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‘The fish rots from the head down’: the global drugs trade and the erosion of the Malian state

Written by Andrew Norton


A recent event at ODI on the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis in Mali, saw a common theme in presentations from two panellists, Jeremy Swift and Bruce Whitehouse.  Both outlined how Mali’s State institutions and the political leadership of the pre-coup regime of Amadou Toumani Toure had been rotting from the inside out (or perhaps from the ‘head down’ as the proverb in the title has it) for some time before the ‘tipping point’ of state collapse. The rot set in when local and national elites started to benefit from drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom.

The tipping point for Mali was the influx of fighters (ex soldiers) and weapons from Libya following the fall of Gaddafi. This transformed the fighting capability of The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym of MNLA). But the separatist MNLA, with an ethnic nationalist agenda built around the Tuareg identity, soon ran out of steam and the territory it won became dominated instead by a collection of three different Islamist groups (Ansar Dine, MUJWA and AQIM).

In the south things unravelled as the ill-equipped Malian army contemplated taking on the forces now controlling the north. Captain Amadou Sanogo led a mutiny-turned-coup that brought an end to legitimate government, and a huge headache for those in the international community tasked to support both the re-building of Malian institutions and the conduct of operations against rebel groups.

In the end, of course, the French and Chadians went in anyway – despite the absence of a legitimate government to invite them – a necessity given the dire situation. They have clearly made great military progress – although doubts remain over how secure the country really is.

Drawing lessons from the unfolding tragedy in Mali is painful. As Todd Moss commented, many of us had been kidding ourselves about the country as a beacon of democracy and development in the Sahel. But there had been real progress in Mali in the 1990s in particular.

So what went wrong? Well, as a recent UNODC study on trans-national criminal networks in West Africa points out, the value of the illicit cocaine trade in West Africa (c. $1.25 billion each year) dwarfs the national security budgets of most of states in the region (Mali’s total defence expenditures amount to about $180 million). And the enduring strength of the Islamist groups in northern Mali (going back some years before the coup) was drawn largely from two sources – ransom payments for the release of kidnapped westerners, and the cocaine trade. An excellent recent piece by Andrew Lebovich digs into the details of complicity between national and local elites and the various forms of illicit trade that pass through Northern Mali.  By far the most significant of the commodities traded is cocaine.

In short, Mali had become a key node in the trafficking routes for cocaine that landed largely in coastal areas such as Guinea-Bissau and that moved towards the lucrative European markets through a variety of routes – including the trans-Saharan route through the north of Mali. There is evidence that European countries have tried to reduce the cash available through ransom payments to groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But there has been no similar action on the other key driver of instability and conflict – cocaine.

Naturally, reliable data and information are scarce on an issue like this. But it is intuitively obvious that countries with weak institutions stand no chance of maintaining stability and progress in the face of the forces that can amass around a spectacularly lucrative illicit market.

There have been voices for some time in Latin America calling for the US and European countries to recognise the damage that the demand for cocaine does in their societies, and even tentative moves towards decriminalisation, for example in Guatemala. From the US side the Guardian recently reported on a striking development: some US drug prosecutors are ‘switching sides’ and calling for decriminalisation. And of course, the toxic mix of extremist ideologies and drug production and trade has always been a part of the debate on reducing the fragility of Afghanistan.

So the Mali story is not exactly ‘new’ – but it still matters. It has been received wisdom since the era of prohibition in the US that criminalising a drug market will create fertile ground for powerful criminal organisations. When this driver of instability joins forces with destructive global ideologies that appeal to disenfranchised and impoverished populations (particularly youth) we can no longer ignore the problem.

It is time to recognise that the appetites of western consumers for illegal products are creating some of the most dangerous situations – politically, socially and in humanitarian terms – on earth. We need a new debate about drugs and drug markets: one that sees the links between welfare priorities in the consumer countries and the damage done in the process of production and trade. A debate that is honest about what we are up against. The north of Mali was not an ‘ungoverned space’ before the French intervention. It was (and to a degree probably still is) a territory largely under the administration of a powerful criminal conspiracy that has thrived under the bought collusion of national elites.  Guatemala may still be able to develop its own antibodies to the trade. The situation in Mali is probably well past that stage.

It is time to recognise the scale of damage done by the drugs trade in countries like Mali and put the welfare of the victims in those countries at the centre of the debate.  Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has recently called for a serious look at options for de-criminalizing the drugs trade, speaking about the new approaches to dealing with drug policy in Latin America.  It is a debate which needs to be held on a global scale.