Mali’s Bad Trip

Field notes from the West African drug trade.

Photo by SERGE DANIEL/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by SERGE DANIEL/AFP/Getty Images

BAMAKO, Mali  "If he returns to Gao, people will make kebabs out of him," a friend told me with a laugh over lunch in his home. He was referring to a prominent businessman publicly suspected of links to drug smugglers and support for jihadist groups who left the northern Malian city of Gao late last year for unknown reasons. My lunch partner’s comment was indicative. Many Malians in the north and south are deeply angry at notables or other local figures believed to be involved in the reportedly lucrative local drug trade whom they suspect of working with jihadi groups — the very same groups that tried to turn the north of the country into a haven for their hardline ideas before the French-led intervention in Mali in January.

The comment came just days after a crowd of angry youth in Gao reportedly nearly lynched two other suspected traffickers accused of involvement in the drug trade along with jihadi groups. Both of the men, Mohamed Ould Awainatt and Baba Ould Cheikh, are alleged to have been part of what has become known as the "Air Cocaine" incident back in 2009, when the burnt-out carcass (shown above) of a Boeing 727 believed to have been transporting up to 10 tons of cocaine was found in the desert north of Gao. Just days after the purported attack on the two men, the Malian government announced international arrest warrants against a number of rebel leaders and suspected traffickers, including both of the men attacked by the crowd. The public anger against purported drug traffickers has much to do with the widespread perception that their activities and corruption in general contributed to the gradual breakdown of Malian state structures in the last two decades, but in particular in the latter years of the presidency of Amadou Toumani Touré. It’s a perception that’s likely justified.

Cross-border commerce is hardly a new thing for the Sahara, a part of the world that has always served as a transit point for a variety of goods as well as a market for goods from both sides of the desert. When the countries of the region established formal borders after decolonization, smuggling became a vital part of local economies. Trade in subsidized powdered milk and other foodstuffs from Algeria in the 1970s eventually morphed into a booming business in counterfeit and black-market cigarettes, subsidized fuel, weapons, and narcotics, including cannabis resin and hashish. Somewhere around the turn of this century the first Latin American cocaine began to arrive in West Africa — mostly in the region’s seaports, where it was then transshipped to Europe by boat. But as sea controls between Africa and Europe were tightened, more and more of the contraband shifted to overland routes. Cocaine shipments began moving to Europe from airports in the Sahel, mostly using small propeller-driven aircraft, while other paths went through northern Mali to Morocco, Algeria, and Niger into Europe or the Middle East.

What outsiders have often failed to appreciate is the devastating effect that this flow of drugs, coupled with other forms of corruption, has had on governance in the countries of the region. And few countries demonstrate this quite as well as Mali.

Given the recent efforts by militant Islamists to create their own enclave in the north, and the subsequent French military intervention in response, it’s understandable that much of the recent coverage on Mali has focused on the threat to the country’s territorial integrity posed by separatists and Al-Qaeda-branded insurgents. Less well-documented, however, has been the continued presence of an even more pernicious problem, one that will be much harder to uproot by well-intentioned outsiders or internal political reforms: namely, the drug trade.

For most of the past twenty years, Mali occupied a place as a kind of poster child for democracy in West Africa. Foreign supporters praised it for its supposedly robust parliamentary institutions, wide-ranging press freedoms, and decentralized government. Much of the positive press came from an impressive series of peaceful power handovers. In 1991 Amadou Toumani Touré, then a senior army officer, overthrew the existing authoritarian regime of Moussa Traoré before handing over power to an elected president a year later. Ten years after that, Touré won a presidential election of his own, a position he retained until he was toppled in a military coup in March of last year.

That coup was launched by army officers disgruntled by the inept official response to a separatist threat in the north from the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and jihadi groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). An alliance of those groups had, managed to rout government forces, expelling them from much of the country’s north in astonishingly short order. But the weakness of the Malian army came as little surprise to anyone who had been watching the steady erosion of state institutions, largely as a result of widespread corruption. For several years, Malians and Western diplomats alike have voiced accusations that Bamako politicians and relatives are believed to have benefited directly from the illicit economy (among other forms of corruption), while the government and elements of the military are said to have either tolerated or actively participated in various smuggling schemes. According to a journalist with close contacts within the Algerian security services, for instance, Malian soldiers and officers were directly involved or complicit in at least two flights carrying cocaine that landed in Mali during 2009 and 2010.

Many Malians and outside observers believe that the rise of the drug business offered members of government — including, according to some accounts, people close to Touréopportunities for personal enrichment as well as a means of managing instability in northern Mali. The scale of the trade’s impact can be seen in the now infamous Gao neighborhood known as "Cocainebougou", a part of the city flush with new villas and sudden wealth; an official from the Timbuktu region told me a similar neighborhood sprung up there some time after 2009. He added that the large traffickers even built their own mosque in the neighb
orhood. While corruption accusations also sometimes dogged the government of Touré’s predecessor, Alpha Oumar Konaré, the widespread perception of major corruption under Touré was one of the reasons why many Malians supported the coup that overthrew Touré in March 2012.

