© Issouf Sanogo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Prospectors in Kono District, Sierra Leone’s main diamond mining region.
DAKAR, Senegal — Fist-size and lumpy, the rock that a team of miners came upon recently in the diamond fields of Sierra Leone was orange with red speckles that looked like tiny droplets of palm oil.
They almost tossed it aside. The rock didn’t seem like the kind of gem that diggers typically unearth in a nation with a reputation for having some of the highest quality and most transparent diamonds in the world. But the rock was unusual enough to take to a local diamond dealer.
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“The look on his face when he saw the rock made me believe that we discovered something extraordinary,” said the Rev. Emmanuel Momoh, a pastor who runs the team of diggers who found the rock.
The strange lump turned out to be one of the biggest diamonds ever uncovered in Sierra Leone — an estimated 706 carats, valued at as much as $50 million. But Mr. Momoh’s decision to hand the diamond over to the Sierra Leone government to handle the sale, instead of quietly selling it himself, has set off a debate in a country where suspicion of officials runs high.
Sierra Leone allows miners to sell diamonds up to a certain size, but requires them to turn over larger stones to the government to sell, with the proceeds, in theory, going to the ones who found them, minus an unspecified government tax. Often, diamonds — both large and small — are sold on the black market, depriving the government of sorely needed revenue.
People on social media have been abuzz about Mr. Momoh and his discovery. Some have praised him for turning over the diamond, figuring that more money will go toward rebuilding a country that has been devastated by war and, more recently, by Ebola. But others thought he was crazy to give it up, especially to a government they think has done little for the people of the country.
© SLBC, via Associated Press President Ernest Bai Koroma, in an image taken from video, handled a diamond estimated at 706 carats that was recently found and turned over to the government.
“What has the government done anything for me to give them the diamond?” one person posted on Facebook.
President Ernest Bai Koroma, who appeared on television brandishing the gem, has tried to calm those fears, saying that the government would act in the best interests of all involved.
“I believe a diamond like this should be publicly sold in the country so that we know the value of it, what is due to the government and what is due to the people so that everyone can have their share,” Mr. Koroma said.
Diamonds — especially so-called conflict, or blood, diamonds used by warlords to fund wars that have racked the region — have long been at the center of controversy in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa.
Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002 and killed 50,000 people, was started by rebels who claimed to be ridding the mines of foreign control. Millions fled their homes in a war that included gruesome amputations and child soldiers. The economy tanked — in a country where diamonds litter the soil in some areas.
The war is over and conditions in the mines have improved somewhat, but the industry still faces accusations of corruption. Smuggling to other countries is common.
The rock uncovered by Mr. Momoh’s crew is not the first big gem to surface in Sierra Leone, or the first to generate controversy.
In 1972, just a few years after Sierra Leone gained its independence from Britain, miners unearthed a rare diamond weighing 968.9 carats. The gem was nicknamed the Star of Sierra Leone and was sold for an estimated $2.5 million to a New York City jeweler. The proceeds of the sale disappeared, contributing to the souring of the nation’s economy, according to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established after Sierra Leone’s civil war.
Mr. Momoh is a preacher in a small church in Kono, a district in eastern Sierra Leone, and sells peanuts as a side business. He also owns a mining license for a small diamond field and has been running a crew of miners for the past six years.
In many diamond-mining communities in Sierra Leone, those owning the land where gems are buried are required to secure a government-issued license to mine them. But mining licenses are cumbersome to obtain and can be expensive, so landowners and chiefs often work with entrepreneurs such as Mr. Momoh to buy the licenses. The entrepreneurs have almost total ownership of whatever is mined, paying a negotiated percentage of the take to the landowners.
Even so, miners and license holders also tend to receive very little revenue for their discoveries — which are the result of very hard work. Miners work under harsh conditions, using heavy tools to dig out sacks of dirt to create large pits that often collapse, causing deaths or severe injuries.
And when diamonds are found, the miners are so desperate for money they will often accept far less than the market value of the stones. In Kono, the nation’s main diamond mining district, dealers are still predominantly foreign — including Lebanese, Guineans, Gambians and Malians — and officials say that they spirit the diamonds out of the country to avoid paying taxes to the government.
“The entire diamond business is dominated by foreigners,” said Paul Saquee, the head chief in Tankoro, in Kono District. “I don’t want to indict all of them, but they discourage local miners from handing diamonds to the government in order to smuggle them out the country.”
Local miners and license holders also accuse the government and traditional leaders of keeping proceeds of diamond sales for themselves and accepting bribes from foreign companies.
In 2003, a miner found a rock that was believed to be a huge diamond. Excitement about the discovery spread across the country, amid expectations that the proceeds would go to much-needed infrastructure projects.
But experts cited by the government said the stone was corundum, another mineral. Many citizens believed that individuals within the government lied in order to keep the proceeds for themselves.
When the miners in Koyadu, a small village in eastern Sierra Leone, found their rock, they handed it over to Mr. Momoh so that he could have it examined.
Mr. Momoh, accompanied by the miners, took it to a Lebanese businessman who had a reputation for buying without delay. The dealer confirmed it was a diamond, and a major discovery.
Mr. Momoh wanted to alert the village chief to the gem, he said, but an argument broke out in the dealer’s shop.
The dealer proposed keeping the discovery quiet so that the men who had uncovered the diamond could find a buyer and take the proceeds for themselves without paying tax, according to Mr. Momoh. Discussions over what to do stretched for hours.
Eventually Mr. Momoh and the dealer agreed to take the diamond to the chief of the village, who insisted that the gem, because of its size, be handed over to the government.
Government officials placed the diamond, and a document attesting that Mr. Momoh was its owner, in a vault at the country’s central bank.
Last week, an official statement from the government said proceeds from the sale would benefit the country.
Officials have already contacted interested buyers, said Alhaji Ajibu Jalloh, the deputy spokesman for the government. The government will update the public on the sale with radio and television broadcasts, he said.
“We understand there are doubts as to who will benefit from this diamond — that is why the government is doing everything in public and in a transparent way,” he said. “The pastor will have his share, the community where the diamond was discovered will have its share and everyone else involved will have their share of the proceeds.”
Mr. Momoh said government officials have regularly been in touch with him and have repeatedly promised to give him his share of the proceeds, but he’s worried: So far no one has told him what his cut will be.
“I want to contribute in the development of my community, but at the same time I don’t want to be a beggar in about 10 or 15 years from now,” he said.