World

THE DIAMOND WAR

Canada tries to halt the illegal sales fuelling a brutal conflict

TOM FENNELL March 22 1999
World

THE DIAMOND WAR

Canada tries to halt the illegal sales fuelling a brutal conflict

TOM FENNELL March 22 1999

THE DIAMOND WAR

World

Canada tries to halt the illegal sales fuelling a brutal conflict

On a dirt road snaking its way through the teeming Terra Nova district on the outskirts of the Angolan capital of Luanda, 18-year-old Paulo Cortés and his four friends have stopped playing basketball to escape the scorching midday sun. Cortés just finished high school with honours, and he wants a scholarship abroad to study engineering. For now, however, his main goal is simple: stay out of the civil war raging in his country. Reports of military police swooping down on nearby shantytowns in search of recruits have created widespread panic. Like every 18to 20-year-old male, Cortés was forced to sign up for Angola’s draft. Now, he fears the police are coming for him. “They will beat me, and do everything to put me in a truck and send me to the front line,” he says. “But I won’t go.”

Angola was once a Cold War battlefield, pitting the United States, apartheid-era South Africa and guerrillas belonging to UNITA—the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola—against a then-Marxist government backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. The ideological struggle is long dead, but the war rages on. The

fighting now, according to Robert Fowler, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, is about greed, power and control of a treasure trove of diamonds worth billions of dollars. UNITA rebels have overrun several diamond mines, including one owned by Canadians—slaughtering employees and selling the gems on the black market. It has been a lucrative tactic: since 1992, UNITA guerrillas have sold an estimated $5 billion worth of illegal diamonds, and much of the money has been spent on weapons.

Fowler is involved because, thanks to Canada’s current two-year membership on the Security Council, he has become head of the United Nations Angolan Sanctions Committee. In 1997, in an effort to undercut UNITA, the United Nations banned the sale of Angolan diamonds not carrying the official stamp of the government—but the effort has been largely futile. Now, with the diamond-financed civil war threatening to spill over into neighbouring countries, Fowler is about to depart on a fact-finding mission to determine what can be done to choke off the supply of black-market glitter. Later this spring, he will meet in Ottawa with executives of Canadian mining firms with

operations in the African country. Then, he will fly to Angola, South Africa and London to talk with leading officials in the gem trade. “Diamonds are the grease in this whole dilemma,” Fowler told Maclean’s. “They have allowed the rebels to equip their forces and they are now one of the best armies in Africa.”

Fowler has no easy task. Led by mercurial chief Jonas Savimbi, UNITA has been battling Angola’s ruling National Movement for the Liberation of Angola since 1975, when the country gained independence from Portugal. Nearly 800,000 people have been killed, and peace initiatives have been impossible to enforce. On Feb. 26, the mandate of the United Nations’ five-year, $2.2-billion mission in Angola expired in utter failure. The 1,000 peacekeepers still in the country are slated to leave by the end of March and the fighting is expected to turn ferocious. “We must destroy, once and for all, the war machine of Jonas Savimbi,” declares Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

Dos Santos, who no longer espouses Marxism, did reach a tentative peace deal with Savimbi in 1991 and held elections the following year. But UNITA said it would consider the vote free and fair only if it won. It did not. Today, near Luanda’s restored waterfront

stands the bullet-riddled Hotel Turismo, where UNITA leaders shot their way out after their election loss—a poignant monument to the country’s democratic failure.

A UN-brokered peace deal in 1994, known as the Lusaka Protocol, also attempted to end the fighting. The UNITA rebels simply viewed the truce as breathing space to rearm. The rebels even purchased 60 tanks from Ukraine and sent soldiers to Morocco for training. “UNITA transformed itself from a guerrilla army into a conventional fighting force,” says Richard Cornwell of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies. The government, incensed by UNITA’s failure to hand over diamond-rich territory as outlined in the protocol, last December attacked rebel strongholds in the central highlands. At that point, says Allan Cain, Canada’s honorary consul in Angola, “war became inevitable.”

