In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.
In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.
Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.
There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.
His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.
OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.
Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)
Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.
Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.
The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.
Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.
OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.
Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.
Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.
“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”
A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.
Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso
The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.
The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.
The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.
In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.
“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.
The Pool Offensive
The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.
In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.
One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.
After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.
The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.
“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”
The Baku-Brazzaville Connection
Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.
Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.
Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.
Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.
But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.
Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.
Braced for a Crackdown
As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.
Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.
In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”
Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.
Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.
And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.
“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.
“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”
Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.
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A Modern Pandemic, a New Vocabulary: How a Devastating Disease Has Changed Our Lives
Even as pandemic fatigue sets in, Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc in homes and in the workplace, picking its victims from all ethnicities and all races without regard to creed, class or caste.
A year after COVID-19 was officially declared a crisis by the Chinese government in Wuhan Province, I travelled to Moi Ndabi on Christmas eve 2019, a fast-growing trading centre 40 kilometres from Naivasha town and 140 kilometres northwest of Nairobi city. The area is mainly populated by the Maasai people and migrant Kikuyus. I arrived in the sweltering heat of midday, my light blue surgical mask in place. It was the first thing that my hosts and the people at the trading centre noticed. “You people from Nairobi are the ones bringing this corona to us,” one of my hosts, Silvanus Kaamamia said, only half in jest.
“Can you see anybody wearing those things here? Here in Moi Ndabi there’s no corona, this is a foreign disease. It is a white man’s disease and we don’t believe it can infect a black man.” It was as if my mask had suddenly reminded the Moi Ndabi dwellers of the pandemic.
Kaamamia is the archetypal Maasai man. He once lived in the forest with other morans before being conscripted into the Kenya Army where he trained as a tank commander. “I’ve not worn any mask,” said Kaamamia, “nobody wears them here. They are not even sold in the shops.” A cursory stroll around the centre proved him right – no one wore a mask and no shop stocked them. I was the “sick man of Moi Ndabi” walking around with my nose and mouth covered.
The ex-army man told me that the coronavirus is an alien disease of the rich: “I’m yet to meet anyone who knows anybody who has died of the disease. Yes, I have been watching the television which has narrated how the devastating disease has invaded the white people in Europe and America. The white people are weak, their body immune system cannot withstand even the slightest of a feverish attack.” What about the black people who have been felled by the disease, including Kenyans? I asked him. “They had taken to the modern western lifestyle and heavily relied on western medicine.”
I was the “sick man of Moi Ndabi” walking around with my nose and mouth covered.
Kaamamia said he could not remember being hospitalised or even swallowing any antibiotics since coming of age: “When you live in the forests, you are taught to identify all the cultural and traditional medicinal plants that one can always rely on if sick. Forget about these pharmaceutical drugs, they are all toxic.” Kaamamia said he had already gathered some herbal plants which he had mixed and boiled for his family and friends. Ole tarmunyo is a bitter, stinging concoction, which can be taken at any time of the day by men, women and children alike.
Kaamamia’s wife, a university graduate and a teacher who is currently breastfeeding, takes a dose of ole tarmunyo every day. “The concoction is so effective that simple ailments like fever and fatigue are kept at bay, because the medicine bolsters your immunity and clears off toxicants from the body,” said the teacher. “It is the ultimate detox drink.” Taken for the first time, it can easily knock you out.
Kaamamia’s first cousin Jacob Letoya – a feisty, fast talking lanky fellow aged 32-years-old who looks like he has just turned 27 – had recently been down with fever. “I couldn’t tell what it was, I felt weak in the joints, like I’d caught malaria, I couldn’t eat meat, it felt tasteless, my body felt tired. What was that? Don’t tell me it was coronavirus. No real Maasai man can get this crazy disease. Anyhow, I called Kaamamia who ferried ole tarmunyo in a gallon to my house where I lay motionless.” Letoya lives a kilometre away from his cousin.
The following day, Letoya said, he was back to his usual self – as fleet of foot and as sprightly as an antelope. “The fever was all gone. You can never go wrong with our time-tested traditional medicine. As you people wait for the vaccine to come from abroad, which will be sold to you like gold by the thieving politicians even though they’ll have been given to distribute freely to the masses, we, we already have our own vaccine. I recommend you take a gallonful of ole tarmunyo back to Nairobi, I promise you, you won’t even be wearing that thing.”
On March 3, the first batch of one million AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Nairobi under the COVAX programme. COVAX is a global collaborative initiative driven by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure that even the poorest countries that cannot afford the vaccine have access to it.
In Nairobi, the pandemic has led the urbanites to rediscover the value of garlic, ginger, and lemon and they have been mixing their own concoctions with these ingredients to fend off the disease, with the result that the price of lemons has shot up and remains high. A lemon that used to cost KSh5 pre-pandemic is retailing at KSh20 today. Many Nairobians have been religiously drinking this concoction morning and night so business is brisk for garlic, ginger and lemon merchants even as dispensing chemists have seen a spike in the number of people trooping in to stock up on antibiotics.
As life in Moi Ndabi went on oblivious to this pandemic that is ravaging humanity, Nairobi County, where I had been in lockdown for close to ten months, was already showing signs of “pandemic fatigue”. Pandemic fatigue has been described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions.”
In a report titled Pandemic Fatigue – Reinvigorating the Public to Prevent COVID-19 published in August 2020, the WHO further states,
“At the beginning of a crisis, most people are able to tap into their surge capacity – a collection of mental and physical adaptive systems that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations. However, when dire circumstances drag on, they have to adopt a different style of coping, and fatigue and demotivation may be the result.
“The demotivation is part of a complex interplay of many factors that affect protective behaviours. These relate to individual motivation and capability as well as to opportunities offered by the cultural, social, structural and legislative environment. Each of these factors can be barriers to and/or drivers of protective behaviours . . . the perceived threat of the virus may decrease as people become used to its existence – even if the epidemiological data show that the risk may, in fact, be increasing.
“At the same time, the perceived loss resulting from the pandemic response (lockdowns, restrictions) is likely to increase over time as people experience the long-term personal, social and potentially economic consequences of restrictions. For some people, the balance may shift, and the perceived costs of the response may start to outweigh the perceived risks related to the virus.”
Nairobians have been breaking critical pandemic rules: they are not maintaining social distancing in the crowded fruit and vegetable markets, at the matatu stops, in the pubs or in other social gatherings. The temperature gun has become a gadget to be casually pointed at customers entering office buildings, restaurants, schools and supermarkets. In many government buildings security does not even bother to pretend to take your temperature. Water dispensers at government buildings are more often than not either broken or simply not available. A friend recently told me bluntly: “Coronavirus is over, what’s your problem?”
Even masks have been discarded and many just hang them around their necks to avoid harassment from the police. At Marigiti Market, which I frequent often, I asked my friend Morgan Njeri, a fruit vendor, why she had taken off her mask. Her reply was curt and precise: “I’m tired of this thing, I’ll not continue covering my face forever. Masks are for oldies like you, and the rich. Look around here, do you see anybody wearing any mask? What for? We don’t board planes and we don’t live in the leafy suburbs.”
