Publication date: 
Oct 2015
Lying at the centre of a tumultuous region, the Central African Republic and its turbulent history is often overlooked. The book Making Sense of the Central African Republic collects the views of experts and provides in-depth analysis of the country’s instability, history of rebellion and international and regional intervention.

Our East and Central Africa Projects Manager, Ned Dalby, has contributed a chapter for this publication entitled "A Multifaceted Business: Diamonds in the Central African Republic". Here is an excerpt.

This piece examines diamond mining and trading in the Central African Republic (CAR) from the points of view of rural mining communities, the presidential palace, and entrepreneurial rebel leaders. It argues that the diamond business illustrates several engrained characteristics of the country’s political economy that help explain its current situation.

For thousands of miners, digging for diamonds is a gruelling way of life that shapes their economic, social, cultural and political outlook, including their attitude to the state. When faced on a daily basis with the venality of state officials on the one hand and the lucrative black market on the other, most miners opt to steer clear of officialdom and operate entirely outside state regulations. This is symptomatic of how the state, by abusing its power, has become an obstacle that Central Africans are at pains to avoid, if not escape altogether.

The illicit diamond smuggling networks that have flourished as a result stretch into Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chad, and Sudan. This pattern is indicative of the regional and transnational commercial linkages that characterise CAR’s economy.

A backwards glance at how successive presidents have governed the diamond business reveals how the powerful few have exploited the sector for their own personal gain at the expense of the many. From self-proclaimed Emperor Bokassa to Francois Bozizé, the ‘big men’ have sought to maximise their profits mainly by heavily taxing the mining operations of outsiders.

This reflects the wider tendency of those in power in CAR, dating back to colonial times, to subcontract the management of national goods to non-nationals in return for hefty compensation. Such concessionary politics makes it all the more difficult for local business and expertise to grow.

Finally, diamonds stand out as one of the few resources – a source of money and influence – for political entrepreneurs in the hinterland seeking to gain a foothold in the political marketplace. They throw into sharp relief the concentration of power in the capital, Bangui, and at the same time the web of commercial and political connections that spans the region. It was in part these cross-border contacts that enabled Seleka’s leaders to mount a rebellion worthy of the name.

In CAR, diamonds have become intertwined with economic survival, social and political status, citizenship and organised violence. Consequently, a closer look at these ‘dangerous little stones’ (International Crisis Group, 2010) offers valuable insights into the country's political economy.

The business of rebellion

Though they are far from sufficient to explain the rise of rebellion in CAR, diamonds have still been an important part of the process of rebellion in the northeast over the past decade. The geo-political location of the northeastern diamond fields, far from the reach of state power centralised in Bangui, has made them a valuable resource available to political entrepreneurs seeking to launch a rebellion. In addition, those very individuals accrued the wherewithal (transnational business contacts, technical expertise) to initiate their plans in part through mining and trading diamonds. As one Seleka leader explained,

When we started this movement about the exclusion of the north, we brought local communities together, and they gave us some support, but it was not enough. Then slowly we started to trade diamonds, and it became like a business for us.

Senior Seleka leader (Agger, 2014, 9)