Angola takes diamond industry by surprise: aiming for KP vice chair in 2014

Albert Robinson

Come and join us celebrate 100 years since the first discovery of diamonds in Angola, was the invitation from state-owned diamond firm Endiama. Since the country, though quite a muscular player in the global diamond sphere, is still something of an unknown quantity to most of us involved in the diamond industry, it seemed like a good opportunity to get an understanding of what the country is all about. From an organizational point of view, the Angolan Diamond Centenary Conference was an outstanding success. With all due respect to diamond conferences held elsewhere in the diamond world, not many, if any, could succeed in bringing in 800 people from across the globe to listen to speakers from all the diamond centers. Interestingly, Israel was the only diamond center that did not have an official representative at the event.

Of most interest – and surprise – was the candid way the speakers from Angola approached the conference. The clear under-riding theme was Angola’s desire to attract foreign investors. The country’s political and business leaders obviously believe that it is still regarded with a great deal of suspicion and misunderstanding abroad. And, as a result, they were willing to give out information in a way that caught many listeners by surprise.

The first speaker, for example, was vice-president Manuel Domingos Vicente, something of a coup in itself for the organizers. Almost before most people had settled in their chairs, he came out with a bold statement: Angola is seeking to be appointed as vice-chair of the Kimberley Process (KP) for 2014 – with the unspoken message being that it would thus be KP Chair in 2015. So clear and uncluttered was the message that it even seemed to catch the conference organizers off-guard since it was only an hour after Domingos Vicente had left the venue that a press statement was distributed echoing what he had told the conference.

In an admirable admission, he did not try to cover up the country’s unsavory past and the conflict diamond fuelled civil war that killed and maimed tens of thousands of people from 1975 to 2002. The government had invested great efforts in eradicating the trade in conflict diamonds, and was continuing to do so, he explained.

With an eye to human rights groups, he also said the government was aiming to put an end to illegal mining in the country in a responsible and humane manner. Reports over the past decade have suggested that the Angolan authorities have been anything but gentle in dealing with illegal miners who have flooded across the country’s porous and enormously long frontier with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government also aims to encourage artisanal mining in line with KP guidelines, thus raising the standard of living of thousands of Angolans currently panning diamonds for a pittance. Furthermore, he stressed the importance of the diamond sector to the country’s national economy, saying it had a high priority in Angola’s long-term economic strategy through to 2025.

Shortly after Domingos Vicente’s speech, Angola’s Geology and Mines Minister, Francisco Queiroz, provided some more meat, mapping out how the country would like to develop in the coming years. Clearly, Angola has something of an envious eye on countries to the south of it which started out on the road to beneficiation half a decade or so ago, particularly Botswana, and feels it has a great deal of catching up to do in short order.

Angola intends to develop its diamond industry beyond mining and to expand into cutting and polishing stones and creating a large jewelry manufacturing sector, he said. “The government believes the diamond industry can play a large role in the economic development of the country by providing employment and contributing further funds to the government through taxes and royalties.”

Allied to that, he explained that Angola is believed to have 1,000 diamond areas but just three diamond mines, including the Catoca mine. And that huge mine, alone, is responsible for 87 percent of Angola’s diamonds. As a result, the country would like to enter into cooperation agreements with foreign and domestic investors to develop its diamond sector.

And, in a clearly coordinated message, he repeated the comments of Domingos Vicente in saying that Angola would like to be the KP vice chair in 2014. “We have been working closely with the KP since it was established, and we would like the support of the international community to be vice chair next year,” Queiroz said.

It seems likely that this will, indeed, be the case for it is difficult to believe that such leading politicians would make their comments knowing they would be heard far and wide without being fairly confident that the KP vice chair was a fairly certain bet. The decision will be made at the next KPCS Plenary in Johannesburg in December under the Chair of South Africa.

Should Angola really be allowed to take over such a prestigious position was the question on the lips of some people at the conference given its human rights situation and political record. And, presumably, answered in the negative by the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC) in a report published before the conference which made allegations of human rights abuses. The report says there is a business and security network connecting the government, army generals and international businesses in the Angolan diamond sector. It also alleges large-scale human rights violations in the country connected with the network of security and mining actors.

And given its political situation, a reputation for widespread corruption and lack of financial transparency, the country might not appear to be a leading candidate to lead the KP. Political power is concentrated in the hands of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos who controls a malleable parliament and judiciary and who has been in power for 33 years and last year won a new five-year term. His daughter is, according to Forbes magazine, the richest woman not just in her country, but in the whole of Africa worth around $2 billion. And just this week, the president appointed his son to run the country’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund. The country is Africa’s second-largest oil producer, but millions of people live in poverty.

Is any of this relevant to Angola becoming the KP Vice Chair and then Chair? Probably not. “You are looking at this issue in completely the wrong way,” two leading diamond industry officials told me. “Africans as a whole, not just Angolans, see themselves as having been treated as little more than slaves for hundreds of years while their countries were raped. They have an extremely deep-seated suspicion of the West and its motives. Even African countries who may be appalled at the actions of other states on the continent will automatically side with them due to a shared history and grievances that rightly stretch back for several centuries. That, incidentally, was the main reason that it was so difficult for the KP to make progress regarding the Marange mines in Zimbabwe a couple of years ago.

Is it for us in the West to make judgments about whether Angola is suited to be KP Chair? Can we tell them what to do with their wealth? This is a long-term issue. They are not going to change things overnight, but I believe we should show them our full support and encourage change from the outside. Remember, we also need to change. Western countries do not exactly have a glorious history either when it comes to Africa.

Angola as KP Chair in 2015? Prepare to visit your nearest Angolan consulate for your visas for a visit to Luanda.

Source Idexonline