This post also appeared on the Center for Global Development's blog Views from the Center.
For four days, forty-nine Kimberley Process members were holed up in Tel Aviv contemplating Zimbabwe's future. Countries like South Africa, Israel, the European Community, and the United States were deadlocked over whether to continue their existing export ban on Zimbabwean diamonds. What's at stake is much bigger than diamonds. It's about corruption, repression, and freedom. A vote to rescind the diamond ban could have slammed the door shut on a truly democratic future for Zimbabwe's people. It would have been a massive coup for Robert Mugabe and his security force allies. And a death blow to those who have sacrificed everything for change. Thankfully, the Kimberley Process members sided with the forces of democracy. The diamond ban will stay.
The Zimbabwean diamond grab began after massive deposits were discovered around Marange in 2006. What ensued put the Wild West to shame. The legally-sanctioned company was thrown out by the Mugabe regime. Thousands of illegal miners descended on the region. For many, this led to fabulous wealth. Not one to be left out on the action, the Mugabe regime mobilized the army and seized the mines by force. And by force, I mean shooting miners out of military helicopters and brutally assaulting others from the ground. Ever since, Mugabe's security forces have overseen mining operations and pocketed the revenues. Accurate figures aren't available, but many suggest that Mugabe insiders are raking in millions every day through black market sales (official diamond exports were only $26 million in 2009).
The Marange diamond discovery could be a boon for the people of Zimbabwe. Industry experts suggest that the deposits could yield up to $1.7 billion a year. This would put Zimbabwe roughly on par with Botswana -- its prosperous neighbor. With a functioning, democratic government, this would mean more schools, health clinics, and safe drinking water. Unfortunately, the security forces and Ministry of Mines are overseen by Mugabe's kleptocratic party (ZANU-PF). Finance Minister Tendai Biti (from the other coalition party) publicly complained in April that the government hadn't seen a cent from Marange. Meanwhile, a cholera epidemic of massive proportions has killed thousands -- largely due to a lack of government resources to fix basic water and sanitation infrastructure.
Amidst a growing international outcry, the Kimberley Process sent a delegation to investigate the Marange diamond fields last year. It issued a damning report -- citing numerous security abuses and oversight infractions -- that led to the suspension of Zimbabwe's certification. The suspension hasn't stopped the black market sales, but it has made them more difficult. And, it sets the stage for more aggressive anti-smuggling enforcement by individual member countries, such as South Africa. Since then, the Zimbabwean government has attempted to put up window-dressing. It has allocated a small portion of the Marange fields to two South African companies with close links to high-ranking members of the armed forces and ZANU-PF. And it took modest steps to address oversight deficiencies. However, large parts of the Marange area remain under direct military control.
The problem isn't just that the diamond dollars are not flowing into government coffers -- it's how Mugabe insiders will use them. Next year, Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold fresh elections. During the last elections in 2008, the Mugabe regime unleashed a horrific campaign of violence against its opponents. According to credible local NGO reports, Zimbabwean security forces, paramilitary groups, and ZANU-PF rank and file perpetrated thousands of beatings against opposition activists and supporters. Dozens lost their lives and thousands fled the country. At the same time, the Mugabe regime milked millions of dollars from black market currency sales to buy off traditional leaders and voters with tractors and agricultural inputs. Despite this methodical anti-democratic campaign, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party was still able to garner a parliamentary majority. And, its presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the first round of elections. However, the second wave of terror was fierce enough to force him out of the runoff election.
If a near-bankrupt ZANU-PF could wage such a ruthless campaign in 2008, imagine what they could do with pockets flush with diamonds. And, the stakes for the 2011 elections are huge. Many Mugabe insiders not only could find their illicit financial spigot turned off, but could face criminal investigations for their actions over the last few decades. The security bosses -- some of whom were involved in the massacre of Ndebele people in the 1980s -- have the most to lose.
For the sake of a once-proud nation, the Kimberley Process members upheld their existing ban on Marange diamonds. By doing so, they sent a strong message to the Zimbabwean people -- that the days of corruption and repression may be numbered. That message now should be followed up with reinvigorated enforcement campaigns to combat the continued smuggling and black market sales. If they falter going forward, so will Zimbabwe's chance for a free, prosperous future.