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16 november 2012

Emotions erupted at the just ended Zimbabwe diamond conference as delegates and industry leaders spoke against sanctions imposed on companies operating in Marange by the United States.

The debate over the trade embargo was so super-charged that gloves were taken off for a knuckle bare verbal fight.

KP diamond monitor for Zimbabwe Abbey Chikane raised the temperature of the room when he openly told the current chairperson of the diamond trade watchdog, Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic – a U.S national – to recuse herself to avoid conflict of interest.

This was after she refused to comment on why the U.S was not lifting sanctions on the country’s diamonds despite a KP resolution last year that gave Zimbabwe a green-light to resume exports from Marange.

“There is a danger of having a chairmanship that will fragment the organisation because you are conflicted…you are then supposed to recuse yourself,” Chikane said to the mesmerisation of many.

Perhaps, realising that her tenure as the KP chair was nigh, Chikane then swiftly changed his tone as he asserted that South Africa - which is next in line as KP chair - would try to break the gridlock on sanctions without compromising.

“When South Africa takes over the chair next year, we will solve these issues,” he quipped.

Chikane did not elaborate how his country intends to wave the magic wand.

Adding fire to an already well heat room was Zimbabwe’s mines minister Obert Mpofu who said that traders and investors, mostly Indians and Arabs were “scared” of the U.S retribution.

“They are coming to me whispering, we are scared that they will be heard by the Americans who will interfere with their accounts,” he said much to the laughter of many.

Some delegates said that U.S sanctions against Zimbabwe were encouraging clandestine trade of diamonds, thereby creating conditions for the same “conflict” diamonds that the U.S was trying to prevent from being traded in the country.

They demanded that Ambassador Milovanovic comment on why the U.S had not lifted the sanctions despite progress that KP an organisation that she leads had even acknowledged.

It appeared Milovanovic had come prepared to withstand a Hurricane Sandy of criticism that came mainly from the African, Asian and Arab delegates.

She refused to yield to the barrage of pressure as she told the delegates that, “you are looking for something very dramatic from all this but you are not going to get it”.

As if that was not enough, Ambassador Milovanovic added that: “I am not a dramatic person by nature.”

She even asked Michael Gonzalez, the political and economic officer at the U.S embassy in Harare to address the conference on Washington’s position regarding the sanctions.

He could not give an answer that the majority of people in the room wanted to hear, as he hammered home issues that the U.S claimed had attracted the sanctions.

Gonzalez said that the U.S sanctions against Zimbabwe’s mining companies had nothing to do with KP but were a bilateral issue.

He said Washington imposed the sanctions because of its concerns over state sponsored violence.

“Zimbabwe’s attorney general and security chiefs must start honouring the president (Robert Mugabe)’s calls to end violence so the sanctions can be removed,” Gonzalez said.

Zimbabwean government officials said that the U.S was being misled by non-governmental organisations that were falsifying information about the state of the country.

Mpofu said that Zimbabwe was very peaceful and democratic.

“We don’t have violence here unlike in the streets of New York where people are gunned down in the broad-daylight. Is that peace? Here we have the rule of law, even if one steals a pen, it won’t take our police minutes before that person is arrested,” Mpofu said.

As the bickering continued, most people said the same thing but using different words. It was more of a verbal gymnastic contest but highly strung.

However, one thing that constantly came back was that Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds should be allowed to trade freely without any hindrances.

Some industry players from India said that Marange diamonds came at the right time when the global gem output was on the decline and any efforts to curtail their movement would lead to higher gem prices.

The World Diamond Council president Eli Izhakoff even took a bold step of declaring to the conference that his organisation would soon engage the U.S Treasury as well the EU to lift the sanctions on Marange diamonds.

Whether that will be a success, remains to be seen, as Izhakoff has indeed a tall order ahead of him. 

Mathew Nyaungwa, Editor in Chief of the African Bureau, Rough&Polished from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe