Diamonds are a dictator's best friend. Just ask Robert Mugabe, president and dictator of Zimbabwe. When things seemed to be at their worst for Mugabe, diamonds were discovered at Marange, in eastern Zimbabwe. The old monster was saved because he got enough money to pay his thugs. One of the first lessons of dictatorship: Keep the thugs happy. Mugabe, who had destroyed his currency, starved his people and turned the breadbasket of Africa into yet another begging bowl, looked as though he was through, when in 2006 diamonds were found in an unexpected place. Thousands of itinerants flooded into Marange to lay claim to the riches, under the colonial-era mining laws. They had few tools, but they had hope. Sadly, they also had Mugabe. He sent in his military to evict the miners. They used helicopter gunships; at least 200 miners were slaughtered and the rest were driven off. The army took over the diamond fields and Mugabe was renewed in power. There has been enough money (about $1.7 billion a year), through official and unofficial diamond sales, not only to keep the thugs in power and their Mercedes-Benzes fueled. But there also may have been enough money quiet Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and impotent prime minister. When I asked two very brave women, who have cycled in and out of jail because they tried to do something about the pitiful condition of women in Zimbabwe, whether they were hopeful about Tsvangirai and the opposition, one of them snorted: “Government in Zimbabwe is about who gets a Mercedes-Benz.” Peter Godwin, who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1957 and who has been a fearless chronicler of the decline and fall of his homeland in books and articles, has pointed out the evil of these “coalition” governments. It is, he has said, a spoils system where elections are negated when the contestants decide they both won; and in a united government, they can just divide up the spoils instead of fighting over them. In Zimbabwe the fear is that Tsvangirai, rather than resolving to get rid of the Mugabe government apparatus, if he ever becomes president, will keep it and perfect it. Mugagbe preserved the most repressive colonial laws to use at will himself, while blaming the white settlers for them. One of Mugabe's gambits, detailed by Godwin, is particularly cruel: How you appear to win elections fairly when you have coerced the electorate cruelly. Suspected opposition supporters are seized by the police and the military in the rural areas and then are taken to torture centers -- located in schools -- where they are beaten and maimed. Often, their feet and legs are pulped. The children of dictatorships learn their lessons early. The victims are sent back to their villages as a perpetual reminder of what happens if you vote against the “Big Man.” Even so, it should be noted the Mugabe lost the last election and simply stayed. His concession to the winner, Tsvangirai, was to stop bringing treason charges against him and to make him prime minister. Not so much power-sharing as loot-sharing. Watch for more of it as faux democracy continues in Africa, south of the Sahara and possibly north of it. Like Godwin, I was born in Rhodesia. Like many young people at the time, inside and outside of the country, we dreamed of a free, multi-ethnic Africa -- the whole continent a kind of Garden of Eden. Our template for that was Rhodesia of the time: peaceful, prosperous, idyllic, but in need of extending the franchise genuinely to all the people -- de facto ensuring black government. Instead, we got Ian Smith: a brave fool who tried to extend the status quo and brought on a race war which brought Mugabe to power. In his first days as president, while Mugabe was feted around the world and showered with honors, he sent his dreaded 5th Brigade into Matabeleland; the stronghold of his opponent Joshua Nkomo, later to be incorporated into the Mugabe system of government, but not before 20,000 of his Ndbele people had been killed by the Mugabe men. For 31 years, the government of Mugabe and his “security” men has reduced Zimbabwe to ruin, driving maybe as many as 3 million people into refugee status in neighboring countries, starving and beating the people of my childhood. The tears of Africa, like diamonds, seem to be forever. -- For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Diamonds are not a country’s best friend; certainly not if yours is a semi-lawless country in Africa, like Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe the discovery of diamonds in the beautiful part of the country around Marange, southeast of the capital of Harare, has probably extended the life of the Robert Mugabe regime by two years. Their discovery by a British company, Africa Consolidated Resources, in September 2006, provided Mugabe with another source of plunder; plunder he could use to keep his brutal security forces loyal.
Fact is that such economic governance as remains in Zimbabwe is directed to finding cash to pay the army and the police, who keep the Mugabe regime afloat, Even so, Mugabe had fallen behind; and last December soldiers and police demonstrated in Harare, demanding to be paid. Basically, Mugabe’s response was to cede the diamond operations to the security forces.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch says the security forces killed 200 miners while tightening their grip on the mines and introducing forced labor. The Kimberley Process, a humanitarian alliance set up to stop the flow of so-called blood diamonds, sent a six-person team to investigate the Zimbabwe mines and found such human rights abuses that it classified the gems as blood diamonds to be sanctioned.
But diamonds are hard to trace and label; they are fungible and portable, and they can be mined with a pick and shovel in many places, as they are today in Zimbabwe and Congo. They also can be smuggled in many of the ways drugs are, except there is no odor to aid border guards with dogs.
Through the years diamonds have been ingested, concealed in body cavities and even hidden in wounds. Desperate people do desperate things–and never more so when there is the prospect of riches in places of utter poverty.
A diamond rush, as has happened in Zimbabwe, is a dangerous, lawless, violent and wretched occurrence.
As Mugabe has rejected international mining partners, who might actually know something about the safe and orderly mining of diamonds, the Zimbabwe mines are dangerous, inefficient and environmentally disastrous.
The Zimbabweans are not even getting fair value for their gems. These are being marketed through back channels established by the government, and untold numbers of gems are stolen at production and sold to middle men and unscrupulous cutters around the world.
The link between the security forces and the mines has another bad effect: It adds to the political impotence of Morgan Tsvangirai, prime minister in a power-sharing arrangement with Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. In that arrangement Mugabe retains control of the the security forces, thus robbing Tsvangirai of any authority–not that he would use it well if he got it.
Zimbabweans are wondering what has happened to Tsvangirai, who seems to have lost the ability to stand up to Mugabe. For nearly a decade, Tsvangirai endured false arrests, allegations of treason, beatings while in custody and had the last election stolen from him and his Movement for Democratic Change.
Now Zimbabweans are asking whether the trappings of power have corrupted their hero or whether, in accepting the South Africa-brokered power-sharing deal, Tsvangirai boxed himself in. Anyway, he looks as though he has become Mugabe’s bagman, touring the world seeking “investment.” Tsvangirai has been promised some very limited humanitarian aid, including $8 million of conditional aid from the British and a promise of a little over $73 million of even more restricted and conditional aid from President Obama. World leaders are aware that $7 million in private charity money for AIDS victims was.diverted.
When Tvangirai got back to Harare, Mugabe supporters ridiculed his efforts
and his own supporters accused him of selling out to Mugabe. As if to show up his old rival, Mugabe then announced a Chinese loan of just under $1 billion; much of this money has to be spent on Chinese imports.
It is ironic that Mugabe should be kept in power by diamonds. It was diamonds that formed the basis of the fortune that enabled the adventurer, Cecil John Rhodes, to colonize Zimbabwe for Britain in the 1890s. Maybe all diamonds are conflict diamonds. Bloody stones. –For Hearst-New York Times Syndicate