Brilliant Affairs

Peter Kreysler and Elise Fried

Since its independence in 1975 Angola has been ravaged by a civil war, a war that will continue as long as both warring parties still have enough money to buy ever more weapons. Peter Kreysler and Elise Fried describe how they get this money.

The gentle hills next to Luanda's port reach to the shimmering blue Atlantic Ocean. The fresh sea breeze blows into the capital, which makes breathing possible in the biggest African black market with all its different odours.

The market is called "Roque Santeiro" from the so-called Brazilian sitcom, which was broadcast on Angolan television at the same time that the black market started secretly growing. Today 300,000 people do their daily business there. Globalization "African-style" makes it possible to get anything there, provided you have enough dollars. Not only goods for every day life; fridges or faithhealers, but also women, children, drugs, medicines, Russian airfighters or killers. Today even the Angolan Health Office is buying its medicines for the hospitals there. No wonder that raw diamonds from "Luena Norte", one of Angola's northern regions, where the opposition movement UNITA is in hiding, are also offered at the market.

We came to Angola to find out about the diamond business, which, besides petrol, might be the most important financial source for the unending Civil War. With respect to its natural resources Angola is the 4th richest country in the world. In the near future it could become one of the most important petrol producers in Africa. But despite, or because of, this wealth Angola is engaged in one of the bloodiest civil wars on the African continent, which has killed 500,000 people so far. As if this wasn't enough, the country is also involved in the Civil War of its northern neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, no surprise at all, the war there is also about the power over the exploitation of natural resources. The contradictions between the country's potential and the real situation couldn't be wider apart. Even the Angolans have stopped analysing the conditions and structures for the eternal failure of productive development. They simply refer to "the situation" and if things are really bad they call them, still in a relaxed manner, "the confusion".

When the UN Security Council in New York decided once again to do something about this confusion, it put the blame on UNITA and imposed an embargo on the world-wide business with UNITA diamonds. It is estimated that UNITA has earned at least US$3.7 billion for its war reserves over the past four years. The Angolan government on the other hand receives its earnings from the petrol resources. The UN report reveals that a multitude of international arms and diamond dealers are involved in these affairs as well as many multinational companies. Even the half state-run French petrol producer, Elf-Aquitaine, made it into the headlines recently in the context of the French corruption scandals in which the Angolan President, José Eduardo Santos, was implied. No wonder that Angola is the most important weapons importer of the African continent.

Victor Vunge, an independent journalist, who has enough courage and good contacts to expose himself to dangerous situations, goes with me to the black market in search of the "Senegalese" who organise the illegal diamond traffic there. Next to me I hear a pig which has just been sold crying miserably. I can only recognise it by its cries and mouth, as it has been put into a sack. I'm standing there observing the pig being taken away in a wheelbarrow, when a man comes out of the shadows and addresses me in French. After a short discussion he understands what we want and gives us an address in the suburbs of Luanda. This is where most of the West Africans have their "business establishments". In between many people observe me and we feel we should leave before we get into serious trouble.

Even though the suburbs of Luanda expand around the capital in a chaotic manner we are able to find our next contact, Santiago Domulango. He has friends who dive for diamonds in the rivers of Luanda Norte. "We only have a rubber dinghy with a simple compressor. The diver puts a hose into his mouth and then tries with a riddle to collect as many stones as possible from the ground, then the riddle is pulled on the surface by a third man and put down again. What we get from the riverbeds is the best you can get and of course there are sometimes disputes - this is when the water turns red", he tells.

"Then we share our yield and the divers get most of it. We sell the stones to our middlemen. Most of the time they have licences to prospect, which they receive from the chiefs of the villages. But if it gets too public that the yield from the rivers is good, the military will soon know. They will come well equipped and organise a short military action; they will chase the Carimpierus, this is what we call the divers, away, in order to exploit the rivers themselves. Under these circumstances it is quite usual that people are killed, the survivors will try their luck elsewhere. The Carimpierus often have to dig deep holes into the dry riverbeds in order to be able to scrape the stones out of the hard riverbed. The simple supports for those diggings often break down in the rainy season when the soil gets more and more humid. As they can win so much these people take the risk and often pay with their lives". Then Santiago Domulango tells us that he doesn't want to be implied in the "confusion" of the illegal diamond traffic.

