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Failure to control drug trafficking aggravates Mali crisis
31 May 2013

Efforts by Western donor countries to rebuild Mali following the French military campaign there against al-Qaeda-linked rebels are currently focused on fighting Islamic extremism and restoring state institutions in the capital, Bamako. But is this preoccupation with a ‘war on terror’ really getting to the root of Mali’s problems?

The Malian conflict, which started with a coup d’état in March 2012, is at least in part a direct result of the failure to control drug trafficking in West Africa. But, ironically, the destabilising impact of organised crime is largely being ignored in the current process to help rebuild Mali.

The practice of illicit trade across the Sahara – a region with very few other opportunities for generating large profits – has been around for a very long time. For centuries, nomadic tribes with links across the Sahel and the Maghreb have smuggled goods at a low level. But until the advent of cocaine trafficking, it was never significant enough to attract the attention of the international community. Under the radar, individuals and networks involved in these activities slowly converted their wealth into political influence and military power. This has had a three-pronged effect: firstly, it created the basis for higher-profit activities such as trafficking cocaine; secondly, ensuing corruption and protectionism weakened and undermined the state; and, thirdly, the profits from drug trafficking funded conflicts and localised violence, opening the door for jihadists.

Today drug trafficking in West Africa has reached unprecedented proportions. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is conservatively estimated that 13% of cocaine trafficked to Europe is transited via Guinea-Bissau, with a market value of at least $4,29 billion. Drug money has upset the current power balance, irreversibly changing the game.

In Mali drug trafficking has compounded an already fragile and volatile political situation. The complex relationships between Tuareg nationalist groups, Islamist groups run by Malians, Algerians, Mauritanians and others, and numerous militia groups in the north and south have led to generations of ethnic tension and violence among Mali’s communities. The Malian leadership has long exploited this divisiveness to try to keep the north under control, at times facilitating access to certain criminal markets as a reward for the political support of militia groups. The political system in Mali has become increasingly reliant on proceeds from criminal activity, making it impossible to access power through a democratic political process.

With the inflow of cocaine trafficking from Guinea-Bissau and other coastal West African states, the growth in profits meant that the smuggling routes quickly spiralled out of the government’s control. Armed groups and militias formed along clan lines became better armed, more violent and more professional, making life very difficult for those Sahel communities who were trading at a lower level.

The relations between drug traffickers, Islamic militants and ordinary citizens are complex. Experts on the Sahel do not see an explicit ideological link between extremism and the national insurgency in Mali. The groups that have formed are transnational: the leaderships of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa are drawn from a cross section of Saharan countries with linkages to the main al-Qaeda group and Boko Haram, with recruits from Pakistan and Arab countries, and some from Europe. Although there may be a transactional relationship between Islamic extremists and the criminal groups in the region, there is no ideological alliance. ‘Their common interest is the lack of a state,’ a former senior Malian intelligence official was quoted as saying. ‘Fundamentally, that is what links these people.’

Ignoring the role of drug trafficking in the crisis in Mali would be disastrous. Should government control be secured in Mali, the Islamic extremists will be quick to put down roots in neighbouring Niger and Mauritania, already very vulnerable states. Mali would be left with the same chasm between north and south, but with entrenched criminality, deeper divides and renewed grievances.

As the French military intervention draws to a close, talks now turn to rebuilding state institutions and holding democratic elections. But there is little evidence that these plans will address the role of organised criminal groups or that strategies are being put into place to ensure such groups will not form part of any future government processes. Locking Mali into a framework of fighting terror may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as local insurgent groups with legitimate grievances against the government find themselves shut out of the state-building process and with nowhere else to turn.

To stop the situation becoming yet another cycle of instability in Mali and to prevent criminality extending into neighbouring countries in the Sahel, approaches to the Malian crisis need to change. Before still more millions of dollars are poured into the country in the form of development aid, capacity-building support and military assistance, a clear agreement needs to be reached on the best means to combat criminal activity. The warning signs all point to the fact that the criminal economy of drug movement in the south of the country is threatening the fragile state-building and democratisation process under way in the Maghreb. The time to act is now, before the effort to close the stable door comes after the horse has bolted.

A clear and explicit agreement needs to be reached that there is political backing from governments for combating organised crime. Organised criminal activity escalated in northern Mali during a period when the country was a major recipient of foreign assistance from the US, the European Union (EU) and individual EU member states. This should not be permitted to happen again and the continuation of assistance should be conditional on Mali’s government remaining vigilant to criminal spoilers.

The issues discussed here are explored in a longer ISS policy brief.

Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw, Research associates, ISS and STATT Consulting, Hong Kong

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