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  • The Illicit Diamond Trade, Civil Conflicts, and Terrorism in Africa
  • J. Anyu Ndumbe (bio) and Babalola Cole (bio)

Diamonds have long been viewed as a highly valued precious stone. Although a diamond is a symbol of love for those who can afford it, it has turned out to be the rebel's best friend in war-torn West Africa. The international lust for diamonds propelled the growth of a global market over the past three decades, with trade being conducted both legally and illegally. In the 1990s, the illegal diamond trade financed bloody wars in several African countries. Rebel armies, terrorists, warlords, and smugglers have exploited the weaknesses in the regulations governing the diamond trade and in the process reduced organized states into chaos. More than 4 million people have been killed in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia since 1992.1 In this article we examine the nexus among the diamond trade, armed conflicts, and terrorism. We further explore the nature of the diamond markets, the various actors, and the impact of illicit diamond trade on individual countries and the global security system.

A complex web of illegal practices has plagued the diamond trade in Africa, starting in 1866 when these precious stones were first discovered in South Africa. The unprecedented and seemingly inexhaustible supply of diamonds attracted many investors ready and able to exploit it, resulting in a [End Page 52] massive influx of diamonds to Europe. It is against this backdrop that Cecil Rhodes decided to syndicate diamond mines in South Africa with the objective of creating a balance between demand and supply, and the coalition of the Kimberly and De Beers companies transformed the industry from one characterized by uncertainty to one based on speculation. Soon thereafter, the German discovery of diamonds in German Southwest Africa (Namibia) greatly undermined the objective of the syndicate. In spite of these developments there was an influx of South Africa's diamonds to Antwerp, Belgium, making it one of the world's leading diamond centers.2

By the dawn of the twentieth century, De Beers controlled about 90 percent of the international diamond trade. The Great Depression in the 1930s inflicted serious financial strain on the diamond industry, but this did not deter De Beers from continuing to pursue a grand design of building a global diamond empire. In response to the falling prices of diamonds caused by the Depression, the company initiated a scheme of purchasing virtually all the diamond mines in the world, thus bolstering its fortunes through monopolistic practices. The De Beers trading company—Central Selling Organization—controlled global diamond output until recently.

The diamond trade in Africa has been a mixed blessing. A diamond is a highly valued mineral in many areas around the world, but it has also fueled civil conflicts in Africa. This is nowhere more true than in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia.


Diamonds have played an important role in the civil war in Angola. This bloody conflict began in 1956 with the struggle against Portuguese colonialism and the formation of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) in 1961. A third group, UNITA, soon began fighting the Portuguese, the MPLA, and the FNLA. Soon the armed struggle acquired ethnic and regional characteristics as well as an ideological split. UNITA disliked the fact that the MPLA was dominated by mestico (mixed race) intellectuals from coastal cities who [End Page 53] opposed the FNLA because of the support it received from the United States and its control by northerners. UNITA followers believed they represented "real Africans" from the central highlands of the country and therefore could lay legitimate claims to preeminence.

In 1975, Portugal ended its colonial rule, leaving the MPLA in charge of Luanda, the capital, and Angola's independence was immediately followed by serious ideological differences that culminated in a civil war. The Cold War environment created strange bedfellows. The United States and South Africa were determined to destabilize Angola and overthrow its Soviet-backed regime. It was for this reason that they provided support for UNITA's decision...


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pp. 52-65
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2019
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