But panic swept through Githurai Market after the deadly disease claimed the lives of more than ten men between March 13 and October 2020. “The men were all veterans of the market, and they succumbed one after the other,” said a market woman. Their deaths were hushed up among the market traders, said the vendor. “People have dismissed COVID-19 as a scare disease, one that would hardly find its way to Githurai. I mean how? Then we heard so-and-so was down with a terrible fever and the next thing he was is gone, just like that. Then another and another and people were now really scared.” The fruit vendor said that the men were hastily buried in their rural homes, eerily clothed in polythene suits.
“Coronavirus is over, what’s your problem?”
“I wear this thing because of the police,” said Njoroge, a friend of mine who works as a tout on the Nairobi-Kikuyu route. Once we reached Kangemi, he yanked off his mask and threw it away. “We’ve become slaves to these things, it hinders my work, I feel hot around the face, it’s just tiring. I hate it.”
The police have found a new lucrative line of extortion. If they catch you not wearing your mask properly, they pounce on you and demand KSh500. Five hundred bob is the bribe you must surrender to a predatory policeman or policewoman.
Although many of the 33-seater matatus have had their seats re-arranged to accommodate the social distancing rule, the reality is that no one really cares about social distancing. While during the day many matatus may indeed enforce physical distancing of just about a metre between passengers, in the evenings and at night all caution is thrown out of the window.
Travelling in a matatu to Kiambaa one evening in the thick of the pandemic lockdown, I asked the conductor why he was not afraid of being arrested for carrying a matatu that was full to capacity. “You boarded at the terminus, did you hear any passenger complain? They all want to go home, pay a fairer price and beat the curfew. If you want to observe social distancing, you’re free to hail an Uber. Wear your mask if you must, who really knows whether this COVID-19 exists or not. Personally, I’m very sceptical that it exists. But what do I know and what do I care? The police? For all they care, COVID-19 is a boon for them to make hay while the sun shines. At the roadblock, they’ll stop us, and you watch, I’ll come out, a one hundred shilling note folded in my hand, we’ll exchange pleasantries and they’ll wave us on, another day, another ritual and life goes on.”
The Kabete Police Station roadblock, which used to be erected just outside the station, was considered one of the most notorious countrywide. It has since been removed. Oblivious of the public, the police would openly solicit and collect bribes day and night from matatus, private vehicles and lorries. “The advent of the pandemic had emboldened the Kabete cops to harass the motorists, more so the matatus because of their vulnerability and familiarity with the police officers.”
“All they needed to do is accuse a matatu of not observing social distancing, accuse a motorist of carrying ‘excess’ passengers and everything else fell into place; they collected more and more bribes until they started boasting about it,” said a matatu Sacco boss. The powerful matatu bosses of the Nairobi-Kikuyu-Kiambaa route came together and complained to authorities higher up: if something was not done about the roadblock, they were going to ground their vehicles.
The coronavirus crisis has created a new revenue stream for the famously money-hungry Kenyan police and many have minted a fortune out of the pandemic. Last December some police officers from the Kikuyu Police Station came up with an invidious scheme – they stalked shoppers at a Zambezi Centre supermarket and arrested all those who were not wearing masks or were hanging them around their necks. Some waited for shoppers outside the supermarket. Threatened with the public embarrassment of being hauled off to the police station, many women shoppers quickly parted with KSh500 or more.
“That’s why these people never end well,” one woman who had fallen victim said to me. “Imagine there are some women who parted with half of their money. Every calamity has its own beneficiaries. At the top government echelons, coronavirus has been a blessing in disguise – some state bureaucrats have minted millions of shillings and their greatest prayer is: if only this thing could continue. The police have taken the cue and they are not to be left behind in the latest scheme to defraud the public.”
The coronavirus pandemic came as a shock to Kenyans: none had ever experienced an epidemic of global proportions so they assumed it was a whirlwind that would soon dissipate. The management of a private hospital in Nairobi decided to test all its staff for coronavirus. “Staffers were turning positive by the numbers”, confided a dispensing chemist stationed at the hospital. “In the finance department, human resources, nurses, consultant physicians and even pharmacists, all were tested. The management had neither anticipated the outcome nor prepared for the shock. The hospital immediately stopped the testing and forbade staff from talking about the exercise. The management reasoned that if a critical number of the staffers were quarantined, the hospital would grind to a halt because there would be no one to run it.”
A year later, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc everywhere: “I’m not talking to my husband,” one friend said to me in July. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” What was “wrong with him” was that he had lost his job and with his source of money gone, he could no longer support his young family and it now fell on his wife to take on most of the financial responsibilities. Unaccustomed to being the sole provider for the family, the added financial responsibilities were weighing her down. “He doesn’t even leave the house. Why can’t he take a stroll like other men?”
Another told me she had separated from her husband. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. What she “couldn’t take anymore”, was the fact that he could not now bring any bacon home “but he still wanted to be treated like the boss of the house”. “If you want to be king, let your actions prove it – don’t depend on your wife to prop up your bossy life.” She accused her husband of “bumming” around the house, “ordering everybody and waiting to be served.”
I asked my friend Eric why he was drinking on a weekday and at midday. I had met him in a mutual friend’s office. “I’m cooling off, can’t you feel the heat?” I did not immediately get the irony. Eric had lost his job and his wife, he told me, had become intolerable: “Every other day we are just picking quarrels. I don’t know where all these quarrels are coming from suddenly. I no longer want to stay in that house. I don’t even eat in that house nowadays. When I enter, I go straight to the bedroom and doze off.” The “heat” in the house, ostensibly caused by his wife, had driven him out.
Yet another friend shared with me how working from home has caused a lot of friction and grief between him and his wife: “I’m now having my Zoom meetings in restaurants; I’ve left the house to her. This COVID-19 crisis seems to have given her an excuse to transplant her office in the house. She will not do anything because she’s at the “office” working. “She says things like ‘after work, I need to put my feet up and relax’. She expelled the live-in house-help, apparently because of coronavirus, yet she will not cook or do anything, ‘we must share the responsibilities’ is her new mantra. I didn’t think it would come to this.”
Even people who have been married a long time have not been spared. “My husband has relocated to shags [rural area]. It seems Nairobi had become too much for him,” said a friend I have known for 35 years. She did not want to divulge much about the husband whom I have known for just as long. “He now wants to spend more and more time with his mother, more than anything else…” I could sense something was I amiss but I could not put my finger on it.
The arrival of the pandemic in Kenya has also exposed how some expatriates relate to Kenyans. My friend Otis, who works with a Chinese construction company, China Wu Yi, told me how in the middle of the raging coronavirus crisis, the Chinese staff at the company’s Kikuyu Town offices treated them like lepers. “They cautioned we Kenyans not to get anywhere near them. They barricaded themselves in the offices. They barked orders from afar and if they needed to pass on something to us the local team, they threw whatever it was at us. The Chinese staff claimed that we could pass coronavirus to them”, said Otis, who operates heavy machinery. “Can you believe it? COVID-19 had been discovered in their country, but here they were, telling us we could infect them with coronavirus.” If you ever doubted Chinese racism towards Africans, there it was, claimed Otis.
