Sierra Leone

War and Peace in Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Corruption and the Lebanese Connection


By Lansana Gberie
"Ours was not a civil war. It was not a war based on ideology, religion or ethnicity, nor was it a 'class war'... It was a war of proxy aimed at permanent rebel control of our rich diamond fields for the benefit of outsiders." - Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, President of Sierra Leone1

While objective grievances do not generate violent conflict, violent conflict generates subjective grievances. This is not just a by-product of conflict, but an essential activity of a rebel organization... The task in post-conflict societies is partly, as in pre-conflict societies, to reduce the objective risk factors. However, post-conflict societies are much more at risk than implied by the inherited risk factors, because of this legacy of induced polarizing grievance. Either boundaries must be reestablished between the political contest and violence, or the political contest must be resolved. Neither of these is easy, which is why, once a civil war has occurred, the chances of further conflict are so high. - Paul Collier, World Bank2

In January 2002, after the formal conclusion of a UN-supervised disarmament, the Sierra Leone government announced that the country's decade-long war was over. A UN peacekeeping force, 17,000-strong, patrolled the countryside. The National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (NCDDR) said that a total of 45,844 ex-combatants - 27,490 from the pro-government Civil Defence Forces (CDF) and 18,354 from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) - had been disarmed, a large number of them children.3 Shortly afterwards, the 'new' British-trained Sierra Leone Army began to deploy near Sierra Leone's borders with Liberia and Guinea, ahead of elections which were scheduled for May. There were widespread fears that a 'breakaway RUF faction', said to number about 500 and led by a notorious former RUF commander, Sam 'Maskita' Bockarie, would mount cross-border operations from Liberia to disrupt the polls.4 In fact, the elections were conducted peacefully, and were generally deemed to have been free and fair. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who was first elected President of the war-ravaged country in 1996, and who led Sierra Leone through a traumatic peace process, was re-elected to a five-year term in a landslide. His was not be the most enviable job in the world.

Ten years of war in Sierra Leone has left the country battered and impoverished, with upwards of 50,000 killed, half the population displaced, and more than two-thirds of its already severely limited infrastructure destroyed. In 2000, Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) published a report which put much of the blame for the war - 'this enormous human tragedy' - on diamonds, small bits of carbon that have no intrinsic value in themselves, and no value whatsoever to the average Sierra Leonean beyond their attraction to foreigners. The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security recounted the corrupting of Sierra Leone's diamond industry, from peak exports of two million carats a year in the 1960s, to less than 50,000 carats by 1988. Sierra Leone's despotic president during much of this period, Siaka Stevens, had tacitly encouraged illicit mining, becoming involved himself in criminal or near-criminal activities.

The RUF's war began in 1991, and from the outset, Liberian warlord and later President, Charles Taylor, acted as mentor, trainer, banker and weapons supplier for the motley collection of dissidents, bandits and mercenaries who called themselves the Revolutionary United Front. The rich alluvial diamond fields of Kono District and Tongo Field were among the RUF's earliest and most prized targets.

The Heart of the Matter concluded that 'only the economic opportunity presented by the breakdown of law and order could sustain violence at levels that have plagued Sierra Leone since 1991... it is ironic that enormous profits have been made from diamonds throughout the conflict, but the only effect on the citizens of the country where they are mined has been terror, murder, dismemberment and poverty.' The PAC report showed conclusively that there was virtually no oversight of the international movement of diamonds. It reported that during the 1990s, for example, billions of dollars worth of diamonds were imported into Belgium from Liberia, even though Liberia produces very few diamonds itself. Big companies and small were colluding in the laundering of stolen diamonds. Although estimates of 'conflict diamonds - diamonds mined and traded by rebel groups - have been estimated at different times between 4 per cent and 15 per cent of the world total, even the low figure represents a significant volume of cash when it is set against the $7.5 billion annual trade in rough diamonds. In fact, it is estimated that as much as one-fifth of the world's rough diamond trade may be 'illicit' in nature, characterized by theft, tax evasion and money laundering.5 This is an important issue for post-war Sierra Leone, discussed in greater detail below. Given the secretive and unregulated nature of the international diamond trade, it was a very simple matter for the RUF and its Liberian backers to move millions of dollars worth of diamonds into the legitimate trade, and to use the proceeds to buy weapons and the drugs needed for its young, depraved fighters.6

The PAC report made wide-ranging recommendations, including the establishment of a 'Permanent Independent Diamond Standards Commission' under UN auspices 'in order to establish and monitor codes of conduct on governmental and corporate responsibility in the global diamond industry.' It recommended the deployment of 'Special long-term UN security forces' in all the major diamond producing areas of the country, and it recommended a UN Security Council ban on the trade in diamonds said to be of Liberian origin.

Following the 1999 Lomé Peace Agreement between the RUF and the Government of Sierra Leone, the UN deployed its largest military force in the world to Sierra Leone, and the Security Council appointed a Panel of Experts which in December 2000 produced a report amplifying the PAC findings. Like the PAC report, it blamed Liberia's President Charles Taylor as the RUF lifeline, with pillage a bigger objective than politics. The UN report estimated the RUF's diamond trade at something between $25 million and $125 million a year.7 Targeted sanctions were soon after imposed on Liberia and the RUF; similar sanctions were imposed on Sierra Leone's diamonds until a UN monitored certification system was introduced in September 2000. The Kimberley Process, an international forum which aimed to devise an international system of oversight, began to meet at the invitation of South Africa, home to the world's largest diamond company, De Beers.


1 'Kabbah on Diamond War,' New Vision (Freetown) 27 September, 2001, quoting from the President's convocation speech at the Southern Connecticut State University, after the University conferred on him an honorary doctorate in 2001

2 Paul Collier, 'Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and Their Implications for Policy', a World Bank report, available at

3 The final NCDDR tally was, in fact, 70,000, although the figures have been inflated by somewhat dubious 'ex-combatants'.

4 Robin Hughes, 'Sierra Leone Disarmament Ends,' Jane's Defence Weekly, 23 January 2002, 15

5 The full extent of the illicit trade in diamonds is documented in The Kimberley Process: The Case for Proper Monitoring, by Ian Smillie, Partnership Africa Canada, Ottawa, 2002.

6 Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie and Ralph Hazleton, The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security, Partnership Africa Canada, Ottawa, 2000

7 Report of the Panel of Experts appointed pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 1306 (2000), paragraph 19, in relation to Sierra Leone, United Nations, December 2000

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