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Blood diamonds and land corruption in Sierra Leone

A deep abyss punctures the southern suburbs of Koidu Town, one of the largest cities in Sierra Leone. The giant pit, vast processing plants and surrounding earthworks constitute the country’s richest diamond mine.

Diamonds were first discovered in Koidu during the 1930s. The Koidu mine was initially developed as a state-owned operation, which local communities hoped would bring employment and prosperity to the region. However, during the brutal civil war that raged between 1991 and 2002, the mine fell into the hands of South African mercenaries and has been operated as a private enterprise ever since.

Once the centre of the “blood diamond” trade, today the mine is operated by Koidu Limited. Founded by former mercenary Jan Joubert – who fought in many of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts – Koidu Limited is owned by the holding company OCTÉA Limited. Its parent company is Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) whose controversial owner, Beny Steinmetz, has been investigated by several countries for alleged corruption-related offences.

Displaced for diamonds

Since Koidu Limited took control in the early 2000s, hundreds of residents have been evicted from their homes to make way for the expanding diamond mine. Some families were included in the company’s resettlement programme while many more were left homeless and destitute. Local leaders and land administrators did little to uphold citizens’ land rights and protect their homes.

“The company and the chiefs met together and made an agreement against us, the poor people,” said a local elder who, despite having built his house when Koidu was still virgin bushland, has been evicted and excluded from the resettlement programme.

“The chiefs deceived us… There was corruption on their side,” said another elder who – after fleeing the civil war and spending eleven years in a refugee camp – was evicted from his home.

Those who were rehoused soon discovered the company’s promises of modern houses, running water, schools, clinics and recreation grounds were not materialising once the mine was established. The hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the extraction of diamonds continue to leave Koidu, and the country, without benefitting anyone in the community.

Koidu residents' participatory video, Digging for Dirt

Community-led investigation

In autumn 2017, Transparency International carried out a participatory video project with a group of 12 people who had been displaced. The participants – selected to represent the wider community – were supported to investigate the land rights struggles facing the people of Koidu. They also documented the corrupt practices happening within both customary and statutory land administration. Using filming techniques learned through participatory exercises, the group worked together over several months to create two videos exposing land corruption in Koidu.

Rumours about the mining company’s convoluted ownership and Beny Steinmetz’s ongoing legal battles had circulated around Koidu for years. However, until the participatory video process began, little or no attention was paid to the role of corruption in shaping decisions over land use and access –decisions that allowed Koidu Limited to evict communities from their homes.

“I did not understand much about the corruption issues involved in the mining and the land disputes,” said one participant, “but through this training I have understood everything.”

The community’s videos have been screened locally and nationally. They have been helping to raise awareness of the harsh realities facing those directly affected by the extractives industry. The videos have been adding pressure on the government to ensure adequate living conditions and justice for victims like Koidu’s citizens. They have also been contributing to a broader understanding of the pervasive and damaging nature of land corruption.

Controversial offshore ownership

Koidu Limited was registered in the British Virgin Islands by Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the Panama Papers scandal. It is owned by holding company OCTÉA Limited, which is chaired by Jan Joubert. In 2016, Sierra Leone’s high court ruled that, despite being the largest diamond mining company in the country, OCTÉA is not required to pay tax because its parent company – the Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) – is not registered for business in Sierra Leone. Koidu Limited was also ruled to be exempt from paying taxes to the local community, for the same reason.

The billionaire owner of Guernsey-registered BSGR, Beny Steinmetz, was arrested and detained in 2017 by Israeli police investigating allegations of fraud, forgery and money laundering in relation to a giant iron ore project in Guinea. He was released without charge, but BSGR has since been found liable for fraudulent misrepresentations, including a bribery scheme, by a London arbitration court with regard to the same Guinea project.

The participatory video project was facilitated by Transparency International Sierra Leone and InsightShare. It is part of a series of participatory video projects with communities across Africa, implemented by Transparency International’s Land and Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa programme. To learn how to facilitate participatory video, download our guidebook – Combatting Corruption Through Participatory Video: a Guide for Practitioners.

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