Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

19th March 2000

Diamonds for arms and fuel

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NEW YORK — The late Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the former Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), was singled out as one of the world's most corrupt leaders.

Asked at a press conference whether he was the second wealthiest political leader in the world, a seemingly outraged Mobutu shouted back: "It's a lie. It's a lie," and then added with a straight face, "I am only the fourth richest."

Last week, a UN Sanctions Committee put out a 59-page report which accused three heads of state, including two living presidents, of pocketing millions of dollars worth of diamonds in return for safe passage for arms and petroleum supplies to UNITA, a rebel group fighting the Angolan government.

The weapons were supplied in clear violation of a UN arms embargo— imposed in 1993 — against UNITA and its leader Jonas Savimbi who is currently in control of some of richest diamond mines in rebel-held territory in Angola.

Not surprisingly, Mobutu was one of the African leaders fingered in the report, the other two being President Gnnasingbe Eyadema of Togo and President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso. Both leaders have vehemently denied the charges.

The report was described as unprecedented because heads of state are usually considered sacred cows within the hallowed precincts of the world body. But sacred cows, as one diplomat joked, also make good beef steaks.

The report reaffirms three well-established facts: first, that heads of state are equally vulnerable to bribery as lesser mortals — given the right time and the right price.

Second, that armed groups, whether it is UNITA in Angola or the LTTE in Sri Lanka, can have unimpeded access to weapons as long as they are in good financial standing.

And third, rogue arms suppliers are primarily shady middlemen with access to post-Cold War Eastern European military arsenals.

Clearly, political leaders from cash-strapped Africa seem more susceptible to bribery than those from other regions mainly because of the inherent poverty in the region.

At a UN press conference last year, the Secretary-General's Special Representative in Liberia, Felix Downes-Thomas, told reporters that one of the larger problems in sub-Saharan Africa was "depressed incomes".

A cabinet minister in Liberia, he said, makes a paltry $20 per month (about Rs 1,460) as his salary.

And at a meeting of UN field officers last week, one UN official said that newsreporters in some African countries were paid as low as $10 per month (about Rs.730).

Perhaps that may be of some consolation to overworked, underpaid journalists in Sri Lanka.

The Committee, headed by Ambassador Robert Fowler of Canada, said that UNITA rebels have been able to sustain their ongoing war against the Angolan government because of widespread sanctions-busting.

Savimbi has been accused of neutralising the impact of sanctions by systematically setting up a variety of overlapping supply systems and by purchasing friends and facilitators in a number of countries and within the international arms bazaar, the diamond market and among rogue air services.

The UN sanctions — relating to arms and fuel— were first introduced in 1993, after UNITA refused to accept the results of the September 1992 election in which President Jose Eduardo dos Santos won 49.6 percent of the vote compared with 40.7 percent by UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi.

The report is also very critical of the diamond trade in Antwerp, Brussels, which handles business worth more than $23 billion a year, and processes about 90 percent of the world's rough diamonds.

Belgium, which was accused of being "unwilling or unable" to police the trade, has protested against the charges and said it had taken tough measures to stop the trade in Angolan diamonds.

The report said the bulk of the arms came from arms brokers, one of them a South African arms dealer, who provided UNITA with mortar bombs, anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons, grenades, ammunition and various kids of small arms and light weapons, mostly from Eastern Europe.

According to the report, most payments were made in diamond parcels of about $4 million and $5 million each.

The late Mobutu Sese Seko permitted arms-laden planes from Eastern Europe to transit through Kinshasa. The weapons were later moved to rebel territory by other planes or by road transport.

Until the overthrow of Mobutu in May 1997, UNITA also used the former Zaire as a base for stockpiling weapons and used Zaire end-user certificates as the means by which arms brokers were able to get the weapons Savimbi wanted.

Since there were no open transactions between UNITA and East European governments, the weapons were thought to have been channelled either through willing African governments or arms brokers.

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