Yet again, it appears that Africa’s vast mineral wealth is enriching everyone but Africans, who suffer in inverse proportion. Maguwu said: “To me it’s very clear the diamonds have been a curse to this country. They have been associated with violence, they have been associated with corruption, they have been linked to the illegal international market of diamonds. I don’t think the common man has benefited in any way.
A recent scapegoat of government sensitivity was whistleblower Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Research and Development, and an outspoken critic of human rights abuses in the Marange fields.
“It’s just a phenomenon where there’s poor governance, resources lead to conflict. It’s the same with Angola, DR Congo, Sierra Leone and Sudan. I believe people in the west don’t really understand and appreciate the level of destruction that has been reached in order for them to receive that diamond.”
Mutare, a nest of spies and paranoia in Zimbabwe’s wild east, is the latest corner of Africa to discover the corrupting power of diamonds. The nearby Marange fields contain deposits claimed to be worth billions of dollars, potentially making the crisis-torn country one of the world’s top diamond producers.
Some glimpse the promise of economic salvation and the prospect that Zimbabwe could be transformed from sick of man of Africa into a new Botswana. So far, however, the gemstones have been more curse than blessing, seducing desperate and avaricious Zimbabweans and foreign mercenaries with horrific consequences. This has been described as the biggest test yet of the Kimberley process certification scheme, created a decade ago to stamp out the use of diamonds to fund conflicts.
The trail from forced labour camp to high street store will be in the spotlight again next month when supermodel Naomi Campbell gives evidence in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Taylor stands accused at The Hague of using blood diamonds to fuel an insurgency in Sierra Leone that cost tens of thousands of lives in the 1990s. Prosecutors say Campbell is a potentially crucial witness because Taylor allegedly presented her with a diamond gift after a 1997 dinner hosted by former South African president Nelson Mandela.
A diamond rush got under way in Marange fields after their discovery in June 2006. With a hyperinflation-crippled economy offering few alternatives, about 35,000 people, including women and children, were mining and buying there by November 2008. The once-quiet Mutare took on the aspect of a frontier town and the social impact is still being reckoned today.
Witnesses tell how children as young as 10 dropped out of school to hunt for gemstones and never went back. Teachers and other professionals quit their jobs to join the craze. Young men who got rich quick bought luxury cars they did not know how to drive, leading to numerous fatal accidents.
Diggers and buyers poured in from South Africa, Botswana, DR Congo, Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Lebanon, Pakistan, UAE, Belgium and India, according to a report last year by Human Rights Watch. Prices shot up, rents increased and hotels, the scene of most transactions, were always full.
Prostitution, teenage pregnancies and shotgun marriages soared. Clashes between diamond kingpins resulted in deadly shootouts in suburban houses. Dozens of people died when poorly built mines collapsed and buried them alive.
This free-for-all could not go on. The military launched a crackdown with all the ferocity that one has come to expect from Robert Mugabe’s regime. Operation Hakudzokwi (No Return) began with helicopter gunships strafing the diamond panners, cutting them down with automatic rifles as they ran. More than 200 died and many more were beaten, tortured or raped.
The military took over and the Marange fields, spanning about 265 sq miles, are now one of the most heavily guarded areas in Africa. A small percentage is mined by joint ventures backed by a state-owned company and South African and Chinese investors. The government claims to have already stockpiled 4.6m carats worth up to $1.7bn, though some believe this is greatly exaggerated.
Estimates vary that anywhere between 300 and 3,000 illegal panners still risk their lives scouring the shallow earth mines, where many of the diamonds are of low quality and of industrial use only. Some now endure a new form of slavery working for military masters in illegal syndicates. Typically a group of 10 civilians will dig through the night and split the proceeds with one soldier. One diamond is known to have sold for $120,000.
Gamba – not his real name – was beaten with sticks two years ago when he was caught in a protected area. He agreed to talk to the Guardian only at a clandestine meeting in a parked car under cover of darkness off a highway in the forested hills around Mutare. He explained how he still gains access to the diamond fields.
