“A few profit, the rest go hungry”

by James Shikwati

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Mr. Shikwati, there have been armed groups fighting one another in the Central African Republic for years now. Many of them finance their activities with the trade in so-called “blood diamonds”. Are these gemstones the root of all evil?

The diamond trade is certainly not the only problem but it does show clearly what is going wrong in the Central African Republic. If there was a legal way to quarry the precious stones and sell them in neighbouring countries or internationally, then that would be a blessing for the people. But in an instable state, they are a curse. Traders and businesses could be helping the country prosper. Instead armed groups are fighting over quarries and financing their new Kalashnikovs with uncut diamonds. The Kimberley Process, which was instituted in 2000 to hinder international trade in so-called blood diamonds, has not changed much about this. Essentially the future of the whole continent can be seen in the Central African Republic.

Please explain.

Theoretically we should be seeing prosperity here. Instead we often see poverty. Just as in many other parts of Africa there are untold treasures in the Central African Republic. But the profits from the associated trade never trickle down to the poorest. A few profit, the rest go hungry. It is not just the rebel groups enriching themselves, state officials are also doing this. They may not be doing it as openly as they did in the 1970s, when the dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa would appear in public, in a diamond-encrusted crown, but they’re doing it behind the scenes.

So you would say the country’s elites are to blame?

Not necessarily. It is not just that corrupt minsters and plundering rebel leaders who are taking all of the country’s wealth for themselves, it is also about structural factors. If you look at it from a purely economic point of view, the Central African Republic is not particularly advantaged, despite all of the resources it has. Firstly, the country has no maritime access. And secondly, it is part of the African continent. It is doubly handicapped in trade: Every export, whether diamonds or cotton, must travel through a neighbouring country – which costs money – and then it is also weighed down with international customs duties, say European or American ones. A country could hardly be further from the centres of world trade. Add to this the violence that continues to smoulder in parts of the country, even after the end of the civil war in 2014.

Given all that, is there any hope for positive change?

There are always glimmers. With the Central African Republic, these arise because the misery in this country is not a natural phenomenon. The country is not poor because it lacks resources. It is poor because it has resources. All of that indicates that this current situation is man-made. And where something is man-made, changes can also be made. 

What might those changes look like?

As in many other African countries, in the future it will be all about establishing stability, above all, in order to create markets. People can only be pulled out of poverty in places where taxes are paid and legal trade takes places. These solutions must come from the African continent itself and at best, from neighbouring states like Cameroon and Chad. They have an interest in promoting a neighbour that is stable and thriving economically. Examples in west Africa show that this kind of neighbourly aid is not just a utopian ideal, but that it can actually work. In 2015, when a coup in Burkina Faso before presidential elections looked likely to send the country into chaos, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union took action to prevent anything worse from happening. They were successful. A similar initiative could be useful in the Central African Republic.

Do you trust the African Union to improve the political and economic situation there?

That might be going a little far. But for a few years, we have been able to be a bit more optimistic about what political cooperation in Africa can do. The decision to strive for an African free-trade zone in the medium term has recently been signed off on by about 50 states. Steps like this will also help the Central African Republic to finally enter the continent’s interior market. It is absolutely possible that the community of governments here can stabilise this country in the long-term.

Is there anything western governments can do in this area or, in your opinion, would it be better for them to stay right out of it?

Given the colonial background in this country, the West should hold back. The Central African Republic will never function as an independent state as long as the shadow of its former colonial overlords hangs over it. Having said that, there is already European and American involvement in the form of humanitarian aid delivered by development and aid organisations.

In the past, you have been critical about this kind of involvement…

That’s true. The problem is that, no matter which country they come from, aid organisations can usually only deliver emergency help, like a fire truck. That is, they try and try to put out the fire but they have no mandate to tackle the problem that caused the fire in the first place. That’s also true here. To want to help those in need, that should be honoured. But in many ways, western aid organizations perpetuate the conflict. As long as nobody is willing to tackle the basic issues – the trade in diamonds, the arming of various rebel groups and the construction of the economic and politico-security architecture of the country – there won’t be any sustainable solutions.

The interview was conducted by Dilay Avci and Kai Schnier

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