Boots on the ground in the Sahel: Drugs, the new alternative economy of West Africa

Cocaine politics: West Africa’s perfect global positioning between South America and Europe, and its endemic corruption, poverty and disorganisation, have made it the new drug hub. And drugs money is used to fund politics – Published on Le Monde Diplomatique/english Edition, by Anne Frintz, February 2013.

A Boeing 727 from Venezuela carrying an estimated five to nine tonnes of cocaine landed at Tarkint, near the city of Gao in northeast Mali, in November 2009. It unloaded and made a failed take-off attempt, and then was set alight. The drugs were never recovered. An investigation revealed that a Lebanese family and a Mauritanian businessman who had made a fortune from Angolan diamonds were among the backers of the enterprise.  

How could such a large plane carrying so much cocaine freely enter a region that, although desert, was neither uninhabited nor ungoverned? A French specialist who wishes to be anonymous claims that a government minister and highly placed people in the army and intelligence services with connections to the former president, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), were involved, as were some members of parliament from the north of the country.

The source said: “It’s a sensitive subject. It goes to the heart of power. When ATT’s regime collapsed, high-ranking officers in the Malian army and intelligence who had links with the drugs trade found themselves totally delegitimised. That’s one reason why the enlisted men and the junior officers took part in the March 2012 coup. The higher ranks had a collection of cars that the entire military budget couldn’t have bought. Drug trafficking brought major benefits: it helped with elections and real estate deals were financed through money laundering operations… Many politicians came to arrangements with the traffickers. If an over-eager soldier stopped a convoy, he’d get a call from someone higher up telling him to let it through. It happened on the border with Guinea in the time of Ousmane Conté, the Guinean president’s son, who was arrested for drug trafficking. ATT turned a blind eye to it. He let things slide. The Malian regime was one of the most corrupt in West Africa.”

Simon Julien (1), a French specialist on the Sahel, has described the situation of competition in northern Mali before 2012, where some had access to drug money and others didn’t. The regime attempted to quell Tuareg rebellions by giving generous funding from drug money to groups opposed to the Tuaregs of the N’Fughas mountains. This backfired. The resultant influx of arms from Libya and of Islamist fighters accelerated the partition of Mali. The part that drug money has played in the destabilisation of the whole sub-region should not be underestimated.

In the Nigerian capital, Lagos, the first illegal lab for producing amphetamines and methamphetamine was dismantled in June 2011. In Cape Verde in October 2011, 1.5 tonnes of cocaine were seized on a beach on the island of Santiago. In June 2010, two tonnes of white powder were found in a prawn-fishing storage facility in Gambia. And in April 2011 in Cotonou, 202kg of heroine were found in a shipping container from Pakistan apparently bound for Nigeria. Cannabis, the only locally produced illegal drug, remains the most common, but it is for local consumption only. Synthetic drugs — cocaine and heroine — are for Europe, Japan or China.

Major drug hub: … //

… Deals, and fallings out: … //

… You risk being ripped off: … //

… Top-level alliances:

To operate this trade, the international cocaine traffickers, especially the South Americans, forged top-level alliances with Guinea-Bissau’s civil and military leaders. Carlos Gomes Júnior (“Cadogo”), the country’s former prime minister arrested in the April 2012 coup, was suspected of covering up this trade and profiting from it. “Suspicions about Gomes date back to 2008, when a boat disappeared along with its cargo. He was accused of being behind it. The case got shelved,” the analyst recalls. “Not everything is drugs-related,” Lapaque points out, “but it always has to be taken into account.”

In 2011, the chief of staff, Antonio Indjai, neutralised his rival, Rear Admiral José Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, then head of the navy, and took control of the ports. “Bubo” features on the US’s international drugs trade wanted list; he was freed in the 2012 coup but seems to be currently out of action. It seems that the army’s chief of staff, who is close to Gomes Junior, gave his support to the coup only at the last moment, realising that he was better off with the military, a group of clans who pick their own leader.

The April 2012 coup wasn’t just caused by the cocaine trade: there had also been accusations of electoral fraud, historical tensions between politicians and the military, communitarian claims by the Balante (the main ethnic group in the army) and calls for greater recognition for Bissau, the autonomous capital. Fear of reform of the security sector planned by Gomes Junior caused particular alarm: the military opposed it, as it would have forced many of them into unemployment or retirement, with minimal guarantees (tiny pensions, unconvincing retraining schemes). After the April coup, the drug trade went quiet due to the level of disorder, a trend seen after every serious disruption.

Cocaine has become an important new revenue source for some West African elites — just as cannabis has become an alternative cash crop for the continent’s peasants — but its impact on national conflicts needs to be put in context. Drug money feeds conflicts, but it isn’t the prime motivating factor. Control of the traffic and territories was at the heart of the rivalries and score-settling between Indjai and “Bubo” in Guinea-Bissau, and the Tuaregs and the other peoples of northern Mali before 2012. But for those in the military or politics who hold power in Guinea-Bissau, and for the Islamist fighters who are flocking to Mali, and the new rulers in Bamako, the drugs trade is a tool for pursuing political objectives.

Misappropriation of funds at the highest levels of society in West Africa is not limited to the cocaine trade. Drugs get particular attention because of their health consequences and impact on Europe; they push into the background the instability caused by oil smuggling in eastern Nigeria, which is deemed more socially acceptable. They also allow states to justify repressive policies that target street dealers and addicts, while demonstrating complete inertia over economic and social development.
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