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Annemarie van Berkel, Research Assistant
In Angola a war has been going on for more than three decades. The warring parties fund their armies by trading natural resources, in particular diamonds and oil, for weapons and ammunition. But recently, the world's biggest diamond cartel, De Beers, announced it had placed an embargo on the purchase of Angolan diamonds.
The war started in 1974 after the Portuguese colony became independent. The chief antagonists are the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the anti-Marxist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Cuba supported the MPLA, while the United States, South Africa and China supported UNITA.
After the Cold War, the major powers pulled back from Africa, leaving many of the war machines hungry for funds to keep up their struggle. The void was soon filled by another group of actors: multinational companies interested in exploiting natural resources.
In 1992 the MPLA won elections and formed a new government. Two years later the Lusaka Protocol was signed, and for four years there was something like peace. But UNITA never fully implemented the protocol, and by December 1998 the war had resumed with each party intent on destroying the other.
UNITA's main source of funding comes from diamonds. Angolan diamonds are famous for their high quality. The rebels control two-thirds of the diamond production in the country, although several military clashes with government forces in the diamond rich Lunda Norte province have disrupted the flow of gems. Nonetheless, between 1992 and 1997, UNITA is estimated to have earned $3.7 billion through diamond sales.
The MPLA derives its revenues from oil. Offshore Angola is recognized as a world class area for oil exploration and production. The production is largely centered in Cabinda, an enclave separated from the main part of the country by a "corridor to the sea" for the Democratic Republic of Congo. This part of Angola has not been touched by the war, although it remains vulnerable. Oil accounts for 80% of total government revenues, some $4 billion in 1998. UNITA is less interested in oil because it is a commodity more difficult for it to smuggle onto world markets.
The victims of Angola's war are its citizens -- more then 600,000 dead and 3 million refugees. UNITA is seen as the main perpetrator of violence. In 1993, the United Nations Security Council attempted to limit UNITA's ability to wage war by imposing an embargo on oil and arms supplies to UNITA. But not until 1998 did the Security Council impose an embargo on the direct and indirect import of "unofficial" diamonds - those that do not carry a certificate of origin from the Angolan government.
In spite of the embargo, the UN sanctions have been completely ineffective, largely because the diamond market is complex and not transparent. The market is dominated by the South African multinational De Beers, which controls more than 70% of world diamond sales. And although De Beers recently announced it would abide by the UN embargo and not purchase unofficial Angolan diamonds, its annual reports during the 1990s clearly show the company's involvement in Angola. Many regard the company's recent announcement as a symbolic gesture, in response to a campaign started by a group of European non-governmental organizations to alert the public to De Beers' role in supporting UNITA.
The routes for smuggling diamonds are endless. Inadequate control and official corruption allow diamonds to be exported through countries such as Zambia (itself a diamond producer), the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa, to markets in Europe and Israel. No one requires verification of the source, although it is not difficult to distinguish the high quality of Angolan diamonds from those found in Zambia. In return for diamonds there is steady flow of weapons. Arms from Albania and Bulgaria reach UNITA by reversing the routes used to export gems.
On the government side, oil revenues are used to buy weapons to continue the war against UNITA rather than being invested in the Angolan people. Several American and European oil companies are hungry to exploit the country's oil resources, and in return weapons flow in from Russia, Portugal, Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria and South Africa. In fact, Africa has become an attractive and profitable dumping ground for nations and arm manufacturers eager to get rid of weapon stocks made superfluous by the end of the Cold War or by technological developments.
As long as the diamond trade continues, so will the war. It is not African countries buying the diamonds and it is not African countries selling the arms. Nations far from the scene still play a role in many African conflicts, either by purchasing mineral resources or supplying weapons and ammunition to the warring parties. It leaves physical exhaustion of the people as the only brake on continued war.
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