Wringing a continent dry to put a ring on her finger
Pirates and their loot have captured the imagination of many generations of schoolboys. In the world's last great unexplored quarry, Africa, pirates and loot are part of life, harsh as the desert landscape. From the search for diamonds in King Solomon’s Mines to the heartless plunder of Congolese ivory in Heart of Darkness to the present day, Africa has been a helpless target for plunder. Ghana used to be called the Gold Coast and Cote d’Ivoire says everything. It still is.
Blood Diamond, a Warner Brothers movie to be released in December, will bring the topic to a wider public. Set in the late 1990s when rebel militias seized control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines and sold rough gems to buy weapons to slaughter and mutilate thousands of innocent people, the film aims to create awareness of the conflict diamond trade. The film depicts a diamond cartel that buys conflict gems from rebels and mercenaries and stockpiles them in their European vaults to stop them flooding the diamond market. A dozen child amputees appear in the film, real victims of diamond wars. It also focuses on other casualties of the gem wars: millions of refugees and thousands of child soldiers. There are 200,000 of these soldiers in Africa: young boys abducted from their families and trained to kill and to do atrocities.
The diamond industry has responded with a multi-million dollar campaign to educate consumers about the Kimberley Process (a private entity run by US diamond trade groups that issues rough diamond certificates and is responsible for controlling the US trade of rough diamonds).(1) The campaign, admitted a member of the World Diamond Council, "was designed to educate consumers about a story we should have told years ago." Seeing the damage diamond sales have done in human terms over many years and in many places, this is an understatement.
The diamond industry has a bad name in Africa for funding rebel activities and civil wars, for purchasing arms and for money-laundering. A report to the UN Security Council in September this year revealed that large stocks of conflict diamonds from the rebel-controlled area of Cote d’Ivoire were infiltrating the legal diamond trade. They are smuggled into Ghana, bypassing Kimberley Process procedures. Also in September Botswana entered the diamonds scene: Kalahari Bushmen were evicted by the government from their land where De Beers is exploring for diamonds. Through their advocates they appealed to Leonardo di Caprio, the star of Blood Diamond, asking for help.
Diamonds is only one large chapter. Oil and gold are others. The involvement of world powers in Sudan’s oil is becoming better publicised in the world media. In the last year China, the world’s second-largest consumer of oil, has moved into the petroleum sector in Gabon, Angola, Algeria and Egypt. It already has a large stake in Sudan, and beat a Swedish and a Spanish company for prospecting rights in Kenya. The China National Offshore Oil Company Ltd (CNOOC) has been awarded six out of eleven blocks, including the two best. Last year CNOOC purchased a stake in Nigeria’s OML Block 130 for US$ 2.3 billion, making China one of the top direct investment providers in Africa. China already exports oil from Angola and Congo Brazzaville. Neighbouring Uganda has already struck oil reserves in commercial quantities and by 2012 it expects to export 40,000 barrels per day. Sub-Saharan African has become one of the fastest-growing oil arenas in the world.
Chinese activity in Sudan is worrying. The European Coalition on Oil in Sudan (ECOS) and other human rights groups accuse the Chinese of colluding with the Khartoum government in financing the war against the rebels in Darfur. Sudan exports 300,000 barrels per day of crude oil, and petroleum and its derivatives have been leading export items for several years.
In Block 6 -- mainly Darfur -- 40,000 barrels are produced per day. Oil has been discovered on the North-South (of Sudan) divide which passes through Darfur. If the South votes to secede after five years, the area will have been devastated by the government's scorched earth policy. Khartoum has also been buying arms from China: gun-ships, planes, military trucks, small firearms and ammunition. China has a policy of non-intervention in conflict resolution and prevention in Africa. It has never condemned Khartoum for the atrocities in Darfur; nor does it support US sanctions imposed on the Bashir regime.
Oil wealth is dangerous enough, but under its hard ground of Dafur may lie gold and diamonds as well. The west and south-west parts of the region have been earmarked by foreign companies and by the Sudanese government for prospecting. The conflict is spilling over into Chad too, where many civilians have been killed by the Janjaweed; Chad also has oil reserves and natural gas.
Russia also needs Africa’s oil and natural resources. Russian companies plan to invest US$5 billion in sub-Saharan Africa's natural resources industry over the next five years. It was Russia that largely supplied weapons for the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and they are still selling weapons to both countries. Eritrea may have minerals and energy, and Russia wants to be there first.
Africa still depends heavily on its natural resources, whereas in most of the rest of the world manufactured goods make up 80 per cent of exports. Its resource wealth attracts conflict, because of widespread poverty; and the poverty is aggravated by conflict over the resources. It is a vicious circle. What Africans fear is that the environment will be adversely affected. In the greedy international rush for the spoils, China, along with India, Russia and Malaysia may leave Africa a depleted disaster area.
There are signs of hope: one is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. This requires oil, gas and mining companies to publicly disclose all the payments they make to governments. Governments in turn are supposed to publish what they receive from these companies. Some key countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Democratic Republic of Congo have already signed up. As China’s economic development increases, will the call for democratisation and transparency grow too, as has happened elsewhere? For Africa’s sake, we hope so.
Perhaps Hollywood has got it right. Blood Diamond may bring about change for the better. If so, we need many more Hollywood production to put a spotlight on human rights abuses in Africa, especially those carried out against the most innocent and vulnerable, the children: the ones in forced labour, the victims of prostitution, pornography and trafficking, and the child soldiers in this part of Africa whose treasures outstrip the fabled splendour of Ali Baba’s cave.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.
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