Two and a half years after conflict broke out in the Central African Republic (CAR), the armed groups that still control much of the country are reaping hefty profits from illicit exports of diamonds, according to a new study of the trade.
In a report released this week, the Enough Project estimated that armed groups earn as much as $5.8 million annually from the mining and sale of diamonds, and through illegal taxation in the country. Though the diamond trade has shrunk considerably since fighting began, much of the bloodshed in the Central African Republic (CAR) has been carried out with small arms — in some cases with hunting rifles and bows and arrows — and Enough Project said this revenue was more than enough to further "fund widespread military operations."
The illegal taxes aren't limited to just diamonds. In rural areas, outside the reach of peacekeepers, armed gangs tax all sorts of trade, including cattle and coffee. Road taxes alone are estimated to raise between $1.5 million to $2 million annually. In some instances, fighters have reportedly asked locals for payments as high as $1,000 for "protection," an astronomical sum in a country where average income hovers around $600 per year.
"The majority of funds generated by the armed groups goes directly into the pockets of the senior leaders, leaving very little for lower level soldiers and creating increased divisions and factions within the groups," wrote the report's author, Kasper Agger, a researcher at Enough Project.
In late 2012, predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels took up arms against the government of then-president Francoise Bozize. By March 2013, the Seleka captured CAR's capital Bangui, deposed Bozize, and installed their leader Michel Djotodia. The Seleka engaged in widespread killing and looting in the capital and surrounding areas, and showed little interest in governing. Soon, mostly Christian vigilante groups known as anti-balaka, some with ties to Bozize, organized to counter the Seleka. The anti-balaka committed their own crimes against minority Muslim communities, spurring an exodus from the country's south and west.
As the violence in Bangui grew to a crescendo in December 2013, a French force, Operation Sangaris, was deployed to CAR, joining the existing African Union force that had struggled to intervene in the killings. The French were able to push the Seleka back, but not before Bangui was effectively emptied of its Muslim population.
Conservative estimates put the number killed in CAR since March 2013 at upwards of 5,000, but with little knowledge of events in rural areas it is likely that many deaths are simply unrecorded. Both sides in the conflict have been accused of severe human rights violations, including sexual violence.
In the year and a half since the French arrived, a de facto split in the country has emerged, with ex-Seleka elements in control of much of CAR's east and north, while anti-balaka groups remain active and exert themselves on the local population in the west. In September of last year — two years into the conflict — the UN deployed MINUSCA, a peacekeeping mission in the country.
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Agger told VICE News that international forces are stretched too thin to stymie much of the violence that still takes place along the de facto frontier, let alone address the illegal trade in resources. Since January, sporadic fighting has displaced some 50,000 people, adding to more than 800,000 others that have already been driven from the country or internally displaced. Humanitarian operations for CAR are massively underfunded, and locals and aid workers have complained the stalemate has allowed the eyes of the international community to drift toward other crises.
"We basically have UN peacekeepers in the major towns across the country, but as soon as you get outside the towns you have rebel-controlled areas," Agger said. "Even inside the towns you still have armed groups."
That dynamic, he said, has allowed the illicit trade of diamonds and gold to flourish, along with the illegal imposition of taxes. Though CAR was suspended in May 2013 from the Kimberly Process, an international certification that works to prevent the sale of blood diamonds, trade across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Chad, and Sudan still thrives.
In May, a forum in Bangui that convened to tackle CAR's political future saw numerous armed groups agree to lay down their arms. This week, the government of interim president Catherine Samba-Panza said presidential and parliamentary elections would be scheduled for October. However, observers say the elections, already postponed on several occasions, will be tough to pull off given the limited power exerted by Samba-Panza's administration.
"The state is sort of fictional at the moment," Ben Shepherd, a fellow at Chatham House's Africa Programme, told VICE News. "It's more or less nonexistent."
Shepherd also questioned the effectiveness of the disarmament process that was agreed to in May. The process would integrate some armed elements into a national force.
"There are a lot of questions left to be answered," Shepherd said. "The bottom line is that you can't begin to address the grievances that are driving [the conflict] without generating an inclusive politics in CAR that it probably never has had."
Since the Kimberly Process ban was put in place, diamond companies have accumulated official diamond stockpiles of nearly $8 million, according to government documents. While Agger reported that diamond production has fallen in some areas, including western CAR, it has risen considerably in ex-Seleka-controlled areas in the northeast. Part of that disparity, said Agger, stems from the exodus of Muslims, who traditionally made up a large part of the merchant class in CAR, from some diamond producing areas.
Despite the insecurity, companies inside CAR continue to purchase diamonds legally, building stockpiles in anticipation of a lifting of the freeze on international sales. But Agger said that in order for that to happen, the central government must be able to exert control of both the mining sites themselves and the major trade routes through which diamonds pass — a reality that seems distant. A planned drawdown of French forces from 2,000 to 500 soldiers this year will make that task even more difficult. Still, he says, the UN can do more.
"When the Seleka is running roadblocks, to be a respected military force you have to stop these people, who are not even that heavily armed," he said. "If the UN comes in heavily armed, militarily they can easily take out these groups, but it's a matter of priority and shift."
Of course, the Kimberly ban hasn't stopped all foreigners from buying diamonds.
"The government is running a jewelry shop in the main hotel, and there's a shop within the military compound where the African Union, French, and others are," said Agger. "It's easy to buy a few diamonds for yourself."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford