In the lounge of a luxury hotel in Bangui, the capital of war-torn Central African Republic, soft-spoken diamond dealers cautiously sidle up to guests.
Their whispered offers of gems for sale are a visitor’s first hint of the thriving illegal market for the precious stones in a country that five years ago was ranked as the world’s 10th-biggest diamond producer and is now mostly controlled by armed militias.
The illicit sales are bad news for the Central African Republic as it lobbies for the removal of an international ban on exports of its diamonds. The embargo, which was partially lifted last year, was imposed because of concerns over gem sales funding conflict. Yet while diamond exports offer a potential source of desperately needed government revenue, authorities so far have been powerless to curb the underground trade.
The government is aware that smugglers come to Bangui to buy diamonds but doesn’t have the means to stop them, said Mines Minister Leopold Mboli Fatrane. He cited the example of an Italian traveler arrested recently with scales and other diamond-evaluation equipment in his luggage.
“If you’re caught in the act, we’ll deport you,’’ Mboli Fatrane said in an interview in Bangui. “But we have a big country and barely any means to investigate.’’
Diamonds have been both a blessing and a curse for the Central African Republic since its independence from France in 1960, providing a crucial source of income for the poor while fueling corruption and armed conflict among the elite. Under Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who wore a gem-encrusted crown when he proclaimed himself emperor in 1976, diamonds became a byword for the megalomania of the nation’s politicians.
In his workshop where decades-old equipment is collecting dust, diamond-cutter Joseph Guinot, 65, remembers those days fondly.
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