In the period between 13 March 2020 – when the government declared a quasi-lockdown in the country – and the arrival of the vaccines on 3 March 2021, COVID-19 had claimed its fair share of victims, among them people I had interacted with.
One such coronavirus victim was politician Joe Nyagah, a man I had come to know in his later years. Three weeks before his sudden death on 11 December 2020, I had been with Joe at his house in Nairobi where we spent the entire afternoon talking nothing else but raw politics, of course. Joe took every caution that a man of his age would take; whenever he was in Nairobi he walked regularly around his huge courtyard, he ate light and his hygiene regimen was impeccable. Joe was a spirited soul; he laughed often and regaled one with stories from his life in the corporate world, as a diplomat and of course as a canny politician. You could be a careful Joe, but coronavirus is no respecter of age, agility or ambition.
“My husband has relocated to shags. It seems Nairobi had become too much for him.”
The pandemic picks its victims from all ethnicities and all races, and does not discriminate along gender lines. My friend Hanif Adam, a Kenyan of Asian descent, told me how the coronavirus has caused havoc in the closeted Asian community.
“Kariokor cemetery where many of the Asians are interred has been closed off and is now a restricted area. The coronavirus crisis has scared off the management that runs the cemetery because the rate of interment has shot up dramatically. The management also fears for the lives of the people who run the cemetery. It is worried that they might get infected. The only bodies that are being accepted at the cemetery are those that have been certified as not resulting from COVID-19,” said Hanif. “All other bodies are to be buried at the Langata public cemetery.”
That is where one of Nairobi’s wealthiest Asians was buried. His body was cremated at the Langata Crematorium where a short funeral ceremony was also held. COVID-19 is no respecter of class, creed or caste. Hanif said the tycoon was infected with the coronavirus at an Asian wedding ceremony conducted at a five-star hotel in Nairobi. “Since then weddings have become no-go zones for [rich] Asians. Important as they are to our community, I’ve also stopped attending weddings: it doesn’t matter whether it is the wedding of my closest relative, social distancing notwithstanding.”
In the one year that the coronavirus has wrought havoc here and abroad, threats of Armageddon and rapture have suddenly disappeared from the incantations of the self-anointed and self-appointed apostles, bishops, evangelists, exorcists, ministers, pastors, prophets, spiritualists and soothsayers. What happened? COVID-19 has exposed the hollowness of these miracle merchants and prophesy peddlers. By a twist of fate, God had not forewarned or revealed to them the great calamity that was coming and that was going to create such apocalyptic anxieties.
Even when it came, they still could not decipher the meaning of the strange disease, the anxieties it was creating among their flock and what it portended for the future of humanity. The self-styled evangelical preachers who are used to “performing miracles” at crusades and holy sanctuaries could neither perform nor preach, whether privately or publicly. Fearing they would be victims of a modern pandemic themselves, the preachers went underground and secretly sought medical care from established private healthcare facilities as they abandoned their flock. They are yet to resurface. To use a cliché, it was everybody for themselves and God for us all.
Forest for Thieves: Why Illegal Harvesting of South Sudanese Teak Leaves Nothing for the People
The European Union Timber Regulation of 2013 has proved ineffectual and it is still easy to ship illegally harvested teak, “the king of woods”, from South Sudan to Europe via India.
In front of the entrance of the Rivièra Maison furniture store in Utrecht stand two low garden tables made of teak. On sale, says the saleswoman, because the next season is already coming up. Where does the wood come from? “Oops,” she replies, “that is an unusual question.” She goes to the computer inside the shop and comes back out radiantly: “These tables are from India!” That sounds likely, because since 2013 exports of furniture from India to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Just like Rivièra Maison, a large chain with a hundred sales points in the Netherlands and six hundred worldwide, dozens of other Dutch companies source their teak products from India. While the country itself produces only a limited amount of teak, India is the world’s largest exporter of teak products.
In order to meet the enormous demand, India is importing more and more wood from other countries for processing into “Indian” furniture or other objects. Teak is a popular wood but difficult to obtain and whenever a fertile source of teak is restricted by international regulations, such as virgin forests in Thailand and Myanmar, India shifts its focus to new suppliers.
Today, much of the teak in India actually comes from the young East African state of South Sudan, a country where the trade in timber is barely regulated. South Sudanese wood is not prohibited on the European market, but the seller must be able to prove that it comes from a legal source. The chance of that happening is small: 90 per cent of South Sudanese logging is illegal. Any wood that reaches European stores is therefore almost always illegal.
The citizens of poverty-stricken South Sudan are excluded from the timber trade which is dominated by foreign companies whose little domestic revenues go into the pockets of corrupt politicians and rebels who until 2020 used it to finance a destructive internal war. Using trade data, social media forums and discussions with importers, we followed the potential route that looted South Sudanese timber takes to Europe via India. We pretended to be traders and proposed one illegal deal after another, often on the basis of forged documents. Despite the introduction of the European Timber Act in 2013, which should have ended the sale of illegally harvested timber, it still appears to be easy to get illegal timber onto the Dutch market.
“Sir we get the supply from Sudan. The certificate of origin we can make Uganda, Congo or whatever you want”, responds our contact from Pratham Exim Solutions when we approach him in a Facebook group and present the strict European guidelines. “We pay some money to an official and get the origin papers we want.” We can choose from five East African countries of origin: Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi or Rwanda. Of those, only Congo and Tanzania actually have teak plantations.
Various Facebook groups show how India gets its teak. Timber traders, mainly from India, offer large quantities of teak of dubious origin. Posing as traders, we ask if someone can deliver timber from South Sudan to the Netherlands. Someone can. “We get teak from Sudan that comes via Uganda, where we fill the containers in Kampala before it leaves for the port of Mombasa. From there we ship it to India or another country,” says the owner of Pratham Exim Solutions when asked which route the wood will take on its way to Europe.
At our request, he draws up a plan to ship our consignment of wood first to India, and from there to Rotterdam. India, which also has teak plantations, is in principle a legitimate country of origin. “We have good contacts at the Indian Chamber of Commerce, so the papers are not a problem,” assures the merchant. The chat provides evidence of forged labels of origin and a detailed plan to sell wood from South Sudan via India as wood from India. We cut off the conversation just before closing the deal.
Export data of timber consignments from East Africa to India for 2019 shows more than a hundred companies that demonstrably ship South Sudanese teak to India. We bought this data from the Seair, an Indian company that collects import and export data at Indian customs. It concerns five hundred teak shipments totaling twenty thousand cubic meters, with an official value of twelve million euros – not including the inevitable bribes. We also count another 120 parties from Kenya and Uganda that most likely also come from South Sudan. South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated: as soon as a South Sudanese party enters a timber market in the nearby Ugandan capital of Kampala, the freight becomes “Ugandan”. A number of these companies also say they do business with Europe.
