The brutal struggle over ‘blood diamonds’ in Sierra Leone is often characterized as a paradigmatic example of a resource war fuelled by greed, rather than grievance. Much scholarly work, however, challenges this account of the war’s causation. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the war most likely would have occurred even in the absence of the country’ mineral wealth, though it would have unfolded differently. At the heart of the conflict, most experts now agree, was the collapse of a patrimonial state and a broad crisis of marginalized youth. Yet even if mineral wealth was not at the root of the conflict, today it represents a flashpoint that could reignite mass violence and threaten the country’s peace.
Last week I visited Mine 11 in Kono District, a diamond mine where hundreds of impoverished youth sift through tonnes of sand, mud and dirt in search of alluvial diamonds. The majority of the miners were former fighters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and their ex-commanders lead the operation. In a generally peaceful post-conflict order, the Kono district is known as a tinderbox due to its prolific mining sector, and Mine 11 is rumoured to be particularly troublesome.
Workers in mines such as this spend gruelling hours in the hot sun only to live hand-to-mouth. To find a diamond is a rare occurrence — especially in relation to the copious labour expended each day — but these youth see no other option for survival. The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program saw combatants give up their arms as a means of livelihood, but without offering them much as a replacement. Generally unable or unwilling to return to their home communities, they retained their rebel ties as their sole social support network, and took to the mines.
Mining operations in Sierra Leone range from individual fortune-seekers to self-help groups, such as Mine 11, to international corporations, including London Mining and African Minerals. In almost all cases, the meagre livelihood of labourers is the only thing they have to lose, creating a precarious situation ripe for conflict. On multiple occasions in Kono and the neighboring Bombali district, labour disputes have erupted into violence. Last August, police fired upon a crowd at the Bambuna mine outside of Makeni, killing one and injuring nine. Families of the victims created an advocacy group demanding justice, and threatened to render the mining area ungovernable if action was not taken. In Kono district, police shot and killed two youth in similar circumstances.
Such killings, of course, are just one part of the problem. Human rights abuses abound in mining operations. As one UN official recounted to me, the UN found the human rights situation so severe in one case that they recommended temporarily closing the operation. When the workers got wind of the suggestion, they threatened to raid Koidu Town (the capital of the most mineral rich district) in response. The UN quickly withdrew the suggestion. The effects also reach well beyond the miners themselves; in Koidu, I briefly met a few Chiefdom Elders who vociferously lamented the land grabs and population displacements afflicting the region (African Minerals, for example, is known to have perpetrated both), which yet lacks the justice mechanisms to remediate these issues. Each of these problems renders mining districts a potential flashpoint of discontent within the country’s still fragile peace.
My visit also offered a glimpse into the broader problems of peacebuilding and economic development in Sierra Leone. A consolidated peace must bring employment for the masses of marginalized youth throughout the country; youth disenfranchisement was a major cause of the war and the majority of the combatants were disposed youth. However, the past decade of peace has seen scant progress on this issue, meaning that youth remain “ready fuel” for violence (as one UN official put it). The economy and the government’s tax base, however, rely predominantly on the mining sector, which draws mere drops from the bucket-loads of unemployed Sierra Leonean youth.
Over the medium-term, the government could use revenues from mining operations to improve the country’s poor electricity and transportation infrastructure, as well as the quality of its labour force, in order to attract more labour-intensive international investments; but unfortunately, government contracts to corporations such as London Mining and African Minerals are so generous in their concessions that they leave scant monies for such a strategy. Until this situation changes, the crisis of youth unemployment and disenfranchisement looms large on the country’s horizon.
In the meantime, Koidu, the capital of the most mineral rich districts of Sierra Leone, sits atop the nation’s resource wealth and hosts a plethora of mining companies; yet the town is visibly run-down, impoverished, and sorely lacking in development. This landscape is a microcosm of an economy in which mining yields immense wealth, but without benefiting the country as a whole and remains a potential source of violent conflict.