BOMANDORO, Central African Republic — For the past two years, Guillaume Benam has spent most of his days doing back-breaking labor, hunting for the riches that so many of his countrymen have fought over for so long.
With three partners, he shovels heavy, wet clay soil into wooden sieves and baskets, then hunches in shin-deep water, sloshing the dirt and turning the stream the color of chocolate milk.
Then the three crouch and peer closely, cigarette smoke curling through stultifying jungle air, as Benam scrapes a trowel across a metal grate, looking for something the size of a pencil tip that could feed a family for a month or more: diamonds, some of the highest quality and most precious on earth.
So far, all he has to show for his labor are flecks, specks, grains and pebbles.
“It’s a gamble. Sometimes you get one, sometimes you get nothing,” Benam said. “We have been searching. I have been around for more than two years.”
Deep in the forests of one of the poorest countries on the planet, Benam’s quest for diamonds is a search for livelihood. It is also a symptom of the country’s woes, where the government’s absence has left a vacuum in the countryside, where sectarian and criminal bloodletting continues.
Central African Republic has become a nation whose borders exist only on maps, where governmental authority is limited mostly to the 25 square miles occupied by the capital, Bangui, if that.
Two years ago, mainly Muslim militias, known collectively as the Seleka, seized power, then plundered the country: from precious – diamonds, gold and ivory – to mundane – guns, cars, office supplies and food. A group of mainly Christian and animist militias later retaliated, and drove the Seleka into the countryside.
This map shows the general distribution of ‘artisanal’ diamond mines in the Central African Republic. Data courtesy IPIS and United Nations panel of experts on the Central African Republic.
Today, CAR is less a country than a collection of fiefdoms, ruled by gang-like armed groups, where religious, military, political and ethnic factions struggle for anything that might yield revenue.
It’s a state “that has long ceased to exist,” the International Crisis Group said in a report earlier this year.
In a nation roiled by ethnic animosity, undercurrents of religious tension and a history of bad government, this latest struggle for the country’s natural wealth was by all accounts inevitable.
If it wasn’t diamonds, it would likely be something else.
Travel anywhere across Central African Republic’s jungles, forest, river valleys and arid plains, where vast natural riches lie, and you begin to grasp the contradictions of how a country so wealthy can be so poor.
Under French colonial rule, foreign companies exploited the country’s diamonds, gold, cotton, timber, rubber and other natural resources, but left little in the way of long-term infrastructure or governance that might knit the country into a durable whole.
The country gained independence in 1960 but, as is often the case, newfound wealth and a weak government fueled a surge in corruption and a struggle to control the bounty of gems and other resources.
A 1965 coup by former army colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa set a pattern of instability for the next 49 years, creating “a political culture characterized by violence and economic predation,” according to the United Nations.
During his 14 years in power, Bokassa ruled with an iron fist. He proclaimed himself emperor in 1977. The opulent coronation he staged, modeled on Napoleon’s, cost tens of millions of dollars, an astronomical sum for such an impoverished country.
Two years after the coronation, food riots, and a scandal involving schoolchildren, school uniforms and dozens of deaths resulted in French troops ousting Bokassa. The following 24 years were marked by a military junta, mutinies, coups and disputed elections.
In 2003, General Francois Bozize seized power. Despite a low-level insurgency and a diamond-related dispute in 2008 that stoked resentment, Bozize held on until March 2013, when a group of militias and rebel groups known as the Seleka emerged out of traditional Muslim strongholds in the north and east and seized Bangui.
The United Nations estimates around 3,000 civilians were killed between last December and mid-August. Foreign media and nongovernmental groups estimate the death toll exceeded 5,000.
Muslims are a minority in Central African Republic– only around 15 percent of the country’s 4.6 million inhabitants.
For many Muslims, the rise of the Seleka was a remedy for past injustices at the hands of the Christian majority. In the north and east, infrastructure like roads or electricity is rudimentary at best, and income lags considerably from that of the west and southwest.
The 10 months of Seleka rule, under Michel Djotodia, were characterized by fear and pillage, from the countryside to Bangui.
“Throughout the period in which the Seleka controlled the capital, looting of houses, shops and medical centers reached endemic levels,” said IPIS, a Belgian research firm, in a report released November 24. “In their advance through the central and western parts of the country, Seleka forces again systematically plundered villages and towns, sometimes even razing entire villages to the ground.”
For many Christians, the rise of the Seleka confirmed their fears that Muslims were out to cement control over key parts of the economy, like the diamond trade.
Adding to the chaos were shifting allegiances among the ethnic groups making up the two sides, and the involvement of mercenaries and irregular units from Chad, Sudan and elsewhere, specifically allied with Seleka groups.
