Market day in the riverside town of Gbitti in eastern Cameroon is a colourful affair. Farmers sit on the bare red earth, their wares spread out before them. Across the narrow stretch of the Kadéï River that separates Cameroon from the Central African Republic, merchants and shoppers haul wooden canoes by pulling on a steel rope stretched between the two banks. Children squeal and splash in the muddy waters where women beat their washing on stones.
On the sandy riverbank in February, a man dressed in jeans, a jacket and grey knit cap had a practiced air of nonchalance. But his eyes gave him away, darting back and forth, right and left, scanning for danger as he negotiated — perhaps for the following Monday — the delivery of rough diamonds.
Suddenly the deal was cut short. A teenager brandishing a spear shouted from across the river: “Stop talking to our brother!” Armed young men, members of the Christian militia rebel group known as the Anti-balaka, which emerged during the Central African Republic’s brutal civil war, were watching from the opposite banks and had spotted my camera.
“We have lost our families in the war. We do not want to be filmed,” one young man in a bright red bandana shouted.
“The diamond in two weeks,” the merchant muttered, and he moved swiftly away to quell the ruckus from his comrades across the river.
Money for rebels
The illegal trade in rough diamonds through border towns of Gbitti, Kentzou and Garoua-Boulai in eastern Cameroon provides a steady source of income for rebel groups on both sides of the Central African Republic’s bloody conflict.
According to the United Nations, the war has claimed more than 5 000 lives and displaced roughly one million since Muslim Seleka rebels seized power three years ago. Christian and animist groups known as the Anti-balaka turned upon Muslim people, pushing them south in reprisals that led to a de facto partitioning of the country.
Although elections brought a new government to power in February, the conflict has wreaked havoc on the economy, starvation has followed and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled, many into UN camps in Cameroon. The government is too weak to assert full control over the mineral-rich country, and a low-intensity conflict has persisted.
The violence has robbed the Central African Republic’s government of an important source of income from the diamond trade, which had accounted for as much as 20% of its budget. But when war broke out, the small nation at the heart of Africa was suspended from the Kimberley Process (KP), a 2003 accord signed by 81 countries to certify the origin of diamonds and prevent them from funding rebel groups.
Without Kimberley Process certification, the Central African Republic was completely locked out of the international gemstone market but it won a partial reprieve last June.
As the doors to legal trade swung shut, neighbouring Cameroon became an outlet for laundering Central African Republic diamonds into the global marketplace. Cameroon had only joined the Kimberley Process in 2012, and the government launched campaigns in the border towns to educate Kimberley Process officials about spotting conflict diamonds.
But a year-long investigation by 100Reporters has found serious cracks in Cameroon’s system: Rough diamonds from the Central African Republic are easy to purchase here, enforcement of the certification rules is lax and dealers speak openly of Kimberley Process officials, who will certify — for the right price — that gems from across the border are conflict free, whatever their origin.
Posing as a buyer, I found one Kimberley Process official willing to falsify certificates for rough diamonds and assist in evading export taxes.
Cameroon’s minister of mines, industry and technological development, Ernest Ngwaboubou, who is responsible for overseeing the rough diamond industry and enforcing Kimberley Process standards, declined requests to comment.
Guns and diamonds
In Gbitti, diamond traders from the Central African Republic use the money to buy light weapons that they ferry back across the river, selling arms to rebels on both sides of the conflict.
Security forces in Cameroon are hard-pressed to control the arms smuggling because buyers stagger their purchases, buying the weapons days apart to avoid suspicion.
“It is difficult to determine, even in times of conflict, whether a machete or spear is intended for lawful use,” said a major in the infantry battalion stationed in a field office in Eastern Cameroon, about 250km from the regional capital of Bertoua. He refused to reveal his name because he is not authorised to speak for the military.
The smuggling of diamonds and gold was rife in the region even before the Central African Republic civil war. The Kimberley Process secretariat has estimated that as much as 20% of rough diamonds from Central African Republic were illegally traded prior to 2013. The World Bank in 2010 put the estimate even higher, at 50%.
The trade in rough diamonds between the two countries was once quite lucrative. François Nganke, an artisanal miner from Gbitti, said he left a secure job with the humanitarian medical organisation Doctors Without Borders for the lure of gemstones, which he sold across the border in Central African Republic.
“The prices charged by Central African purchasing offices were interesting. We sold our stones to them,” he said.
But the Central African Republic trade collapsed when that country was suspended from the Kimberley Process in 2013, and its prices for rough diamonds plunged. Nganke now regrets his change of career. Mining is back-breaking work. In Gbitti men, women and children hack at the dry earth each day, usually with old pickaxes, hoes and shovels, sifting through the alluvial deposits for buried treasure.
“It is painful. We need a pump to wash the gems free from the soil,” said one mother who has worked as a miner for five years.
Around her lay giant clods of earth and gaping holes, a testament to the sheer physical effort required to earn a living. “Sometimes we provide all this effort for nothing,” she said.
Today these small-scale miners in Cameroon face mounting competition from smugglers. “The majority of diamonds sold in Gbitti come from Central African Republic,” said Issa Bouba, a registered diamond dealer for the Cameroonian ministry of mines. He buys from the miners and sells the stones on international markets.
Gem trade feeds violence
The scale of the illegal trade and its impact on a country struggling to recover from war is difficult to measure. According to a UN panel of experts’ report, since the Central African Republic’s Kimberley Process suspension, the smuggling of 140 000 carats of rough diamonds cost its government $24-million in lost revenues, representing 2.3% of its annual budget.
When the conflict broke out in 2013, the country was exporting $62.1-million a year in rough diamonds, which was its leading export.
The Central African Republic is the world’s 12th largest producer of rough diamonds measured by value. The stones are round and 12-sided with a greenish-brown tint. Despite these distinctive qualities, tracing their origin is particularly difficult. The vast majority of production is done by artisanal miners sifting the deposits by hand for gems, and are sold to intermediary merchants called collectors.
Moreover, 80% of the Central African Republic’s output comes from the southwestern region of the country bordering Cameroon, and the gems produced in the two countries are very similar in color and quality.
Kimberley Process officials in Cameroon who certify the origin of the diamonds find them difficult to tell apart. They rely upon the collectors to maintain a production book, recording where the miners say they extracted the stones.
“With 20 000 artisanal miners in Cameroon and limited ability to monitor those miners, it is impossible to be sure where each diamond recorded in that book has come from,” said Amnesty International in its report Chains of Abuse: The Global Diamond Supply Chain and the Case of the Central African Republic.
Human rights groups say the illegal trade in diamonds is closely interlinked with a vicious cycle of violence on both sides of the border. It has helped keep a low-intensity conflict alive in the Central African Republic, spawning horrific attacks that have driven people from their homes.
Starving families have waded across the narrow Kadéï River to find refuge in Cameroon, the United Nations has reported. More than 200 000 Central African refugees have fled to Eastern Cameroon, and some have brought the illegal trade in diamonds with them.
Adam Abba, a Central African Republic merchant now living in Kentzou, sat legs crossed on a mat in his two-room house, provided by the refugee agency of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and brightly painted in its signature blue. Here in Kentzou, hundreds of Muslims like him collect and sell Central African diamonds from areas controlled by the Muslim militia Seleka.
A jovial man, Abba shared a breakfast of red tea and white rice as he explained how he laundered blood diamonds from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo through Cameroon.
“In the Kimberley Process office, even when the diamond comes from the Central African Republic, it is not complicated. The officials will say it comes from Cameroon. For this, you’re going to pay [a bribe]. This is business, right?” Abba chortled.
“We are Africans. We understand each other,” he added.
Five hours drive to the north in Garoua-Boulaï, Aladji Samassa, another Central African Republic merchant tapped away on his new Samsung Galaxy tablet, scrolling through samples of diamonds he had recently sold in Dubai.
“You see the stone with a red background? It is the most expensive. Arab customers like that,” Samassa said, displaying a photo of the glittering gem. Some of the most expensive diamonds evade the export tax in Cameroon, thanks to “someone” in the Kimberley Process secretariat who Samassa said “makes things easier.”
100Reporters wanted to find out more about this “someone” and how the smuggling worked. I telephoned officials at the regional secretariat of the Kimberley Process in Bertoua, the provincial capital. I introduced myself as a diamond collector seeking certification for Central African Republic diamonds.
I spoke with Dubois Ndamba, the senior Cameroonian official in the eastern region responsible for enforcing the Kimberley Process and certifying the origin of the diamonds. When asked about warnings issued by his superiors to watch out for blood diamonds from the Central African Republic, Ndamba brushed concerns aside. He said he knew what he was doing, adding that what he was doing “should not be vulgarised.” Ndamba offered to lower the tax and to provide fake certificates.
Here is an excerpt from the recorded telephone conversation I had with Ndamba.
Christian Locka: Mr Dubois, hello.
Dubois Ndamba: Yes, hello?
CL: Dieudonne referred me. I do not know if he told you about my case? I’m in the diamond business, and I have Central African diamonds for export. We discussed this yesterday, and he gave me Saffana’s number, but it does not work. That’s why he gave me your number.
DN: Yes, explain yourself well so I understand.
CL: I have a partner who wants to export. I want to know how you can help.
DN: Help to do what?
CL: For export.
DN: You already have the diamonds in hand?
CL: They are in Garoua-Boulaï.
DN: What status do you have, you are collecting? You have the collector papers?
CL: I work with Mr Ndoko.
DN: This is how many carats?
CL: They are around 500.
DN: 500 carats?
DN: OK. I am in Yaoundé [Cameroon’s capital] right now. You are where, in Bertoua?CL: I’m almost at Bertoua, I’m entering Bertoua.