Our data is just the tip of the iceberg. According to calculations by the American research firm C4ADS, more than 100,000 tons of teak from South Sudan go on the world market every year. Teak, “the king of woods,” is native to Southeast Asia and is particularly popular in the boat building and furniture industries because of its weather resistance and “stability”, as traders call it. The limited and more selective logging in primary forests in recent decades has driven up the price.
While luxury yacht builders continue to prefer “primal teak”, plantation wood from Africa is an inexpensive alternative for furniture builders. South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for felling. Usually, plantation teak is relatively well regulated, but this is not the case in South Sudan. The United Nations reports that there are virtually no legal logging concessions, not even for large companies, and that there is no supervision. In addition, replanting trees is a prerequisite for felling in regulated plantations but this does not happen in South Sudan.
South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated.
Besides oil, teak is the young state’s most valuable raw material, were it not for the fact that the lion’s share of the logging takes place below the radar of the tax authorities. According to the UN, the country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually. In reality, only one to two million comes in.
On the Internet, the trade in Sudanese timber is less disguised. There are photos of traders proudly posing next to packed containers on Facebook. “Good Sudan prices” is the caption. Pixelated number plates reveal the Ugandan heritage of the individuals. Kenyan journalist John-Allan Namu went undercover to investigate the South Sudanese timber market for his documentary series The Profiteers in 2018. Namu shows how illegally felled teak from South Sudan is mixed with teak from some legal concessions in surrounding regions at a timber market in the Ugandan capital Kampala—the most common method used to conceal the origin of the wood according to Interpol. The fully loaded containers leave Kampala for their next destination, the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, where they are hoisted onto cargo ships. An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India, where it is cut or processed into furniture.
“South Sudan has only existed since 2011 and has had little time and capacity to regulate the timber market,” Namu said from his office in Nairobi. “The market is largely in the hands of foreign companies who pay generous bribes to government officials and rebels who protect loggers.” The money has been used to finance a civil war since 2013, Namu said. That ethnic conflict between the two largest populations in the country came to an end in early 2020 yet there is still fighting in some regions. The population is very poor and the government is among the most corrupt in the world.
Somewhere in the Lopik industrial area of Utrecht in the Netherlands the smell of wet wood is in the air. Wet angelim vermelho, a tropical wood, gives off a sweet-sour scent. Ipe, itauba, massaranduba and twenty other tropical woods are also cut here. But teak is missing. “If you trade in it, you just have blood on your hands,” says timber merchant Albert Oudenaarden. Oudenaarden is the director of Van den Berg Hardhout, a wholesaler who only trades in wood that has been certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) as sustainable. He can trace every plank of wood in his timber yard to a specific place in the jungle.
Oudenaarden can talk for hours about the importance of wood and the controlled felling of trees which creates space in the jungle and is good for biodiversity if done right. Never remove too much in one place, cut safely and in a controlled manner, do not go into the forest with big trucks, leave important places for animals and the local population alone. His dream? To have only sustainably harvested wood on the Dutch market. Since 2013, however, he has seen the demand for his sustainable wood stagnate. This is a bitter consequence of the new European wood law. “Many companies are increasingly ignoring FSC. The law is intended to combat illegal logging, but whether it does so, I have my doubts about it. In any case, legality says nothing at all about the sustainability of a party.”
South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for cutting.
According to Oudenaarden, the law takes the wind out of the sails of sustainable wood. Furniture makers confirm this. “Such a label only costs money. The products comply with the wood law, so it is good, right?”
The European Union introduced the European Union Timber Regulation in 2013. Anyone who puts wood products on the market must research the entire trade chain and take measures to stem illegality in the chain. An authority has been designated in every European country to supervise the timber trade. Years of lobbying by environmental organisations preceded the introduction of the European Timber Regulation but seven years after its introduction, the scheme has turned out to be much less effective than hoped.
First of all, there are the exceptions: a multitude of products such as chairs, wooden coffins and musical instruments are not covered by the regulation. A teak garden chair made from legal, illegal or wood of unclear origin does not contravene the law. A second weakness is the susceptibility to fraud. Anyone who imports products that do comply with the regulation – table tops, cabinets, whole tree trunks – must have a lot of documents proving the exact, legal origin of the wood.
But that is only a “paper reality” says timber merchant Oudenaarden. You can say anything in documents. Indeed, we easily find a fictitious label of origin from the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Tampering with labels is common practice in the international timber market. Previous research shows, for example, that illegal coniferous wood from the Ukrainian Carpathians ended up in the Netherlands with false papers in 2016, and wood from Latin America and Southeast Asia is also “laundered” more than once.
Third is the weak control over this fraud, including in the Netherlands. Because the Timber Act does not regulate the import but only the marketing of timber, the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) is the supervisory authority in the Netherlands. The body makes company visits based on risk indicators such as the country of origin, product type or processing country. According to critics, that role should have been assigned to customs. “The border is the only place where you can really say something about the origin of wood,” says Peter Hartog, head of the environmental team of the Rotterdam police. “Once in the warehouse of a company, it is impossible to say whether that one pile of paper actually belongs to that one wood lot.”
The country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually.
“You better be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker,” says Hartog in his office in Hoogvliet, where the depot houses confiscated snakeskins and swordfish. “Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties,” he sums up. Since 2006, Hartog has completed five investigations into the illegal timber trade. There should and could have been more if the work was less international in character and the capacity of supervisory authorities somewhat higher.
The Netherlands has one of the five largest timber ports in Europe. Customs, which check for taxes and CITES – a list of internationally protected flora and fauna – has to deal with 75,000 containers of wood entering the port of Rotterdam every year, and the NVWA must supervise at least 5,000 traders. Other matters are also given higher priority in the investigation by the police. “Then calculate the chance of being caught,” says Hartog.
The European Union is only as strong as its weakest link. Under the Timber Act, only the first trader to place a prohibited batch on the market is punishable. And there are quite a few weak links, the European Commission concluded in an evaluation of the law in 2016. Most countries made far too few human and financial resources available, “which makes the deterrent effect of the enforcement activities rather limited”. Dutch customs acknowledges that they only employ a few people who can distinguish one type of wood from another, and two inspectors work at the NVWA.
In 2017, the authority imposed a conditional fine of 20,000 euros per imported cubic meter on the Boogaerdt company for illegally marketing teak from Myanmar. This is one of the few cases dealt with by the NVWA in recent years. Despite the fine, Royal Deck in Livorno, another company owned by the Boogaerdt family, still imports from Myanmar. A video that was until recently posted on the company’s website shows large shipments of timber in the port of the Asian country, and proudly advertises the timber’s provenance.
Myanmar is a notoriously high-risk country when it comes to the origin of wood. The Netherlands has blacklisted it because it is impossible to distinguish illegally from legally obtained timber in the country due to fraud. Yet it is openly sold in several places in the Netherlands. The fact that wood from forbidden countries of origin still ends up in Europe also illustrates the ease with which teak of more diffuse origin – such as South Sudan – can land in Europe.