The Seleka reign ended in December 2013 with the counterattack of mainly Christian militias known as the anti-balaka, which literally means “anti-machete,” a reference to the weapon commonly wielded by the Seleka fighters.
Seleka groups retreated from the capital into the countryside. But they retained swaths of territory in the country’s north and center.
Djotodia followed Bozize into exile in Benin. The mayor of Bangui, a stylish 58-year-old insurance broker named Catherine Samba-Panza, was appointed interim president in January.
In August, in a conciliatory gesture to Seleka groups, she appointed a Muslim as prime minister: Mahamat Kamoun. The Seleka nonetheless derided his appointment.
The country is now essentially cut in two.
In their sweep to power, anti-balaka groups were eager to exact revenge on Seleka fighters, and Muslims more broadly, but also to reclaim anything of any value — diamonds foremost.
Muslims were targeted throughout the country. The town of Boda, near where Benam and his partners have spent countless hours in mud and water looking for gems, was no exception.
Located about a five-hour car ride west of Bangui, the town, known as Boda la Belle, or Boda the Beautiful, saw interreligious violence following the Seleka’s sudden late-January departure.
Houses were destroyed, shops looted, a mosque ravaged. More than a hundred people were killed, mostly Muslims, officials said.
“We decided to become [anti-balaka] because Muslims rallied to the Seleka who armed them,” said a man who gave his name as Sylvain and who said he was chief of the anti-balaka in the Boda region. “And one day they started shooting at Christians to kill. This is what we revolted against. We first fled into the bush and then we said we cannot leave the country. And we’ve come back to defend.”
A city of 30,000 people, where dirt roads, muddy puddles and high fences separate the wealthy few from the masses, Boda now has a new line of separation: an enclave, a wall-less ghetto where some 1,400 Muslims who have remained are now trapped, guarded by anti-balaka fighters.
“We cannot move,” Altahir Abdallah, 67, an elder within Boda’s Muslim community, told VOA in an interview in September. “Even this little bridge that you see, we cannot pass over, no Muslim can cross. You move away from the enclave and you are killed.”
In this region, the owners of diamond mines – open pit, small-scale digs known as “artisanal” operations – were all Muslims until late January.
Mahamat Adamou, 70, who works as a middleman between miners and a Bangui buying house, said he was afraid to leave the enclave.
“When the [attack] began, they picked up all my mine workings: all the tools, pumps, diamonds. Christians have taken it all up,” he told VOA. “And they have taken over diamond mining on my sites.”
Bomandoro, the cluster of mines and pits where Benam and his partners are digging, is an hour’s ride away from Boda by motorbike, over roads losing ground to the encroaching forest.
The area is renowned among diggers, who have dubbed it “lango ousse,” which translates from the Sango language as “two days” – as in, it takes only two days to find something worthwhile.
Anti-balaka fighters monitor road traffic and miners’ activity. Benam and his partners, for the most part, have been left alone.
“We do not know anything about the mines,” Adamou said. “We only know that they [dig for] diamonds. We do not know where [they] lead.”
In 2012, Central African Republic ranked 12th among diamond producers in the world, according to the Kimberley Process, a multinational organization comprised of diamond-producing states, traders and civil society groups seeking to prevent the gems from fueling wars or insurgencies.
CAR is not alone in this part of the world either: Most of its neighbors produce far greater volumes.
What makes CAR unusual is the quality of its gemstones, prized not for industrial uses, like diamond-tipped, tunnel-cutting machines, but for use in jewelry and watches.
Experts rank its diamond quality among the top five in the world. The country exported 378,000 carats of diamond in 2012, worth around $167.05 per carat, about $63 million.
By comparison, its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, exported 19.5 million carats that same year, but they were worth only $13.41 per carat.
For Seleka militias, control of diamond production was a key grievance against Bozize, who in 2008 sought to create a monopoly over the domestic market for his relatives and members of his ethnic group, according to the International Crisis Group, a Belgian-based think-tank.
In May 2013, as the Seleka took control of Bangui, Kimberley Process regulators banned CAR diamonds from world markets, an attempt to keep the gems from fueling further violence.
But illegal export networks proliferated, as many of the Muslim buyers fled to neighboring countries such as Cameroon and continued overseeing export routes.
In November, the United Nations estimated that 140,000 carats of diamonds, worth $24 million, have been exported illegally since the ban took effect. That includes a shipment of 6,634 carats from CAR that was seized in Antwerp in the Belgian offices of Badica, the CAR diamond marketing company.
According to a former CAR mines minister, Olivier Mailbangar, up to 80 percent of the country’s diamonds are exported fraudulently.