Years of fighting have shattered the country. Some 30,000 people were killed in the central town of Kuito alone in 1993. Now, Kuito is under siege again. Along the main road, an apartment complex stands like a smashed dollhouse, its front wall blown off. Families huddle around campfires inside. The only thing planted in the area’s fertile farmlands are land mines, and displaced farmers are flooding into the garrison town. At the main hospital, the 100-or-so beds are all occupied, mostly by land-mine victims. ‘We were going to buy

potatoes,” said Manuel José Almeda, 36. “Then a land mine hit our truck and killed four people.”

At the moment, the government holds Luanda, the coast and garrison towns in the interior, while UNITA controls much of the rest. Savimbi is described as a “psychopathic megalomaniac” by one diplomat. But he retains quiet support among many Angolans, even in some quarters of Luanda. ‘Yes, Savimbi may be a killer,” says one taxi driver in the capital. “But he is fighting for our national identity.”

President dos Santos is widely viewed as a foreigner whose grandparents hailed from the west African coastal islands of Sao Tomé and Principé. In seven years, the president has left Luanda for the interior of Angola only once, on a one-day campaign trip. He recently consolidated his military power and appointed a hardliner, Kundy Payama, as defence minister, a move seen as a rejection of any negotiations with UNITA. Most observers agree that Savimbi cannot conquer Luanda, while the government is incapable of crushing UNITA in the interior.

Westerners, however, have strong economic incentives to push for peace. Angola has vast oil reserves to go along with its multibilliondollar diamond deposits—potentially making the country the richest in Africa. Canadian firms are among the few foreign mining companies to brave the violence. On Nov. 8, UNITA forces overran a mine in the north owned by Vancouver-based, British-managed DiamondWorks Resources Ltd., killing eight workers and injuring 18. Four foreign nationals were kidnapped and the company is now trying to negotiate their release, while it spends $10 million to reopen the mine. “UNITA’s strategy is to scare investors out of Angola,” says Johan Slabber, the director of DiamondWorks in Luanda. “They have done this successfully.”

Security now accounts for 20 per cent of the company’s operating costs. At its inconspicuous offices near Luanda’s airport, army brigadiers routinely come to strike new security deals. Some mines are now completely surrounded by government commandos.

As part of his fact-finding mission, Fowler will also travel to Kimberley, South Africa, where he will visit the headquarters of De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., which controls more than 50 per cent of the world’s diamond trade. While there, he hopes to learn more about how UNITA’s diamonds enter the open market. Fowler will then fly on to London to discuss with executives in major gemtrading houses how to stop the illegal trade.

De Beers’ officials have denied speculation by some analysts that the company has been buying the Angola diamonds at depressed prices from the guerrillas. Other experts suggest that Russian diamond traders are behind the smuggling. Christopher Jennings, chairman of Toronto-based SouthernEra Resources Ltd., which is exploring for diamonds in northern Angola, says the gems can easily be smuggled to Moscow aboard cargo planes, then mixed with Russian stones and laundered through exchanges in Europe. Fowler is under no illusion that the United Nations will be able to completely choke off the flow of illegal diamonds. But once armed with information on the trade, he says, he hopes to “encourage, embarrass and shame countries into adhering to UN sanctions.”

If the illicit commerce is not controlled, Fowler believes the civil war in Angola will be exported into nearby countries. Zambia has declared its support for the Angolan government, but fighting could still break out between the two governments over Zambia’s refusal to allow Angolan forces to attack UNITA from inside its borders. UNITA rebels are also embroiled in Congo, where they have struck alliances with rebel forces, backed by Uganda and Rwanda, fighting the administration of President Laurent Kabila, who is supported by Angolan troops. “UNITA is a well-armed gang of fighters who have ranged widely through central Africa,” says Fowler. “They are players in the turmoil in Congo.” And as long as UNITA has the diamonds to finance its struggle, Angola’s own war will continue to spread. Sooner or later, the police will undoubtedly arrive at the basketball court in Luanda to send Paulo Cortés and his friends to the front lines. Cortés says sadly: “I have no future.”

TOM FENNELL

STEFAN LOVGREN