Blood Gold Flows Illegally From Central African Republic

Blood Gold Flows Illegally From Central African Republic

By Ilya Gridneff | From Bloomberg News

Freddy Bonjour, covered in yellow dust from head to toe, stands exhausted after a day using his bare hands and a shovel to dig for gold in eastern Central African Republic.

Like his fellow diggers, Bonjour says his life, and work, were better before war erupted in the country and fighters from the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group began demanding illegal taxes and fees. The alliance of anti-government militias says the money collected pays for food and security.

“We’ve lost everything,” Bonjour, 28, said in an interview in Djoubissi, about 316 kilometers (196 miles) northeast of the capital, Bangui. “The Seleka are in control of the mine.”

Revenue generated by illegal exports of gold, diamonds and other resources is fueling a conflict that has engulfed Central African Republic. At least 3,000 people have died, the United Nations says. More than 2.5 million need urgent humanitarian assistance and about 1 million have fled their homes to neighboring countries or camps.

A UN Security Council team that began a visit to the country Monday must ensure that protection for civilians and justice for the “brutal killings that have ravaged” the country should be at the top of their agenda, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in an e-mailed note.

Stolen Diamonds

The country is divided between a network of mostly Christian militias in the west and Seleka rebels that control the east. A transitional authority that came to power in January 2014 has failed to extend its authority beyond Bangui, where Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize in March 2013 before losing power to the militias.

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Seleka controls “swathes of territory” in Central African Republic’s gold- and diamond-producing regions in the east, according to a report published in November by the International Peace Information Service.

One of the militia’s main demands at the start of its rebellion in 2012 was the restitution of gold and diamonds “stolen” by Bozize’s regime, the Antwerp, Belgium-based research group said. Government officials and soldiers were deployed to mining areas in 2008 and confiscated diamonds, it said.

General Audarrassa Mahamat, military coordinator of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic, a faction of Seleka, denied his soldiers were taxing the workers illegally.

Food, Security

“We don’t take the diamonds or gold,” he said without flinching at the sound of heavy artillery outside his Bambari compound. “The workers give the soldiers money for food and security.”

Mahamat declined to answer repeated questions about the taxes buyers and traders have to pay.

Visiting the mine where Bonjour works, known as Ndassima, required numerous approvals from officials in Bambari, a four- hour drive away. The town is controlled by Seleka. Along the route, checkpoints were manned by Seleka fighters, many of them children in army uniforms.

Ndassima was previously licensed to Axmin Inc., the Toronto-based exploration company. In December 2012, the company suspended operations at the camp, where it had planned to start producing 200,000 ounces of gold a year, describing the situation in a statement as a “Force Majeure” due to the sectarian violence. Now the mine is a hive of activity, with diggers dotted all over the dusty, yellow-tinged hillside. Axmin, contacted by e-mail four times, didn’t provide comment.

Life Endangered

On the day a Bloomberg reporter traveled to the mine, a pit collapse had buried alive at least two miners and injured at least one other. Fellow diggers looked on from above as workers tried to uncover their colleagues from under the soil in the pit below. Around them, other miners carried silver pans of dirt on their heads, which they then sifted through with their hands under the watch of Seleka officials.

One 39-year-old miner didn’t want to talk in front of the Seleka soldiers because, he said, if they heard him complaining about working for so little, his life would be endangered. It was a concern repeated by other workers.

Central African Republic was the world’s 12th-biggest producer of diamonds and officially produced 55 kilograms (1,768 ounces) of gold in 2012, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Now, about 30 percent of the country’s diamonds and 95 percent of gold leaves the country secretly, according to IPIS.

Illegal Taxes

Most mining in Central African Republic has been informal since the country gained independence from France in 1960, when the government liberalized the diamond industry and opened mines to all citizens. There are as many as 100,000 subsistence miners and 600,000 people — about 13 percent of the country’s population — depend at least partly on mining for their income, according to IPIS.

“Central African Republic’s history is marred by a legacy of political instability, weak institutions, and predatory rule,” Manar Idriss, a campaigner on conflict resources at London-based Global Witness, said via e-mail. “For decades after independence, successive coups resulted in a political culture characterized by violence and instability which has made it easier for the political elite and armed groups to monopolize the control of the country’s mineral wealth.”

Once they’ve extracted gold, diamonds and other resources from the ground, the miners sell their production to middlemen buyers who have to negotiate payments with armed groups. The minerals are then smuggled out of the country to nations including Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, according to the UN Panel of Experts on Central African Republic.

Cheap Weapons

“Whatever trade goes through an armed group has to be taxed,” Aurelien Llorca, coordinator of the panel, said in an interview in Bangui. Some of the funds are then used to purchase arms, he said.

“Armed groups on both sides enter security arrangements with diamond traders,” Llorca said, referring to the Seleka and its militia opponents. “In the gold mines, they tax individual managers of the pits on the basis of their production.”

Chinese, Sudanese and European arms and ammunition have poured into Central African Republic from neighboring countries, the Brussels-based Conflict Armament Research consultancy said in a report in January. Its investigators found “vast quantities” of Chinese-made grenades throughout Central African Republic. Each cost less than a dollar.

“We know that diamonds in the eastern part of the country finance weapons,” French Ambassador to the Central African Republic Charles Malinas said in an interview in Bangui in January.

Angry Workers

After 30 minutes of talking to Seleka officials, taking photos and speaking to diggers at Ndassima, the crowd became restless. Even though the Seleka soldiers had provided assurances about safety, they were losing control. Angry workers began yelling and arguing.

“You should go,” said Sulman Omar Muhammad, the regional director of mines. Muhammad wore a pistol on his hip and denied being a Seleka rebel.

As Bonjour was being interviewed, fellow miners pleaded with correspondents to transport one of their colleagues to the closest clinic for treatment on injuries he suffered in the collapse of ground. The man, whose right arm was bandaged and his right leg was in a splint, was later driven to the nearest hospital an hour away.

“It is very hard work, but we have to feed our family,” Bonjour said.