Diamonds can make the difference

Four years ago, thousands of Zimbabweans in the grip of diamond fever descended on the Marange fields. Near the eastern border with Mozambique, the field of dreams did not need expensive or complicated mining equipment — you could simply pan your way to riches.

But diamonds came to mean ­different things to different ­constituencies.

There was a story — perhaps apocryphal — of a newly rich posse of young dealers who, having sold their diamonds, made their way to the nightclub Stars, normally beyond their reach. They entered and waved stacks of trillion-dollar bills while calling out, “Tapinda, tapinda!”— “We have arrived, we have arrived!”

Diamonds became closely associated with the tapinda-tapinda culture of dealers who, as the expression went, “burned”their money on flashy cars and other goods.

To the government, diamonds have come to represent the fastest way out of a 10-year economic crisis. But the sale of Zimbabwe’s diamonds was blocked — until now. This month at the World Diamond Council in St Petersburg, Zimbabwe received approval from the Kimberley Process to export a limited amount of its stockpiled diamonds.

The process is a voluntary body established in 2002 to certify that diamonds entering the market are “conflict-free”— a status not without controversy in Zimbabwe, where mining has been linked to allegations of severe human rights abuses.

Kimberley-approved exports are just what the country needs to jump-start its economy and the need for the certification was one of the few issues that united the fractured unity government. Obert Mpofu, the minister of mines, a Zanu-PF appointee, and Tendai Biti, the minister of finance, from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, were particularly energetic in their ­campaign for this approval.

But not all members of the government have the same aims for the diamonds — for some members of Zanu-PF, now cut off from access to the state coffers by Biti’s reforms at the finance ministry, the diamonds represent an opportunity to loot again.

For the NGOs and human rights groups, Zimbabwe’s diamonds are drenched in blood and represent the repression against which they have long campaigned. These groups are particularly concerned about the military presence in the Marange diamond fields, which the government justifies as necessary to prevent illegal panning and diamond smuggling. But the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, the Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights, the Centre for Research and Development and other NGOs have produced damning reports alleging abuses ranging from killings to displacement, as well as raising environmental concerns.

Unnecessary violence
These were behind the recent debates at Kimberley Process meetings. In its founding document, “conflict diamonds”are described as “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”.

There is no question that the military has used unnecessary violence in many instances. Particularly disturbing are reports of the shooting of illegal miners, the formation of syndicates using forced labour — including children — and of beatings and torture. So human rights organisations are right to be concerned about Marange.

But these kinds of abuses, outrageous and unacceptable as they are, are not unique to Zimbabwe and can be found wherever riches are discovered, such as oil in the Niger Delta or Equatorial Guinea.

As with reports from NGOs of Sierra Leone-style amputations and Darfur-like rapes during Zim-babwe’s election in 2008, human rights activists are in danger of overreaching themselves. It is simply wrong to argue that Zimbabwe’s diamonds fall within the Kimberley definition of conflict diamonds. The NGO Africa Partnership Canada spoils its most recent and otherwise excellent report by arguing that Zimbabwe’s Joint Operations Command — made up of chiefs of police, prisons, armed forces and air force — constitutes a “rebel movement seeking to destabilise the government”.

This is a startling conclusion, given that the government supposedly to be destabilised is made up of ministers from the MDC who have been actively campaigning to have the diamonds certified.

Human rights organisations have expressed dismay at Zimbabwe’s certification, but they should be heartened by its willingness to be part of the Kimberley Process. The scheme is entirely voluntary and, with ­Zimbabwe’s approval, the country will continue to be monitored.
The current monitor, Abbey Chikane, is a controversial figure whom many in the human rights community accuse of being behind the arrest of an activist, Farayi Magawu, now facing criminal charges of “spreading falsehoods” detrimental to Zimbabwe.

Chikane may be controversial but he has made some important recommendations. In particular he recommended that military personnel in Marange be replaced with trained security officers.

He also suggested a single export window, which would go some way towards tracing the gems leaving the country. And, perhaps in recognition of the controversy, the Kimberley Process has said it will appoint a panel to continue the evaluation of Zimbabwe, rather than relying on a single monitor.

Zimbabwe’s participation in the scheme gives the NGOs an influential role, which would not have been the case had the country done as it threatened to do and sold its diamonds without Kimberley approval.

The history of Zimbabwe’s relationship with the Commonwealth is instructive. When Zimbabwe quit in 2003, it left the Commonwealth ineffectively mouthing speeches from the sidelines.

The Kimberley Process has probably calculated that Zimbabwe was better in than out: “out”would mean no control at all, risking the potentially destabilising dumping of large quantities of diamonds on the world market, while “in”would mean that Kimberley could continue to have the situation monitored.

If the wealth from the diamonds is channelled properly, it is just what Zimbabwe needs. The diamond fields that have been discovered are so vast that it is estimated the country could produce a quarter of the world’s diamond needs in a matter of years.

At the same time, it is precisely this wealth that makes the diamonds so worrisome. As Zimbabwe saw with land reform, ordinary people may eventually benefit from national resources but only after the lion’s share has gone to politicians.

The crucial issue around Zimbabwe’s diamond wealth is how to ensure it benefits the whole country and not just a few because, if managed well, it has the potential to transform the country.

There is only one thing that stops Zimbabwe achieving its potential: its politicians.

Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories about Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly, won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. —

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