Traditional East Asian countries of origin are increasingly restricting the export of teak. India, a country with a strong woodworking culture but too little wood of its own, drew its shortages from the jungles of Myanmar until 2014 when that country was issued an international export ban due to the widespread corruption and illegal logging involved in the sector. Indian merchants have since been importing from East Africa. A simple calculation explains the fraud: Indian forests today can only meet 5 per cent of the demand annually. The rest is imported from Africa and Latin America. Ninety per cent of the supply from East Africa comes from South Sudan. According to Indian sources, it cannot be determined where the wood on the Indian market was harvested. When asked where they get their wood from, Indian teak suppliers are curt: “We don’t do that business.” Or they hang up the phone.
An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India where it is cut or processed into furniture.
Since 2013, Indian exports to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Some of the teak products arrive in the Netherlands through the Alibaba online store. Some of the companies we approach openly admit that they source their teak from East African countries such as South Sudan to market them on the European market as a “product of India”. “We deliver to Europe by land, air or sea. Never had any problems with it, “says Saurabh Gupta of the Indian company Medieval Edge.
In data on the trade flows between India, the Netherlands and Belgium, we find 161 consignments of teak products that were exported from India to the Low Countries between September 2018 and September 2020. Sometimes these are orders from private individuals, or products not intended for further sale: a large elephant, wooden horses for the furnishing of a pharmacy – “a teak temple for the home” bought at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Three quarters go to furniture chains and wholesalers who sell them on to local retailers.
Rivièra Maison’s furniture buyer Gideon Manger does not want to believe his saleswoman’s answer. He must have provided incorrect information: “I would never import teak from India. We only work with certified wood from Indonesia. We think that is very important.” To reinforce his story, he sends a screenshot of a certificate from the factory in Indonesia.
That remains to be seen though. In export data, we see fourteen orders – making up a total of almost twelve hundred products made of teak and mango wood – from Rivièra Maison to a company in Moradabad, a city east of Delhi. Teak from India, and therefore of unclear origin. In an official response, Rivièra Maison says that the products ordered in India, although made of teak, are exempted by the European wood law and can therefore still be sold.
The furniture store is certainly not the only one that purchases in India. For example, furniture wholesaler Hazenkamp also sells teak products: wine racks, coffee tables, clocks and lanterns. Where does that come from? “Yes, it will all be India, it is produced there. I dare not say where the wood comes from. Yes, I think it comes from India.” But isn’t he legally obliged to investigate? The employee ends the conversation.
“Better to be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker. Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties”
The NVWA is aware of the existence of South Sudanese teak, the service says, but has not found it on the Dutch market in the past five years. According to the authority, most of the inspected companies have the correct documents, but she admits that this does not say everything. A report by Deloitte on behalf of Agriculture Minister Carola Schouten shows that the NVWA does indeed miss the big picture: it only carries out 50 wood inspections per year, often at the same companies. “It is first and foremost up to the business community itself to comply with the rules,” the NVWA said in a response. “After all, it is in everyone’s interest to combat illegal deforestation.”
Nyarayek Moboic recently graduated from the University of Amsterdam as a lawyer and is determined to do something for her native country. She views the logging in South Sudan with sorrow. She fled the civil war in her country with her family in the 1990s. Relatives who have stayed in South Sudan see one loaded truck after another driving out of the jungle.
Indonesia introduced its own quality marks more than ten years ago and obliged exporters to process logged wood in the country first to maintain employment. Moboic has something like that in mind. She hopes to acquire a legal logging concession in the country so that her enterprising cousin can make furniture out of it to ship in a direct line to the Netherlands. “Unique furniture with local influences. But for people like my cousin, it is difficult to get teak. The only option is to buy it from foreigners while it grows in their country. The wood leaves South Sudan. Nothing is left for the Sudanese themselves.”
In collaboration with journalist Ankita Anand, this article is part of the Money Trail project supported by the Nationale Postcode Loterij.
Counterfeiting, War and Smuggling: British American Tobacco Dirty Games in the Sahel
Billions of cigarettes, most made by BAT, are smuggled north through Mali every year on their way to the gray markets of the Sahel and Northern Africa.
Stashed inside pickup trucks and guarded by armed militias and jihadists, every year billions of illicit cigarettes wind their way through the lawless deserts of northern Mali bound for the Sahel and North Africa.
The profits from their long journey fuel north Mali’s many armed conflicts, lining the pockets of offshoots of al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, as well as local militias, and corrupt state and military officials. This violence is now spilling out across West Africa, displacing more than two million people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.
Cigarettes made by one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, British American Tobacco (BAT) and distributed with the help of another major, Imperial Brands, through a company partially owned by the Malian state, dominate this dirty and dangerous trade.
Now an investigation by OCCRP can show this is no accident.
Secrets contained in leaked documents, backed up by trade data and dozens of interviews with insurgents, former BAT employees, experts, and officials, show BAT started to oversupply Mali with clean-labelled cigarettes soon after the north fell to militants, knowing that its product would be fodder for traffickers.
The profits of cigarette smuggling fuel the bloody struggle between jihadists, armed militias, and corrupt military officers that has turned northern Mali into a lawless warzone.
For years the company partnered with Mali’s state-backed tobacco company, a subsidiary of Imperial Brands, to distribute cigarettes in regions controlled by rebel militias and throughout the country. Sources say these cigarettes, trucked north with the help of the military and police, then fall into the hands of jihadists and militias. An internal document suggests BAT used informants in West Africa to keep abreast of the workings of the illicit trade.
The dirty business goes well beyond the desert. OCCRP’s reporting found the Malian government not only helps to distribute BAT’s cigarettes, but also apparently turns a blind eye to gross accounting irregularities at its partner Imperial and even possible trade fraud.
And it continues today. Public trade data and expert analysis show BAT and Imperial continue to oversupply the country with billions more cigarettes than it needs. Meanwhile, BAT’s annual revenue in 2019 alone exceeded the total GDP of Mali and Burkina Faso.
The Malian case is the latest to show the world’s leading tobacco companies are not always abiding by the terms laid out in a series of historic agreements between 2004 and 2010 with the European Union (EU), in which they agreed to prevent their cigarettes from falling into the hands of criminals by only supplying legitimate demand. The agreements were concluded in the wake of legal disputes between three companies and the EU over cigarette smuggling.
“This is their playground,” Hana Ross, a University of Cape Town economist who researches tobacco, said of the industry.
“They know they can get away with stuff. It’s much easier to bribe. It’s much easier to cheat the system,’’ she said. “Governments here are generally weak. This is where they do things that they don’t dare to do in Europe anymore.”
A spokesperson said BAT was opposed to the illegal trade in tobacco, which the company called a “serious, highly organized crime.”
“At BAT, we have established anti-illicit trade teams operating at global and local levels. We also have robust policies and procedures in place to fight this issue and fully support regulators, governments and international organizations in seeking to eliminate all forms of illicit trade.”
BAT started to oversupply Mali soon after the north fell to militants, knowing its product would be fodder for traffickers, according to dozens of interviews.
