Sierra Leone History | Professional Jeweler

May 2003

Sierra Leone: 2000-2003

Progress and Continuing Challenges

For many of the countries of West Africa, including the former British colony Sierra Leone, diamond mining has had a negative influence on the progression of local modern history.

Diamond mining and exporting was originally a legitimate and profitable business in Sierra Leone. Yet, since the country's independence in 1961, various corrupt leaders have used diamonds to manipulate their people. They tacitly encouraged Illicit diamond mining to enrich political factions while profits were used to keep guns in the hands of those who held power.

By 1991, the government was both weak and corrupt. On March 23 of that year, the Revolutionary United Front, an anti-government rebel group from Sierra Leone and Liberia, invaded eastern Sierra Leone. Fighting and extreme lawlessness and barbarity continued for almost 11 years. Legal diamond sales almost disappearing in the chaos, while illicit diamonds provided the means for violence to continue.

2000 - The Present

A cease fire was signed between President Kabbah of Sierra Leone and the leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, in January of 2000, but fighting was underway again within six months. Finally, in January 2002, a coalition of United Nations, British and Guinean forces ended the violent insurrections in Sierra Leone. By May 2002, the country's incumbent President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah had assisted in the organization of a new presidential election, which he won. Unlike many elections of the past, however, The New York Times reported little to no evidence of intimidation, and none of the previously experienced violence or kidnapping. Such signs of a legitimate democratic process could bode well both for the political future of Sierra Leone, and for the stability necessary to eradicate conflict diamonds.

As the moral issue behind conflict diamonds became well-known and an armistice looked unlikely in the years immediately prior to the 2002 peace, the diamond and jewelry industry and the world community initiated efforts to control the sale of rough diamonds worldwide in the hopes of cutting off funding to violent rebel groups in Sierra Leone and other war-torn African countries. Their challenge was, and remains, great. Many mines and diamond-rich river deltas, especially in western Africa, are controlled by unscrupulous groups who then try to sell diamonds on the legitimate market. In other situations, corrupt diamond traders have been accused of trading in conflict diamonds. To fight the problem, the United Nations placed a ban on the export of unregistered Sierra Leonean diamonds, and the Kimberley Process is now used to register and follow the paths of these gems, as well as others from all the major diamond producing and trading countries.

The Kimberley Process was begun in 2000 by the various diamond importing and exporting countries, as well as human rights groups and the diamond and jewelry industry. Its goal was to create a certification system for all rough diamonds. The certificates travel with sealed boxes of rough diamonds from their country of origin through export and re-export. The system was created to ensure that no rough diamonds from a conflict zone or without certification would be allowed into the world diamond market.

By the beginning of 2003, many countries implemented some form of the Kimberley process, improving the problem of conflict diamonds. But the system isnt perfect, especially in countries like Sierra Leone, which continue to have some political instability and feared loopholes in the rough diamond tracking process within the country. These continuing obstacles provide ongoing challenges for the Kimberley Process, the jewelry industry and the world community.

Current Output Improves

In the years leading up to Sierra Leone's civil war, legitimate diamond exports dropped dramatically, from over two million carats in 1970 to 48,000 carats in 1988. During the civil war itself, the numbers dropped even lower. However, recent figures suggest that peace efforts and stability are helping to boost mining and exports. Sierra Leones diamond export figures for the three months ended March 31, 2003, show a very strong start to the year for the Sierra Leonean diamond industry, says The Rapaport Report. In quantity terms, exports increased 111 percent to 108,033 carats compared to 51,160 carats in the previous corresponding period.

Looking Ahead

Despite encouraging upsurges in the country's legal exports, Sierra Leoneans acknowledge that much more remains to be done. After a two day workshop in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in March 2003, representatives of the diamond industry found several primary problems in need of immediate remedy. Although there are no known cartels, The Rapaport Report says that price fixing is the rule, rather than the exception. Outside dealers and traders frequently encounter hostility and intimidation when trying to compete with local merchants by paying higher prices. Diamond monitors are not yet well paid, so bribery remains common as well.

A Possible Future

With stability waning in the region, especially in Liberia and the Ivory Coast, the situation in Sierra Leone may look precarious. With the proper infrastructures in place, however, the country could have a chance to become an example of African peace and prosperity, similar to Botswana. Although Botswana and Sierra Leone once shared similar per capita income and quality of life statistics, the management of their respective diamond resources has led to vastly different results. Botswana now boasts a per capita income nearly 16 times that of Sierra Leone, and the difference is due to careful government regulations and visible rewards for ethical behavior in industry.

The Rapaport Report suggests that with assistance for revolving loan funds to buy machinery, the formation of mining cooperatives, and guidelines for certification and payment of workers, Sierra Leone could reach a place of greater independence and self-sufficiency, both politically and in the jewelry industry.

by Sarah Donahue

Sarah Donahue is a 2003 graduate of Friends Select School, Philadelphia, PA. She will attend Eugene Lang College of the New School University, starting this fall.