because the authorities’ high demands erode potential profits. Informal artisanal mining carries on apace, but the government’s closure in 2008 of most diamond exporting companies – a ruse to better control the market – severely cut investment in the production chain, cost many miners their jobs and helped cause a spike in infant malnutrition. Expensive licences and corrupt mining police make it harder for miners to escape the poverty trap. A 12 per cent tax on diamond exports, the highest in the region, makes smuggling worthwhile and fosters illicit trading networks that deprive the state of much needed revenue.

The government’s refusal to distribute national wealth fairly has led jealous individuals and disenfranchised groups to take up arms for a bigger slice of the cake. The Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement, UFDR), more ethnic militia than rebel group, has signed a peace agreement but still mines diamonds in the north east and sells them on the black market. Poor miners joined its ranks to improve their lot, and though taking power is no longer a prospect, diamond profits are a strong incentive not to disarm. Meanwhile, the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix, CPJP), the most active rebellion, preys on miners and traders in the east. This insecurity, largely banditry under a rebel flag, severely restricts economic activity, inhibits the holding there of elections set for 23 January 2011 and puts civilian lives at great risk.

Reform of the diamond sector is a crucial element, alongside wider governance and conflict resolution measures, for improving the living conditions of miners and their families, boosting the state’s scant domestic revenues and helping break the cycle of armed conflict. The government needs first to improve governance of the mining sector, which is a question more of political will than capacity. Only when Bozizé has shown commitment to instituting more democratic control of mining revenues and enhancing transparency in management processes should international partners support mining authorities in the capital and mining zones. The reform strategy should prioritise artisanal above industrial mining, which has less direct impact on mining communities, aim to reduce incentives for smuggling and tighten controls to stop armed groups profiting from diamonds.

Nairobi/Brussels, 16 December 2010

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