Imperial said it is committed to ensuring high standards of corporate governance and “totally opposed to smuggling which benefits no-one but the criminals involved.”
The Malian government did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The Tobacco People
In the deserts of northern Mali, cigarette smugglers are called “kel tabac,” the tobacco people.
Illicit cigarettes from the capital, Bamako, and ports in Guinea, Benin, and Togo are loaded into convoys with armed guards and driven north along thousands of kilometers of winding roads and desert tracks to Libya and Algeria, and as far east as Sudan.
Smuggling has long been a part of life in the vast and largely empty Sahel region, where armed insurgents claim a patchwork of ever-shifting territories. Jihadist movements linked to al-Qaida and IS, Tuareg separatist forces, and local ethnic militias take turns controlling roads and checkpoints along the way.
Moving illegal tobacco is a difficult and dangerous job, with trips taking between three and 10 days. Many truckers are killed by military or armed groups along the way. But it is well-paid: In a country where most people live on less than $1.90 per day, drivers can expect to earn between 6,000 to 10,000 euros for moving a load of contraband cigarettes.
It is also a lucrative trade for the drug lords and corrupt local officials in Mali’s restive northern regions.
Hama Ag Sid Ahmed, spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an armed Tuareg independence movement that has controlled much of northern Mali on and off, said state officials and organized crime work together to profit from smuggling.
“Certain military officers, members of the intelligence services, heads of military zones in the northern regions are approached by drug lords,” he said.
“Large sums of money are paid for a contract related to a service rendered or to be rendered.”
A former tobacco industry insider said various militant groups, from the Tuareg separatists who have been fighting the Malian state for decades to the more recent offshoots of IS jihadists, also take a cut along the way.
“Product is escorted north by the Malian army or the gendarmerie [police], to protect it from so-called bandits,” said the former official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. “It would be given to the Tuareg for the trip onwards near Timbuktu, and then the Tuareg looked after paying IS in the Sahel.”
With the continuing violence and lawlessness, Malian customs have abandoned much of the north. Samba Ousmane Touré, an ex-employee of BAT’s distributor in Mali who is now a member of the country’s tobacco control committee, said armed groups have become the gatekeepers of the smuggling routes towards Algeria, Libya, and Niger.
“Armed groups play the role of customs,” he told OCCRP. “Yes, [BAT] knows.”
One of the most high-profile jihadists in northern Mali, an al-Qaida operative known as Mr. Marlboro, is thought to have financed his jihad by smuggling cigarettes.
The one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar allegedly orchestrated terror attacks, including one in Algeria in January 2013 that killed more than 35 people. He led the so-called Those Who Sign in Blood Battalion. In June 2013, U.S. authorities offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Belmokhtar’s location.
His battalion had ties to key Malian armed groups, reportedly providing crucial military assistance to the terrorist group MUJAO against the MNLA during the battles of Gao and Timbuktu. A senior U.S. official said in July 2013 that Mr. Marlboro “has shown commitment to kidnapping and murdering Western diplomats and other civilians.” One such hostage was the former U.N. Niger envoy Robert Fowler.
Sid Ahmed, the spokesperson for the MNLA, said many terrorists like Belmokhtar started out trafficking cigarettes before moving onto harder substances, and then to violent jihad.
“The Arab drug barons created armed militias to protect their drugs and which later developed into the terrorist organizations that are present today in the Sahel region,” he said.
Research from The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime argues the long established smuggling networks in Mali and the Sahel evolved “first to move illicit cigarettes, later hashish and then, most profitably, cocaine.”
A 2017 KPMG report agrees, noting that the region’s cocaine trade overlays routes originally used to smuggle cigarettes, and that illicit trade “can also intersect with the operations of terrorist groups.”Illicit trade is “an important component of the local political economies” of Mali and other countries in the Maghreb, said the report, which was sponsored by Philip Morris, though it claims the trade is fueled by illicit cigarettes from free-trade zones in the United Arab Emirates.
Raoul Setrouk, who is pursuing a court case against BAT competitor Philip Morris in the state of New York for intellectual property theft, said that illicit tobacco in the region has consequences that go far beyond health and tax issues.
“I hope we don’t have to wait for a new Mr. ‘Marlboro’ like terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar to raise our consciousness,” he told OCCRP.
Multiple sources, from soldiers and U.N. employees to businessmen, and armed militia members, told OCCRP that brands made by BAT and Philip Morris dominate the illicit trade.
Most common are Dunhills, produced in BAT’s factories in South Africa, and Philip Morris’ flagship brand Marlboros, which are handed to smugglers linked to armed groups by PMI’s politically connected representative in Burkina Faso, along with American Legends.
“Those which transit through are mainly three brands: Dunhill, American Legend and Marlboro,’’ said Hama from the MNLA. “It is the same thing also in northern Niger and not far also in the south of Algeria.”
Mohamed Ag Alhousseini, an independent researcher in the region, said much the same: “Even in Algeria, the trafficking is encouraged by the need of Marlboro and Dunhills, because they have other brands in the country.”
It’s hard to determine exactly how many illicit cigarettes are smuggled through Mali.
Trade data, information from customs officials, leaked BAT documents, and industry experts indicate there may be up to 4.7 billion surplus cigarettes in Mali every year — the equivalent of around 470 shipping containers of extra cigarettes. Some of them are produced in the country, but more are imported, almost all of them from South Africa.
Mali’s government has ignored years of blatantly false tax figures from Imperial Brands, a shareholder of the state tobacco company that distributes Dunhills in militant-run areas.
It’s also tricky to determine how much profit BAT makes because the company doesn’t separate out country figures in its annual reports. A company presentation from around 2007 estimates BAT’s market value in 18 “operational markets” in West Africa at 201 million British pounds (about US$394 million), and its market share in Mali at 61 percent. Another document, from 2012, gives gross turnover for Mali of 52.06 million British pounds ($84.6 million).
A BAT source, by contrast, estimated the company had a gross turnover of over $160 million in Mali in 2019 alone.
Imperial said SONATAM’s sales are “commensurate with the legitimate demand of the Malian population” and the company operates a stringent sales monitoring system.
“All cigarettes imported by SONATAM into Mali are done so legally under synallagmatic contracts with other commercial operators,” the company said in a statement.
Understanding Mali’s illicit cigarette trade is a messy business — and that includes the data behind it. Because the illicit market is so opaque, many of the calculations rely on educated guesswork.
Euromonitor International, a strategic market research company, estimated the country’s retail volume at 3 billion cigarettes in 2016, rising to nearly 3.2 billion in 2020.
Leaked documents obtained by the University of Bath and shared with OCCRP show that in 2007, BAT estimated the country had demand for 1.9 billion cigarettes. In 2011, the company upped the estimate to 2.4 billion. Both these figures are lower than independent projections for the same years.
After northern Mali became a war zone, however, BAT’s calculations changed, with documents from 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017 estimating the market as significantly larger than Euromonitor’s figures, at between 3 to 3.8 billion sticks.