It’s incredibly hard, of course, to come by reliable numbers on the drug trade. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated in a recent report that 18 tons of cocaine worth approximately $1.25 billion in Europe transited West Africa in 2010. Some might see this as good news, since that figure is down from an estimated 47 tons in 2007. However, the United Nation’s information is based in part on extrapolations from drug seizures, an uncertain metric given the flexibility of trafficking networks and the ability to change routes, tactics, and sometimes simply buy off local officials to avoid arrest. Still, the UNODC office in Dakar, Senegal, estimates that more than $500 million gained from the trade either remained in West Africa or was laundered through the region, in 2012. By comparison, Mali’s defense expenditures in 2011 were estimated at around $180 million, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Among the policies that have had a particularly corrosive effect on governance in Mali was Touré’s informal ceding of some state control and governance responsibilities to northern intermediaries. His government helped to establish and empower ethnic Arab and Tuareg militias to deal with violence linked to a 2006 Tuareg rebellion centered largely around the region of Kidal. Among other things, the government used various northern leaders as intermediaries in hostage negotiations. In an interview with The Telegraph, Robert Fowler, a former U.N. diplomat who was kidnapped in 2008 by AQIM and held for 130 days, recalls that Touré referred to Baba Ould Cheikh, the suspected trafficker who also helped negotiate Fowler’s release, as mon bandite ("my bandit").

As one former minister in Touré’s government described it to me over glasses of tea in his house, these intermediaries allowed Touré to exert some degree of political influence in the north, but at the same time it allowed these northern leaders to exploit state power for their own needs. A good example is the career of longtime Tuareg powerbroker and Ansar al-Din founder Iyad Ag Ghali. In 2003 Ag Ghali earned considerable political capital in Bamako by helping to free European hostages seized in southern Algeria in 2003. In 2006 he then played a major part in separatist rebellions in the north — and then lent his support to efforts by Bamako to end them. He ultimately leveraged both episodes to gain a diplomatic post in Saudi Arabia. Ag Ghali continued to play a key role in shaping events in northern Mali while he was in Saudi Arabia, a country from which he was expelled in 2010 due to suspected contacts with extremists. The maneuverings of Ag Ghali and others weakened the state while helping deepen corruption, with disastrous results.

Illicit and semi-licit commerce existed in northern Mali and the broader Sahel before the rule of Touré, of course. But the drug trade became ingrained in the very fabric of the Malian state at a time when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the forerunner to AQIM, was implanting itself in the north. The organization and its commanders (including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom Chadian President Idriss Déby claims his troops killed in fighting this month), developed deep social ties to local populations as well as links to various illicit businesses, ranging from hostage-taking to cigarette smuggling and taxing the smuggling of hashish and cocaine.

While reliable details are predictably elusive, my interviewees in Mali — including Western diplomats as well as Malian notables, including former security officials from the north — assert that the trade in illicit goods (drugs, cigarettes, gasoline, weapons) continued, and may even have intensified, during the brief reign of the separatists in the north, a supposition supported by some anecdotal reports. (Not everyone agrees, though.) Sitting on the floor of an upstairs room of a house on the outskirts of Bamako, three former security officials, men who had spent their careers in the north, told me that the trade had even become more organized under separatist rule — even as competing militant groups, cartels, clans, and families continued sometimes long-running struggles for supremacy. They said that the French intervention and the Western military presence in the north, however, not to mention significantly tighter monitoring of borders with Mali’s neighbors (notably Algeria), appear to have disrupted the trade significantly — at least for the moment. But other analysts suggest that the conflict in Mali has simply compelled the trade to find new routes through Africa and into Europe.

Still, it would be a mistake to claim that drug smuggling has only been a problem in the north. One Western expert who closely studies illicit trade flows told me that the instability in the north actually stimulated the narcotics trade passing through parts of the country that remained under government control, especially in the Kayes region near the border with Mauritania. This shows the flexibility inherent in drug smuggling routes, which adjust and shift rapidly in reaction to changing security and political environments, spreading or moving not just to different regions but also to different countries as necessary. And just as the trade allegedly flourished with the complicity of some linked to the Malian state, it is difficult to imagine that illicit trade could continue in government-controlled areas without some level of official support or acquiescence. After all, as noted in the recent UNODC report, "smuggling is often accomplished not by stealth, but by corruption."

Some sources allege that members of the Malian military, as well as officials close to the current military junta, are linked to the trade, either as active participants or via relatives whose activities they tolerate. Last August, journalists revealed that several European men believed to have helped organize the "Air Cocaine" incident had been quietly freed from prison.

One night in Bamako, as my conversation with a Timbuktu Arab notable drew to a close, I asked him if the drug trade would come back to Mali once the situation stabilizes and French forces pull away from the north. His response was matter-of-fact: "Of course it will!" The only way to make a dent in the trade and the problems it causes, he said, was to "clean up all of this administration" — the security services, the government in Bamako, and the system of rule that characterized northern Mali under Touré. And that is a problem that goes far beyond al-Qaeda. 

Andrew Lebovich is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a doctoral candidate in African history at Columbia University. He is currently based in Senegal and has conducted field research in Niger and Mali.

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