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Monday, August 16, 2010

Sierra Leone and the White Shoppers’ Burden

The so-called blood diamond is indeed a mysterious thing. At first sight it will look like a gemstone, it will feel like a gemstone, and no doubt it will be used as a gemstone, either to adorn oneself or to adorn that special other. But a blood diamond is not just a diamond; it has another aspect, too. For under Western eyes this special mineral is endowed with a life of its own, a power to fuel wars and to destroy the lives of millions of Africans. Such is the fetishism of a gemstone that makes Gods of Western consumers, and imbeciles of Africans.

As absurd as the belief is that diamonds are possessed of war-making, peace-brokering powers, it is one that is taken very seriously. This can be seen in The Hague’s and the media’s solemn treatment of the Naomi Campbell / Mia Farrow spat at the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal over whether former Liberian president Charles Taylor gave Ms Campbell a blood diamond. Blood diamonds, runs the argument, are mined by unscrupulous militias in places like Sierra Leone or Angola before being consumed in the West. As a result, cash from a New York or London high street ultimately finds itself in the hands of bad Africans, allowing them to continue their bloody, brutal and – it goes without saying – pointless wars. Stop the trade in blood diamonds, stop the bloody wars. QED.

Of course, this unimpeachable logic is the product of Western, not African, minds. A 1998 report, A Rough Trade by campaign group Global Witness, is credited with focusing attention on the pivotal role of the diamond trade in various African conflicts. This was followed by a UN-commissioned report on the same subject, and then in 2000 by UN Resolution 1173, which prohibited the import of diamonds from Angola unless they were controlled by a certificate of origin scheme or by the Angolan government itself.

The UN’s focus on the diamond trade clearly did the trick. Later in 2000, several African countries gathered in Kimberly in South Africa to discuss how best to regulate the diamond trade. Nearly two years and a UN recommendation later, 35 African countries agreed upon what is known as the Kimberly certification scheme, which demands that all signatory countries prove that shipments of rough diamonds from their territories are ‘conflict-free’, thus preventing blood diamonds from entering the market alongside those deemed legitimate.

So far, however, blood diamonds are still assumed to be entering the market, and the conflicts continue to rumble on.

Then again, efficacy was never really the point here. Rather more important was the self-flattery of Western shoppers. When purchasing a ring or a necklace, the consumer is not just paying for a diamond. No, it is apparently a far more significant transaction than that. He is not just giving the retailer some money in exchange for an object – he is in fact either stopping wars or, if he fails to demand a written ‘conflict-free’ guarantee, furthering them. This is ethical consumption taken to its omnipotent extreme.

While the focus on blood diamonds aggrandises the consumer, it diminishes those in whose interests Westerners are encouraged to shop: namely African people themselves. They function here as little more than objects of Western concern. It doesn’t seem to matter which specific country you are from, be it Sierra Leone, Angola or Zimbabwe – as an African you are instantly deemed to be a victim in need of caring Western consumers’ help.

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This doesn’t only apply to those killed in the course of civil conflicts or those employed in the diamond mines, but also to those bewitched by the glittering wealth promised by diamonds. As one BBC correspondent wrote of the conflict in Sierra Leone in 2001: ‘It soon became clear that the [rebel group the Revolutionary United Front’s] political aims came second to their pursuit of mineral wealth as they battled the Western-backed government for control of the diamond territories.’ Viewing African conflicts through the polished and cut prism of the diamond trade reduces these complex conflicts, these fundamentally political struggles which are often inflamed by external intervention, to simple and sinister clashes better suited to a James Bond movie.

Western campaigners’ view of Africans as hopelessly in thrall to the magic of diamonds means that all other aspects to a conflict are effaced. Politics, economics even, doesn’t feature in this diamond-fetishising perspective. It is the equivalent of understanding the English Civil War as a product of the cash-producing wool trade or the Second World War as the result of a vibrant market for automobiles. What seems to have been misunderstood in the miasma around blood diamonds is that it’s not the availability of money that sustains a struggle – it’s the struggle that demands the money. That is why the clampdown on blood diamonds is doomed to futility.

But it is not just futile to understand African politics through diamonds – it is also as patronising and dismissive as any myth of childlike Africa peddled during the high watermark of old-fashioned colonialism. As spiked editor Brendan O’Neill said on BBC radio last week, where once we had the White Man’s Burden, now we have the White Shoppers’ Burden. Where Africans were previously seen as uncivilised victims of superstition, now they are presented as the bedazzled victims of a trade in sparkly minerals.

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