The reason behind these high figures is unclear, as the same documents contain estimates of Mali’s smoking prevalence that are below the WHO’s. Experts have varying estimates for smoking rates. In 2011 BAT pegged it at 9.5 percent. The World Health Organization, by contrast, says 12 percent smoked in 2017, a rate that has remained steady over the past decade.
Yet data shows that every year since 2016, the first year after Mali’s 2012 rebellion for which trade figures are available there may have been up to almost 8 billion cigarettes in Mali.
Exact figures are hard to determine. A Malian customs official estimated an annual total of 4.6 billion cigarettes based on adding imports (2.6 billion in 2018 and in 2019 each year) with local production (around 2 billion in 2018 and in 2019 each year).
U.N. Comtrade data, however, shows between an estimated 3.4 billion to 5.9 billion cigarettes were exported to Mali per year from 2016 to 2019, nearly all of them from BAT’s regional hub, South Africa. Adding in local production, that could mean as many as 7.9 billion cigarettes are available in Mali each year.
Officials in Mali and South Africa confirmed the accuracy of the Comtrade numbers, which closely match regular reports on the value of tobacco imports released by the Malian government.
Hallmarks of an Illicit Trade
In Gao, a city in northern Mali that has long been under the control of armed groups, a warehouse that distributes BAT’s cigarettes does a brisk trade.
Ahmoudou Ag Attiane, a local automotive dealer, told OCCRP that 20-ton tractor-trailers stocked with cigarettes commonly arrive at the warehouse. Many of the cartons are then trucked 10 hours north to Kidal, which is controlled by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“The law is the [AQIM group] that has the most power — the terrorists, the jihadists — and they banned smoking and also alcohol. So you see, someone can’t show off too much by opening up a place where everyone knows this is where cigarettes are stored, this is where cigarettes are sold.
“All these big traders have relations with the big boss of Kidal,” he said, “which means that they are protected.”
Sid Ahmed, the MNLA spokesperson, added to this point, saying: “The traffickers make a large order with a merchant in Gao or Timbuktu. The traders transport [product] from Bamako to Gao and or Timbuktu. From Gao it goes to Algeria [and] Libya and from Timbuktu it goes to Mauritania and Algeria.”
The company that runs the warehouse, SONATAM — the state tobacco company whose shareholders include Imperial and the Libyan Arab African Investment Company — has been BAT’s distributor in Mali for years. Many of the cigarettes that pass through its warehouse in Gao are Dunhills from BAT’s plant in Heidelberg, near Johannesburg, which have accounted for up to 37 percent of South Africa’s total cigarette exports in recent years.
Unlike locally produced brands, the South African Dunhills come in packaging covered with health warnings in a major European language, French, known in the industry as a “clean label,” meaning they can be sold on the gray market.
David Reynolds, who built Japan Tobacco International’s program on countering the illicit tobacco trade, said BAT in South Africa is “notorious” for oversupplying the region.
“The rule is always the same: Oversupply plus lack of local controls leads to gray trade. That’s been a big part of BAT’s — and other cigarettes companies’ — business model for years,” he said.
“If you combine a major, high-end international brand, plus oversupply in a marginal market, such as Mali, with a clean label, you have all the hallmarks of intentional diversion into the parallel [illicit] trade.”
Documents obtained by OCCRP shed further light on how BAT’s Dunhills fall into the hands of armed groups in northern Mali.
A document from 2013 show SONATAM distributes between 25 percent to 75 percent of the three brands of BAT’s cigarettes sold in Mali. Three of its warehouses and distribution points are in rebel-controlled areas, including Gao, as well as Timbuktu and Mopti in the north of the country.
One BAT presentation from 2013 calls northern Mali a “war zone,” but notes that BAT has nonetheless identified future stockists and networks in Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. Another from 2017 highlights the “extremist insurgency” in eight of Mali’s regions, noting that three of them “remain completely dangerous to operate within owing to terrorist activities.”
However, an internal strategy memo from 2015 shows BAT planned to increase its business in these regions. The plan, called “Desert Storm” in an apparent reference to the U.S.-led military operation during the Gulf War, discusses how to reach “full potential” for their brands in Mali by incentivizing SONATAM to meet sales targets in areas including insurgency-run regions.
“As we know, in a dark market, the war is won on the battlefield with no pity for our competitors,” said the memo.
A 2007 presentation echoes the language of Europe’s colonial-era Scramble for Africa to describe the contest for the “crown jewels” of Mali and Ghana, casting West Africa as a battleground and speaking of “fighting ITG [Imperial Tobacco Group] to the death” and a “PMI [Philip Morris International] attack.”
“Mali was such an important market that BAT undertook a two-pronged strategy,” said Andy Rowell, a University of Bath researcher working with anti-tobacco watchdog STOP.
“The company set out to secure a ‘license to operate’ by schmoozing government officials. At the same time, the company sought to ‘delay and disrupt’ the operations of the opposition.”
Other BAT documents lay out its strategy to increase its market share against lower-cost cigarettes in Bamako and “UPC” — jargon for “Up Country” — including detailed analysis of the competition. They also show the company’s fine-grained ability to map and track contraband in West Africa: One presentation from around 2006 lists BAT’s “informants” in Mali and Niger.
Telita Snyckers, a lawyer who previously held senior positions at the South African Revenue Service and author of the book Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega-Profits, called the operation “corporate espionage stuff.”
The slides of the 2007 presentation discuss BAT’s strategy for West Africa, including Mali, stressing the need to “Grow VFM in Freedom Markets and Mali.” Snyckers said that VFM, or “Value For Money,” is a euphemism for smuggling and illicit channels.
In another presentation from 2009, a group of legal and security officials from BAT was told that “Mali, as the principal market which has the highest volume of illicit trade, is where we have the most to gain by increasing contestable market space.”
A BAT spokesperson declined to comment on the documents without seeing them before the publication of this article, but added, “we are not aware of the phrases ‘dark market’ or ‘value for money brands’ relating to illicit trade.”
Extraordinary Mistakes or Barefaced Lies
The rampant tobacco smuggling in Mali isn’t only down to the cigarette companies. OCCRP’s reporting indicates there is little state oversight of the industry.
For one thing, the government has overlooked blatant inaccuracies in figures from BAT’s distribution partner, Imperial, which for two consecutive years stated in its public accounts that SONATAM paid 5.5 million euros in taxes more every year than its total turnover.
West African financial analyst Oumar Ndiaye called the numbers “impossible.” Some former tobacco executives in Mali dismissed the SONATAM turnover figures as deliberate lies to fiscal authorities.
Imperial attributed them to an error in currency conversion, with West African CFA francs mistakenly not converted into euros. The company declined to provide documentation, however, and referred reporters to the Malian government, which did not respond to several requests for comment.
Alex Cobham, the chief executive officer of the Tax Justice Network and an expert on tax avoidance by multinationals, said Imperial’s explanation “doesn’t stand up,” and that repeating the same numbers over multiple years is “implausible.”