“There are four roadblocks,” he said. “You pay $10 to the police there. At the final block you pay $50 to $100. Then you drive around; it’s a big place and the diamonds are everywhere. They can put up a fence but people dig on the other side of the fence. Beatings and torture still happen but it’s rare.”
Once he has bought a diamond, Gamba said he takes it to buyers in Mutare, or in the capital, Harare, or across the border to Manica in Mozambique. “If you buy for $22,000, then you get $36,000. Nobody really knows how much these diamonds are worth. Some of them go to South Africa, some to Dubai.” Lebanon, India, Pakistan and Europe are also destinations.
One of the most common smuggling routes is into Mozambique via a sleepy border post where baboons and bulls roam between freight trucks and rows of shacks. At a humble marketplace on the other side, people cram into ageing minibus taxis for the 12-mile journey to Manica.
The dusty and impoverished town has few signs of diamond wealth, and the word is that its senior baron recently fled to Maputo to evade Zimbabwe’s secret police.
But inside a plain white villa with a cheap sofa, a Lebanese man with a trim beard, who gives his name as Ibrahim Ali, sits behind a desk with a cheap plastic lamp. “The police are no problem here,” he says. “Bring me the stuff and I’ll give you a price. I can pay 1,000, I can pay a million. It all depends on the stone.”
Asked what would happen to the diamonds, Ali said that he sends them to Belgium. Across the road, another dealer peered from a window but refused to emerge. His security guard said: “Bring us the diamonds and we can talk.”
Back in Mutare, there are few who will talk about diamonds, and even fewer who will give their name. “People are scared to talk at the moment,” said one local activist. “The government has ensured that at every place you go there are state secret agents or someone connected to them. Even in schools there are teachers who are on the payroll.”
Last month plainclothes officers stormed Maguwu’s home. One family member was slapped across the face. Another’s head was locked between the knees of an officer so he could be beaten on the back, as well as under his feet. The officers camped at the house for six days, holding one of Maguwu’s family members hostage.
In response Maguwu gave himself up and was charged with publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the economic interests of the state. He was detained for 39 days in Mutare and Harare. “It was very terrible sleeping in those cells,” Maguwu, 36, said this week. “I think it was at the height of winter and there were no blankets.
“We were sleeping on the floor. I had a chest infection and a throat infection and flu and swollen tonsils which had to be removed by surgery. I spent eight or nine days without eating anything because it was very painful to swallow.”
He added: “In Mutare police station they would give you a bucket of water for the whole night. At Harare central police station it was the worst because the sewage system is dysfunctional. We were sleeping in the passage because the cells where people should be sleeping have been converted into toilets.”
Maguwu was eventually freed on bail but had his car taken away. He must now report to the police every day and is not allowed to travel more than 30 miles beyond Mutare. He faces a possible 20-year jail term if convicted.
It is widely believed that Maguwu was targeted because of Zimbabwe’s anxiety over international scrutiny. Last week, after long and intense debate, the Kimberley process gave it the go-ahead to hold a one-off sale with any future exports tied to progress on the ground.
Calls for an end to the ban provide a rare common cause for Zimbabwe’s governing parties, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), though the unity may end there. The MDC’s finance minister, Tendai Biti, has complained that at least $30m from illegal sales of diamonds remains unaccounted for.
Suspicions remain that diamond profits are being channelled directly to the cash-strapped Zanu-PF, or at least to ensure that the underpaid army remains loyal to the party. “When the next election comes, it’s going to be a bloodbath,” said one observer. “And that bloodbath [will be] sponsored by the Marange diamond fields.”
There are fears that the Kimberley process approval could provide a veneer of respectability for illicit sales. But many believe this is more than a domestic issue, and that a global network of diamond interests should be held to account.
Adele Farquhar, 46, who is fighting a legal battle over ownership of a diamond mine, said: “People think it’s a Zimbabwe problem but they forget that there is huge international complicity. You can’t stop the Zimbabweans until you stop the money men.
“The people in Zimbabwe are getting next to nothing for these diamonds. The guy with the pick and shovel is literally earning $5. The guy to go and find is the one making $1,000. Go and look at the money and see who else is benefiting. That’s why there’s no momentum to stop this thing.”