Some of my earliest memories as a reporter have to do with diamonds in Africa. Several times, as a young freelancer visiting Sierra Leone in the early 1980s, I managed to wander into the strangely unsecured presidential headquarters, in Freetown, to seek an interview, only to find the hallways buzzing with diamond traders and bag men cutting shady deals.
They were consummated in smoky little side rooms, where men of various nationalities congregated, some of them African, many others Lebanese, but one could also find colorful Europeans and Americans, all lured by the prospect of making a quick fortune in gems. It always unsettled me, when I was approached, to think that as a threadbare stringer, often with a camera slung over his shoulder, I could have impressed anyone of their ilk as having either money or stones for sale.
Clarity, Cut, and Culture
By Susan Falls New York University, 217 pages, $24
Stones of Contention
By Todd Cleveland Ohio University, 225 pages, $26.95
By Ian Smillie Polity, 188 pages, $19.95
When I returned to West Africa as a correspondent a decade later, the region was embroiled in a series of small but vicious interlocking wars that would go on for longer than both world wars combined. They eventually swept old regimes out of power in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, but these were not replaced by anything like normal governments. The new leaders had something of the style of rabble-rousing insurgents, and in some cases, like Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, they were indeed outright warlords.
Reporters covering the region at the time, myself included, often focused on the widespread use of child soldiers and of mercenaries to describe West Africa’s crisis as a new kind of conflict. In our analyses, many of us emphasized governance—or its absence—and lamented the seeming demise of short-lived democracy on the continent. Three new books, though, help place these conflicts in a different frame, one that can be expressed in a single word: diamonds.
The idea of African resource wars, or even of diamonds as a source of strife on the continent, is by no means new. The three titles, however, one by an anthropologist (“Clarity, Cut, and Culture”), another by a historian (“Stones of Contention”) and a third by a development consultant and transparency activist (“Diamonds”), combine to make a powerful case for rebranding this subregion’s turmoil in the 1990s as simply the Diamond Wars. By retracing the history of the global diamond industry, whose most dramatic twists have occurred in Africa, they advance a convincing argument that this heavily marketed modern symbol of marriage around the world is the most destabilizing natural resource of all, and on the African continent far more often a curse than a blessing. Todd Cleveland, the historian, quotes Milton Margai, the future prime minister of Sierra Leone, saying in 1958: “Diamonds are a nuisance to the country and I would like nothing better than to see every diamond mined out of the ground as soon as possible.”
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