The recent conviction of Charles Taylor in The Hague for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone has been a potent reminder of the role of natural resources in fuelling conflict in West Africa.
The court’s trial chamber found that Taylor received a continuous supply of “blood diamonds” from Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, often in exchange for arms. Diamond deals with neighbouring Liberia provided RUF with its single largest source of income.
Throughout the 1990s the trade helped fuel brutal civil wars in both countries, from which recovery has been slow. The scars of those conflicts remain clearly visible in the bullet-scarred villages of northern Liberia, but it was the town of Koidu, the heart of Sierra Leone’s diamond-mining industry, which bore the brunt of the violence, changing hands four times in 1998 alone.
Sierra Leone has made significant efforts to reform its mining sector, seeking to divert a greater share of revenue to diamondiferous areas and striving for increased transparency in the operations of mining companies. However, significant challenges remain, with an estimated 60 percent of Koidu’s youth formally unemployed, and grinding poverty across the country.
Despite attempts to regulate informal diamond-mining operations, up to 50 percent of artisanal diamonds still evade government taxation, while small-scale miners face harsh conditions with little security from exploitation.
Recent large-scale mining investment has contributed to making the economy one of the fastest growing in the world, but it will require concerted efforts to ensure that Sierra Leoneans finally benefit from the abundant natural mineral wealth.