“Whoever wrote these numbers down thought nobody would ever look at them,” he said. “They’re either making extraordinary mistakes, year after year, or they’re telling you barefaced lies, or both.”
He also faulted the company’s auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, for apparently accepting the shoddy accounting.
“The idea that one of the world’s leading accounting firms, that prides itself on the auditing of multinationals to ensure they’re behaving as they should do, would not have picked up any of this in their rigorous annual audit process is difficult to square with any claim that corporate tax is being paid or audited on an appropriate basis,” he said.
It’s unclear who put together the “impossible” numbers.
Imperial inherited much of West Africa’s tobacco business from Bolloré Group, a giant in France’s former colonies which operates a number of ports across Africa and logistics companies worldwide.
The tobacco purchase bought Imperial a stack of elite connections. The directors of SITAB, an Imperial subsidiary in Ivory Coast, included a relative of former President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Lassine Diawara, the chairman of the board of directors of MABUCIG, a Burkina’ cigarette manufacturer. His online biography says he is a Knight of the National Order of Merit in France. He has traveled with Blaise Compaoré, the ex-president of Burkina Faso. SONATAM was run for a number of years by Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé, who became prime minister of Mali for a short period in 2011.
Ross Delston, a U.S.-based lawyer and anti-money laundering compliance expert who has worked in West Africa, said the Malian government could well have an incentive to overlook years of obvious errors.
“Any governmental authority that has a monopoly over a given commodity also has a high degree of risk for corruption,’’ he said after discussing SONATAM figures with OCCRP. “It’s just too easy to skim off a bit, or more than a bit, for the people at the top.”
Touré, the ex-employee of BAT’s agent in Mali, agreed, saying that the state shared in the responsibility for the bad accounts, adding, “I think that [in] corrupt states like ours, the tobacco industry has a lot of power over their leaders.”
Mali’s government declined to comment.
U.N. trade figures also indicate years of discrepancies equaling millions of dollars in the price of the country’s cigarette imports.
Mali imported more than 3 million kilograms of cigarettes from South Africa annually in both 2016 and 2017, representing around 95 percent of the country’s cigarette imports. An ex-BAT official said that the only cigarettes Mali imports from South Africa are BAT’s Dunhill cigarettes, a point confirmed in an earlier BAT document.
If the former employee is correct, BAT reported to the government of South Africa it sold the cigarettes for under $7 per kilogram, while SONATAM reported it bought the cigarettes for $15 per kilogram in 2016 and 2017, the years for which U.N. trade data is available for Mali. The discrepancy amounts to between $29.1 million and $32.8 million per year, and appears to have continued afterward, according to Malian government data available for 2018.
It’s unclear exactly what is behind the difference.
A Malian customs official dismissed the numbers as a likely lag in reporting shipments.
Two former tobacco industry insiders told OCCRP that trade mis-invoicing, a method for moving money across borders that involves deliberate falsification of the volume or price of goods, is common practice in the company’s dealings with Mali.
“Mis-invoicing, under- and over-invoicing, and invoicing direct to the U.K. instead of in the delivered country were all used at one time or another,” one of them said.
Cobham, of the Tax Justice Network, said SONATAM’s overpayment is “very much consistent with the longstanding history of commodity trade price manipulation for profit-shifting purposes.”
That’s apparently not unusual for BAT. In 2019, Cobham’s organization authored a report that found BAT used various methods to shift profits out of poorer countries, at a scale that could deprive eight countries in Asia, Africa, and South America of nearly US$700 million in tax revenue until 2030.
“The bottom line is BAT is manipulating the price of the same commodity and the transaction in a way that can’t be justified by any possible transport costs, and any auditor worth their salt should have picked that up,” he said.
SONATAM did not respond to requests for comment.
Imperial did not respond to several OCCRP requests for clarification, saying only that the company “is committed to high standards of corporate governance” and “totally opposed to smuggling which benefits no one but the criminals involved.”
A BAT spokesperson said the prices of its tobacco “are in line with what external, independent parties would charge,” which is documented in the company’s tax strategy.
“BAT entities … comply with all applicable tax legislation and regulations in the countries where we operate,” he said.
PricewaterhouseCoopers and its French partner Xavier Belet, who audits the SONATAM accounts, ignored several requests for comment by OCCRP.
Friends on the Ground
From warehouses in Gao, Timbuktu, and Mopti, Dunhills flow north largely unchecked by Malian regulators.
“With the insecurity, the customs abandoned an important part of the north because of the narco-traffickers,” said Aboubacar Sidiki Kone, a Malian customs official.
Even if customs did man Mali’s lonely desert posts in the north, it’s unclear what they would do. An internal document obtained by OCCRP shows Malian customs and police were sponsored by BAT.
In a 2013 presentation, BAT lays out an “action plan” for a series of scheduled raids to be carried out by Malian customs and police in collaboration with company agents, tallying seizures of illicit cigarettes made by its competitors. A mission order and a protocol agreement in the presentation show BAT was supposed to pay for these raids.
Internal documents show BAT used informants in West Africa to keep abreast of the illicit trade.
A former BAT employee described staffers in Mali feeding intelligence on contraband to customs agents, helping them to seize the brands of other manufacturers.
Sory Coulibaly, a former sales executive for a BAT distributor in Mali, added that BAT has sweetened the deal, equipping customs agents and police with motorcycles and small patrol boats. Touré added that BAT has given customs several new cars every year.
The cooperation between Mali’s customs and BAT was formalized further in 2019, when local media reported Malian customs’ announcement of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the tobacco company.
Deals with customs agencies are a longtime tobacco industry strategy, detailed in a paper published by the BMJ’s journal Tobacco Control the same year. Eric Crobie, Stella Bialous, and Stanton A. Glantz found that there are more than 100 such MoUs around the world, that they violate the World Health Organization’s international tobacco control treaties, and are ineffective at reducing smuggling.
Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) were seen by transnational tobacco companies as “useful to provide access to decision makers and promote the image of [tobacco companies] as government partners,” the authors wrote.
In Mali’s case, the details of neither its deal with BAT nor an MoU it signed with SONATAM are easy to find. Abdel Kader Sangho, director of the customs’ training center, ignored several inquiries from reporters.
Touré, the Malian tobacco control expert, said the country’s tobacco laws are weak and there is little enforcement of them on the ground. “Our anti-smoking texts are not strong and most of our leaders are corrupt,” Touré said. “The texts exist, but it remains to apply them in the field.”
Today, SONATAM’s statistics claim Mali’s contraband levels are at an all-time low, while BAT continues to flood the country with cigarettes far exceeding demand.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the flows of smuggled tobacco may even be increasing. Touré said he has observed that the amount of Dunhills moving to the north, have recently been on the rise.
“I’m sure these cigarettes are destined for other countries, Niger, Algeria and others,” he said.
Meanwhile BAT and the Malian government are planning to make more cigarettes in the country. In 2017 they partnered up to build a new $18.2 million factory, according to local media reports. It is expected to open this year with the capacity to produce 3 billion Dunhills per annum.
Sandrine Gagne-Acoulon contributed reporting.
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