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.