DN: I am also going down to Bertoua, I would like you to call me. I expect to be in Bertoua in the evening or tomorrow morning.
CL: Okay, like that for the certificate?
CL: What must I do?
DN: For the certificate, this is where it starts. We will do the paperwork at the base so that the certificate will be given in Yaoundé, do you understand?
DN: You do the paperwork in Bertoua where we make appointments. We sign what we have to sign — just like that for the certificate. You go back to Yaoundé to the central Kimberley office. We will assess the value of the diamonds, what you are going to pay. You are given a valuation certificate and you pay the tax on this. Then, you are issued a certificate that allows you to get away with the diamond.
CL: The fact that they come from Central African Republic, I thought it would be concerning?
DN: It should disturb, but we will arrange the paperwork so that it no longer is from over there. We will act as if it originated from us [Cameroon] — you understand a little? So that it is no more from over there [Central African Republic].
CL: I understand you.
DN: I know what it means, do not worry. We will arrange everything. Then we will see if there are some (diamonds) that are big. They can be put aside and carried beside you when you fly (to the diamond markets to sell them) so that they do not weigh down your luggage.
DN: For calculating the tax, we take the light ones, which may be cheaper. We will do everything to do with the certificate.
CL: So, the bigger ones, we will set them aside?
DN: We will sort them, don’t worry. The most valuable diamonds, which can be expensive in taxes, you can put them aside. When you have the certificate of origin for the small value ones, I will add the others ones and you can export them all.
CL: OK. You are in Yaoundé; you say you’ll be in Bertoua when?
DN: I will be in Bertoua tonight. I am currently at the mines department.
CL: I call you tomorrow …
The next day, I called Ndamba, and informed him that, as a Kimberly Process official, he had offered to break the law. Ndamba denied it.
“I had no need to talk of Central African Republic diamonds. You only have talked to me of Central African Republic diamonds. I know that if you are in Cameroon and have diamonds in your hands, it is not foreign territory. So I would help in this direction by giving the diamonds a place of origin. I do not approve of someone fetching the diamonds and bringing them here so I can certify them,” Ndamba said.
Few Kimberley controls
Beginning in 2014, the Kimberley Process national secretariat in Cameroon launched a publicity campaign to raise awareness among artisanal miners, diamond purchasing officers and collectors, as well as among Kimberley Process officials about the dangers of commercialising blood diamonds.
The efforts have done little to curb profiteering.
Cameroon was admitted as a member of the Kimberley Process in 2012 and reported the next year annual production of 2 721 carats in rough diamonds, and about 3 400 carats in 2014. And yet the number of falsified rough diamond certificates seized far outpaces its annual production, according to International Peace Information Service (IPIS), an Antwerp-based research institute that specialises in natural resources.
“Forged Cameroonian Kimberley Process certificates presented abroad indicate the volume of illegal exports is significant. In 2013, the Kimberley Process Secretariat in Cameroon confirmed that a total of 6 722 carats worth of would-be Cameroonian Kimberley Process certificates presented abroad were counterfeit.
“With a potential Cameroonian diamond production of only 5 000 carats, these almost certainly include Central African diamonds,” IPIS said in its report, Diamonds in the Central African Republic.
Most of the fake certificates and untaxed diamonds pass through Douala International Airport, Cameroon’s economic hub. Three years after Cameroon signed the accord pledging to export diamonds that were conflict-free, its airport lacked a Kimberley Process control office, despite promises from the Cameroon government and a track record of the airport’s use as a smuggling centre.
In one extreme example of fraudulent export, a parcel of 281 869 carats with a certificate of origin from Cameroon as well as a fake Kimberley Process certificate left through Douala Airport at the end of 2009, according to the IPIS report.
Diamond operators interviewed for this investigation said Central African blood diamonds transported through Cameroon land in India, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates — global hubs for the international diamond trade.
Diamonds are small, have high value and it is difficult to tell where they originate. Add to this the impulse toward corruption, laissez-faire governance and the ease with which the Kimberley Process can be circumvented and the result is a constant stream of blood diamonds entering the international market.
Diamonds are small, have high value and it is difficult to tell where they originate. Add to this the impulse toward corruption, laissez-faire governance and the ease with which the Kimberley Process can be and circumvented – and the result is a constant stream of blood diamonds entering the international market.
Aware that certification was at risk of becoming little more than a salve for the Western buyer’s conscience, the human rights NGO Global Witness in 2011 withdrew its support from the Kimberly Process, calling it an “outdated mechanism”
“The sad truth is that most consumers still cannot be certain of the origin of their diamonds, nor whether they are financing armed violence or repressive regimes,” said Charmian Gooch, founding director of Global Witness.
This story was co-funded and produced by 100Reporters and the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting, with assistance from the Open Society West Africa. The videos were shot were by Christian Locka and edited by Aishvarya Kavi.