Who really controls Africa’s ‘blood-diamond’ trade?
Author: Abayomi Azikiwe
Category: Resource Extraction
Source: Workers World
Source Website: www.workers.org
Corporate media coverage in early August of British model Naomi Campbell’s testimony at the Special War Crimes Court on Sierra Leone doesn’t provide a clue to the background of this trial against former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The ongoing tribunal, which is taking place in The Hague, Netherlands, charges Taylor with utilizing diamonds to fund the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group in Sierra Leone. Campbell’s testimony centered around whether or not she had received diamonds from Taylor during a 1997 visit to the Republic of South Africa to support the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
Yet the questions asked of Campbell, who was forced into testifying, and the content of her testimony revealed nothing about the origins of the political crises in Liberia and Sierra Leone — or of the historic role of the United States, Britain and other imperialist states that have used their influence to control the marketing and distribution of African diamonds. This sensational angle in Taylor’s trial also conceals what was really at stake during the Liberian civil war. During the late 1990s South African President Nelson Mandela helped negotiate a settlement to the Liberian conflict resulting in internationally supervised elections.
In the aftermath of a tumultuous civil war which lasted for seven years, Taylor overwhelmingly won the 1997 elections, gaining recognition by both the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (later the African Union). He survived another seven years amid attempts by armed opposition groups to topple his regime. In 2003 after the intervention of U.S. troops in Liberia, Taylor was convinced to go into exile in Nigeria. He was later handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for prosecution, where he has remained for the last six years.
Neither Taylor nor Campbell has ever had any influence in the international diamond trade. Liberia is a major producer of diamonds, but the mining and marketing of these gems are not controlled by the government or anyone else on the African continent. This lack of control of the national economies of both Sierra Leone and Liberia can be traced back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Britain and the United States established these areas as colonial outposts under the guise of providing a homeland for former enslaved Africans from the British and U.S.-controlled territories in the Western hemisphere.
British, U.S. domination over Sierra Leone, Liberia
When Lord Mansfield held that a slave owner could not remove Africans from England by force in 1772, opponents of the Atlantic slave trade interpreted the ruling as an act of emancipation for those held captive in Britain. Later, during the U.S. revolutionary war, British colonialists promised Africans who sided with them against the soon-to-be U.S. ruling class that they would be liberated from slavery when the war ended. Many of the formerly enslaved Africans emigrated to England and Nova Scotia, Canada. London grew into a center for African groups during the 1780s, some of whom had arrived from the Americas following the U.S. revolutionary war.
Many British organizations, including religious groups, felt that the solution to the emergence of an unassimilated race in Britain was to establish a “Christian-oriented” settlement in West Africa that would fall under the direct control of British finance capital and influential churches. In 1787 approximately 400 Africans departed from England to establish a new society built on land ostensibly purchased from an African monarch in the region now known as Sierra Leone. During its early years the country was ruled by the British-owned Sierra Leone Company. Soon after 1787 many Africans who had settled in Nova Scotia and had failed to obtain the land promised by the British, decided to repatriate to Sierra Leone.
Thomas Peters, who had formerly been enslaved in the United States, led 1,200 free Africans from Nova Scotia, Canada. These repatriots played an instrumental role in the founding of Freetown. Eight years later, hundreds of Africans from Jamaica who had rebelled against British slavery, commonly referred to as “Maroons,” joined the resettled Africans residing in Freetown. After the British abolished slavery in 1807, the population of repatriates grew to more than 70,000 in Sierra Leone. Several years later the experiment in resettlement began in neighboring Liberia.
Like Sierra Leone, Liberia grew out of the willingness of some enslaved Africans to return to the land of their ancestors, as well as the desire of the European settlers in the U.S. to rid the country of free Africans and establish an outpost for trade in West Africa. The settlements began in 1821 through the American Colonization Society. In 1847 Liberia was recognized by the United States as an independent republic. Nonetheless, the country has remained under U.S. influence from its founding to the present.
Despite the development of trade in palm oil, sugar, coffee and molasses, the European colonial powers who controlled the neighboring territories blocked any commerce between Liberia and the bordering nations. Faced with an economic blockade by colonial powers, the Liberian government was forced to accept a 100,000 pound sterling loan from the British at a very unfavorable rate in 1871. By the early 20th century, Liberia had received less than one-third of the loan and was so far in debt that it sought to arrange a bailout. In 1912 a loan of $1.7 million was granted by a consortium headed by J.P. Morgan, the National City Bank, First National Bank of New York, and Kuhn Loeb & Co. Liberia’s financial operations were, for all practical purposes, taken over by the United States in conjunction with its consortium partners Britain, France and Germany.
After World War I began, the U.S. government appointed a receiver-general who assumed total control of Liberia’s national treasury. The most significant extension of credit to Liberia took place in 1926 when Firestone Rubber Corporation of America granted $5 million that was used to pay off the remaining loans to the other financial institutions. In more recent times, imperialist influence has continued over the Liberian economy through control of the iron ore and diamond industries. During the 1960s iron ore deposits were estimated at 1 billion tons. The exploitation of these resources was carried out by a consortium dominated by firms from Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium, with a substantial portion of the output going to the then-powerful Bethlehem Steel Corporation based in the United States.
Whose ‘blood diamonds’?
Several major diamond-producing firms operate inside Liberia. The largest trader is Hatton Diamonds, which is part of the DeBeers Central Selling Organization. This firm has controlled the diamond market in Liberia for many decades and has run the government’s industry office. DeBeers was formed by British settler-colonialist Cecil Rhodes in 1870 and taken over in 1926 by white South African mine owner Ernest Oppenheimer, who migrated from Germany. One other major player in the Liberian diamond industry is the Antwerp Company, based in Belgium. The role of Belgium as a diamond-marketing base can be traced back to the 16th century when Antwerp was a center for the emerging mercantile and capitalist classes.
Liberia’s diamond industry has never been under the control of its people. Of course, this fact of history will not be brought into the current trial of Charles Taylor. Neither will the fact that the U.S. administration under George W. Bush played an instrumental role in overthrowing Taylor through the Guinea-based Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development rebel group, which received arms and training from Washington. One major criticism of the Taylor trial and other efforts to bring African leaders before the International Criminal Court — such as Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir — is that the court has focused exclusively on leaders from the continent and has ignored the most devastating war crimes committed by the U.S. ruling class and other Western imperialist states.
The occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ongoing U.S. support for the state of Israel and its occupation over the Palestinians, as well as the imperialist role in the deaths of 4 million to 6 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have not been addressed by the ICC or the U.N. Special Courts, such as the one prosecuting Taylor. It is these crimes — committed by Western imperialist states — that are being covered up in the Taylor trial.
Anti-imperialist forces in the U.S. must recognize that the ICC is not concerned with ending war crimes. Despite the role of Charles Taylor, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and other puppet dictators in Africa, the underlying forces that drove their actions can be traced backed to the continued desire on the part of imperialism to dominate the resources and labor of the African continent.
*Abayomi Azikiwe is an editor with Pan-African News Wire.