While repeated attacks by extremist groups and inter-communal violence continue to fuel insecurity in Mali, the country is also confronting another enemy; one that is more silent and insidious. That enemy is drugs.
Earlier this year, the Mali anti-drug body (Office central de lutte contre les stupéfiants – OCS) seized nearly three tons of cannabis hidden in a truck of goods reportedly coming from Ghana through Côte d’Ivoire.
In October 2017, an individual attempting to bring nearly 1.4 kilograms of cocaine into the country (worth an estimated value of 42 million CFA francs – €64 000) was arrested at the Bamako International Airport. The arrest follows on from a series of similar interceptions at Bamako airport in 2016 and 2017. Also in October 2017, cannabis fields were discovered in the southern region of Sikasso.
These are but a few examples of the multifaceted drug problem that Mali is currently facing as a country of drug transit, destination, production and, of course, consumption. However, the problem is not unique to Mali; nor is it a new one for the country.
In the past decade, West Africa has become a hotspot for drug trafficking – both in terms of the global trade and on the continent. The region has become known for producing and consuming some of these illicit products and for the increased use of psychotropic drugs such as Tramadol and codeine cough syrup. Most West African countries are, to some degree, affected by the phenomenon.
Mali has become known as one of the region’s main transit points for cocaine, particularly from South America. However, according to an OCS official interviewed, the number of cocaine seizures and interceptions at the airport has been declining, especially when compared to 2007 and 2008. This could be attributed to increased international assistance, which has allowed Malian authorities to improve surveillance at the Bamako airport. It’s equally plausible, however, that – faced with the tightened controls at country’s main airport – traffickers have adapted and are increasingly transporting cocaine to Mali by road.
At least two cocaine seizures have been made in recent months on roads linking Conakry, the Guinean capital, to Bamako. But security services are under-resourced and the borders porous, and Mali looks set to remain a key crossing point and a hub for cocaine trafficking in West Africa.
This trafficking is run by well-established networks in Bamako. They operate as wholesalers – receiving cocaine, repackaging it and sending it to Europe or neighbouring countries. These networks are mainly run by Nigerian nationals, but Guinean individuals have also been implicated, says the OCS official interviewed. But far from being masterminded by foreigners only, it’s important to note that Malian nationals also play a key role in these networks.
In northern Mali, drug production and trafficking occur despite, and to a certain extent due to, the instability that currently prevails. This area has seen the presence of various armed groups – be they labelled ‘political’, ‘jihadist’ or ‘criminal’ – and this part of the country is also known for illicit trafficking. Hashish (a cannabis-derived product) is particularly trafficked in the regions of Taoudenit and Kidal and smuggled into Algeria and Niger. An increase in the trafficking and consumption of synthetic opioids such as Tramadol was also reported in northern Mali.
While the production of cannabis in Southern Mali is considered a new phenomenon, this is not necessarily the case. Cannabis fields are being discovered as a result of increased intelligence, which gradually allows for a light to be shone on this illicit activity.
Cannabis is produced in some areas in the Kadiolo, Yanfolila, Kolondièba and Bougoumi circles of the Sikasso region. Together with cannabis from neighbouring Ghana, these production sources supply the domestic market, including the capital, Bamako. Some locally produced cannabis is also exported and consumed in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.
Although accurate data national drug use is rare, observers have expressed concerns about what is perceived as a sharp increase in drug consumption, notably in Bamako.
A 2017 study conducted in the city of Sikasso – the second most populous city in the country – concluded that drug consumption is indeed growing, with new consumers and older ones who have become increasingly dependent. Cannabis, cocaine, heroin and psychotropic drugs are among the most frequently consumed illicit substances nationwide.
As with most countries in the region, Mali’s fight against drugs is still dominated by a repressive approach. Despite efforts made to prevent drug consumption, particularly with awareness raising, much remains to be done in this area. The same applies to providing care for drug dependents and consumers, which is limited by a lack of appropriate institutions and resources.
Mali's role in West Africa’s drug trafficking underscores the importance of cooperation with its neighbours and other countries concerned to reduce the national, continental and international drivers of the phenomenon. However, regional cooperation remains weak and challenging. Some degree of cooperation was initiated with Ghana, for instance, but remains limited. On the other hand, cooperation with countries such as Guinea and Senegal is almost non-existent.
There is a need to boost regional cooperation, to strengthen surveillance and controls at border posts (both land and aerial) – including through better intelligence – and to identify and dismantle trafficking networks and production areas.
These efforts will be necessary to ensure that Malian society, which is already confronted with many political, socio-economic and security challenges, will reduce the risk of drug problems and the harmful consequences they pose.
William Assanvo, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – West Africa, ISS