Still, the ban has had an impact, experts said, crimping cash flow for diamond-buying offices, cutting capital investment for heavy machinery and mechanized tools, and pushing down production in some areas. As a result, per-carat prices have declined as official buyers build up inventories and wait out the ban.
At the same time, one of the main conduits for smuggled diamonds, Cameroon, whose gems are close in quality to CAR’s, has officially reported a drop in exports, well below estimated production. That, according to IPIS, “implies that Central African diamonds easily find their way into the parallel market through Cameroon,” harming its legal diamond industry.
At a Kimberley Process plenary meeting in Guangzhou, China, in November, delegates rejected a request by CAR to partially lift the ban, a decision they said they would revisit before the group’s next meeting in June.
“It’s a balancing act. There are people who are arguing that by keeping the ban in place, you are encouraging smuggling and destroying a sector that was fragile to begin with,” said Bady Baldé, regional director for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a Norway-based coalition trying to improve how countries exploit natural resources.
Terah DeJong, a Cote d’Ivoire-based expert who runs a U.S.- and European Union-funded project trying to improve the diamond trade, said it’s possible Kimberley Process officials will allow partial exports from the mines in western CAR. Those are mainly controlled by the Christian and animist militias. That could help refill government coffers, but it would likely stoke resentment among Muslim-controlled mining areas.
“There are many technical and political concerns with such an approach,” DeJong, who attended the Guangzhou meeting, said in an email interview. “How to ensure that it doesn’t fuel conflict by allowing western [anti-balaka] diamonds to get KP certificates but not eastern [ex-Seleka] diamonds to do so? How to ensure that eastern diamonds do not simply get smuggled into the west?”
Joseph Agbo, who heads the country’s Ministry of Mines and Geology, said that the diamond industry normally accounts for 51 percent of the country’s export earnings. Now the government no longer has any control over the industry, he said. Government efforts to restore authority outside of Bangui have failed. Seleka-linked groups attacked government officials across the country recently as they sought to resume their posts.
Agbo echoed the argument that many government officials and official diamond exporters now make: The embargo facilitates fraud and undermines efforts to rebuild a functioning government.
“The more the [ban] persists, the more vultures are in the process to set up in CAR to divert our resources,” said Vianney Koyandakpa, a Bangui-based diamond exporter.
The question whether CAR will continue to exist as anything more than lines on a map may hinge largely on the demands of its neighbors, on its colonial ruler and on the uneven attentions of the international community.
“CAR has arguably never really been a state, even since independence, in terms of its reach and access and control,” DeJong said. “So you have to ask the question: Are you looking something new, or just is a continuation of what’s been going on for years?”
In September, the United Nations deployed a 7,500-person peacekeeping force, including African troops, international police officers and other soldiers and officers.
France, which helped depose Bokassa in 1979, has continued to play an active role, with 2,000 soldiers deployed since last December. French troops on patrol outside the capital have been attacked regularly, and have called in air support from French fighter jets based in Chad on at least one occasion. France has also supported CAR’s call for a partial lifting of the diamond ban, to help the government refill its coffers.
CAR’s neighbors take an equally active role.
Cameroon hosts many of the Muslim diamond traders who fled the anti-balaka onslaught, and is the conduit for much of CAR’s gold, as well. Chad, fearing instability along a porous border, has allowed mercenaries to serve as security guards for Bozize, provided support for Seleka groups as they took Bangui, and carved out a buffer zone in northern CAR. Sudan, too, was widely reported to be a major conduit for arms supplies, equipment for the Seleka.
Moreover, with local commanders and militia leaders eager to fund their operations, having reliable export partners, or smugglers, is essential, meaning deeper ties with Sudanese, Chadian, Congolese and Cameroonian business interests.
This is true, experts said, for both anti-balaka and Seleka, some of whose leaders have called for breaking up the country. The more militia leaders can build up their revenue streams – through diamond smuggling, gold exports, ivory poaching, highway taxes, extortion – the more they will be able to resist the central government. That in turn will make it harder to find a lasting political solution.
Maxime Kazagui, the CAR government representative to the Kimberley Process negotiations, told VOA that for all the allure of diamonds, they have yielded nothing close to what they should have for his country:
“In truth, diamonds have made us more unhappy than happy.”
Bagassi Koura, a veteran broadcast reporter with VOA’s French-to-Africa Service, has reported from Central African Republic twice over the past year, covering the aftermath of the Seleka reign and the efforts to restore peace. A native of Burkina Faso, Koura has reported from around Africa, including Kenya, Cote D’Ivoire and Mali. Prior to coming to VOA in 2005, Koura worked as a freelancer for Reuters TV, AFP and The Panos Institute of West Africa.