We go the Angolan corporate representation of De Beers. Many busy people are rushing through the dark corridors leaving red footprints from the clay outside on the slippery marble floor. It is the beginning of the week and everybody seems to rush hastily into his office, which means that he has to use the staircases. The multi-storey building doesn't have elevators and only every second office is useable. On the third floor we discover a huge hole in the wall. On the sixth floor a woman on her knees is patiently trying to wash away the red footprints of the employees. And from the tenth floor onwards the whole outlook changes. This is the residency of the world-wide company De Beers. Suddenly we are surrounded by strong steel doors, the incessant ringing of phones and the dead gaze of security cameras. The office is full of clean empty desks on which the raw diamonds were once classified. But De Beers doesn't buy diamonds in Angola any longer. There are many vacancies in the company. What we see could be anywhere in the world. Anne Pereira, De Beer's press officer, welcomes us. After a short while I discover that she has just one leg. She is one of the mine victims. Every day she has to get up to the 12th floor on those slippery marble stairs. Every day those people fight their way through the world. On the street I observe a woman, her two children in a cloth around her back, she is carrying two huge buckets full of drinking water of dubious quality. She walks up the hill on a street full of pot-holes. She's trying to avoid them without being hit by the cars. These people are moved by an energy which we have never observed. They are in the middle of a war, for which each Angolan family has paid with at least one dead or mutilated member. In order simply to get up a hill or onto the 12th floor of an office building they need to invest all their energy and concentration. This might be the reason why those people seem so relaxed, they might have got used to the war after all those years. Their ordinary, and in the same time crazy, life has become routine to them or as they would call it: "la situation".

In the afternoon Victor accompanies us to see the journalist Rafael Marques, one of Angola's most charismatic personalities. We meet him in his house next to the different international humanitarian organisations, which have their agencies there. This allows him to feel slightly protected against assaults at night. He welcomes us by telling us that he has just been condemned to six months in prison for his work. Six months in Angola can be very dangerous. I want to know whether or not it is dangerous for him to talk to us. With a friendly smile he replies: "Me and the whole country are already in a most dangerous situation. It can't be worse". Angola's only choice is between two devils. One of them is José Eduardo dos Santos, the president, the other one is Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader. As the UNITA profits from the illegal diamonds, the generals of the MPLA government profit from their own diamond mines. Right now the government loses Angola's resources by selling the petrol claims from the coast of Angola to big international petrol groups. Nobody knows how much they get for them. There's no transparency in these affairs. It seems that most of the money is used to buy new weapons so that the military actions in Congo can be pursued. Furthermore, he tells us, "the government spent about 250 million on luxury cars over the last year. This is more than it spent on the entire public health sector. The luxury cars are used for buying parliamentarians, those from the opposition included. The people call the parliament, with all the German cars in the mud out the front of it, the Audi-torium."

Marques still believes in Angolans and hopes that they will soon have had enough of their tyrants. But still the interests are too much interwoven. "Multinationals like Chevron or Elf Aquitaine profit enormously from the Civil War. And the UN doesn't want to get involved, it believes it has done the right thing by implementing the embargo on the illegal diamond trafficking. But Angola is as dirty and muddy as our streets. And they'll have to dirty their hands to get things going again. But maybe one of the devils has to be defeated before we can get rid of the other one," he says thoughtfully.

The next day we finally meet Jonathan in Luanda. His father had owned a coffee plantation, but with the outbreak of the civil war the coffee market in Angola, in those days the third biggest coffee market world-wide, collapsed. Jonathan's father was lucky, because diamonds were found on his property. But it was only his son, who fully represents the younger generation, who started exploiting these diamonds. Soon he came to understand that it was pointless to sell them directly to the dealers of the state-owned ENDIAMA. We accompany him and his handful of diamonds on his way to the West African dealers. Next to the fence of Luanda's airport we see the first mud cottages of Luanda's suburbs. Here refugees from the whole country live next to the dealers, who, in the shadow of the general corruption, are free to do their businesses. In the distance we hear the sound of the Russian aircrafts which provide the population of the interior of the country with basic supplies.

The World Food Programme has to care for 1.5 million people daily, even though the country is a fertile one. Through decades of civil war the whole country is now studded with land mines and only a quarter of the soil can be used for agriculture. This is tragic because 50 years ago Angola was considered to be Africa's granary.

Jonathan and two dealers are talking privately in another room. During these long discussions the Senegalese offer us the traditional sweet peppermint tea. The others are talking in their local languages. Nobody really understands what is being dealt with right now. Half an hour later Jonathan and the other man return and seem to be satisfied.

Jonathan's goods are highly appreciated on the world market for their good quality. Especially by the diamond group De Beers, who control the world diamond trade and are only allowed to buy "conflict free diamonds" in an arrangement with the embargo imposed by the UN. But the diamonds which are prospected in the mines are of a much lower quality than the alluvial diamonds, the diamonds from the riverbeds, which are often prospected illegally. Tom Tweedy from De Beers had already told us in Johannesburg that the alluvial diamonds have a special purity and that they are highly desired in Antwerp's diamond market. "The Angolan government has to send supertankers filled with petrol to the industrialised nations, to collect enough money for the war, whereas the UNITA can transport their goods in small bags. The compressed value of these rare stones is only comparable to the value of plutonium. Sometimes I think they are as harmful as plutonium", says Tom Tweedy in an astonishingly self-critical tone. But with his next thought he concentrates on profit again: "Even though the river diamonds make up only 1% of the traded goods they have an influence on the whole business." Other representatives of this sector ask themselves whether the embargo is good policy. A recent report by the UN estimates that the UNITA alone sold illegal diamonds worth US$250 million. The UN should recognise that this approach, with a product as difficult to control as diamonds, might be wrong as the diamonds make up only a small portion of the whole spectrum of valuable natural resources".

Ninchendo, who speaks for the board of managers of DEBSWANA the world's biggest diamond mine, with its head office in peaceful, democratic Botswana is afraid that the boycotting of these so-called "bloody diamonds" will not only involve other troubled regions like Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo, but that it might be economically harmful to the young democracies in southern Africa, like Botswana, Namibia and South Africa as well. Like many African politicians he underlines another effective measure that would help to stop the never ending conflicts over natural resources on the African continent: "If the wars in Africa are ever to be stopped then there must be an embargo on weapons. But this would hurt the industrialised nations where the weapons are produced and no politician wants to risk jobs opportunities there".

Eli Hass, president of the Diamond Dealer Club in New York, describes the problem from the perspective of a diamond dealer: "The dealers are the interface. They buy the unpolished diamonds in Africa, bring them to polishers in Antwerp and then sell the polished diamonds to the ultimate consumers, the jewellers. If we are able to control the interface we'll be able to control the whole market. As soon as a stone is polished you can't say anything about its origin, it has no birthplace any longer. We'll try to control the interface. But with the results of the most recent UN report we can be sure that the UNITA has a huge amount of stones and our industry hides too many black sheep who are tempted by fast profit."

Before our flight back we get another impression of the country's contradictory character. We're being strictly controlled for what we don't take with us, a 50 Mio Quansa bill, which is worth approximately 50 cents. Our luggage is not checked. Everybody could have bought the 50 carat diamond which was offered to us by a teacher and we could have easily smuggled it through the airport. In this torn and ravaged country, where people have been fighting for their survival for decades now, controls are weak, especially when those shimmering tiny stones are concerned.
[translated from German by Annette Merx]