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Al-Shabaab aims to seize control of cannabis trade from drug kingpins

High profile figures in the Mozambican government are involved in illegal marijuana operations in northern Mozambique. That’s according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which says that that militant Islamic groups are also dealing in cannabis to fund their military campaign in northern Mozambique.

The conflict in Northern Mozambique has intensified over the past 12 months with an estimated 1 500 deaths and almost one quarter of a million people uprooted from their communities.  In essence, the militant Islamic Group al-Shabaab, is trying to seize control of the northern Mozambican oil fields and establish its own caliphate.

This report is from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI) in September 2018, detailing the illicit drug trade in northern Mozambique. It confirmed that Al Shabaab had moved into the cannabis trade and was also dealing in heroin.

The GI’s Heroin Coast report described the activities of perhaps the most powerful, organized and, at the same time, legitimized, criminal syndicate: the families that control the transit heroin route through Mozambique. These families are Mozambicans of Pakistani and Indian origin and are connected by marriage and through business partnerships. In conversation with interviewees they are often referred to as the ‘Nacala mafia’, due to their ‘capture’ of that major port. 

The alleged members of this mafia are named in our Heroin Coast report, and their links to the drug trade are substantiated by numerous interviews, as well as US sanctions, and inferred from previous offences and public information about their links to the ruling party and control of key port infrastructure. However, they have never  been charged with trafficking or convicted of such. The nature of their relationship to the state we characterized as an elite pact.

Through sharing an unknown portion of their profits from the trade with a network within the FRELIMO elite, they have gained unrivalled access to key infrastructure and have amassed huge power. (Our interviewees were particularly afraid of being named or in any way traced to information about their activities, and they clearly command fear in the local community, even though we were not told of any specific acts of violence or retribution on their part.) Their containers are not scanned at ports, and at one point they enjoyed what amounted to a police escort for their road-based heroin shipments on their route to South Africa.Money from their trafficking activities is invested in hotels, shopping centres and land, mostly in Nampula, as well in Pemba and Maputo. 

As such, they form a powerful economic elite in the north of Mozambique, with open ties to the most senior FRELIMO politicians in Maputo. Mohammed Bachir Suleman, the alleged kingpin of heroin trafficking in Mozambique had highly visible links to former presidents Joaquim Chissano, who attended Suleman’s son’s wedding in 2001, and Armando Guebuza, who allegedly received a US$1 million campaign contribution from Suleman and twice visited his Maputo Shopping Centre, including for its official opening. At the beginning of his tenure, the current president, Filipe Nyusi, appeared to distance himself from these families, but in June 2018, he travelled to Nampula for the inauguration of the five-star Grand Plaza Hotel, which is owned by one of the individuals linked to the Nacala mafia. 

The OCCRP “Political figures, the ruling party and their elite criminal associates have openly benefited from both the licit and illicit extraction of natural resources, while the local community has often been punished for their involvement in informal illicit economies and denied the benefits of formal investment and economic growth,” Global Initiative said.

By leaving many of its citizens discontent and encouraging opportunities for criminals to flourish, the state has created the ideal habitat for al-Shabab to accumulate funds, accrue followers and use violence to challenge the status quo.

Al-Shabab’s militants do not control a specific illicit trade but rather find opportunities in the illicit economy as a whole to gather funds. Like in Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Sudan, government corruption and Islamic extremism have fed the insurgencies.

Corruption has broken down law and order especially in northern Mozambique, where militants are more socially and economically embedded than many believe. Moreover, efforts to control the free flow of people and goods in the northern port of Mocimboa da Praia and the Tanzanian border have failed.

Two of the port city’s neighborhoods, Nabobozi and Nacala, are outside of government control. The unregistered marina at Nabobozi, where fishermen dock and launch their boats, is not regulated by the state but rather controlled by the fishermen and businessmen who use it.

A customs officer said “Nabobozi is a protected neighborhood by the local population who benefit by illicit activities, and drugs, ivory and timbers are loaded and unloaded there.”

In 2015, customs officers were almost lynched by locals after they seized a large quantity of cannabis.

“When we went to load and take it to the custom storehouses, the local population screamed at us saying, “Leave our products,” one of the officers said. “And they came at us, trying to attack us. We left the drugs and ran away.”

As the insurgency develops, so does its connection to the illicit economy. At one point the militants might even try to gain a more central position in the shadow economy. They might attempt to control the production of gems and timber or start taxing contraband that comes in along the coast, similar to organized crime groups in Europe.

“Given the factors that underlie conditions in the north, it is likely that the illicit economy and the insurgency will grow, and violence will increase,” Global Initiative said. “If so, it is possible that northern Mozambique will become a platform for launching assaults and furthering the aims of criminal networks across the wider region.” 

Finally, there is marijuana, which has a long history of local production and consumption in Mozambique. Use of the drug is engrained in much of Mozambican culture, and many of the country’s cannabis plantations are small, family-run operations, providing a crucial source of income. The majority of trafficking operations for marijuana are understood to be controlled by members of the local Pakistani communities who are generally based in the country’s northern provinces and are able to receive shipments of cannabis directly from Pakistan or other south Asian communities. As with Mozambique’s other drugs, evidence suggests the marijunana trade is also growing. In 2011, for example, 31.6 metric tons of the drug was seized by authorities, a 900% increase from the previous year.

In the face of the government’s lack of drug-related data, much of the information available on Mozambique’s role in the global narcotics trade comes from reports of drug-related arrests. According to Charles Goredema, a senior research consultant on economic crime in Africa, news of these interceptions may be promising sign. “They indicate that there is a substantial amount of resistance towards Mozambique becoming a drug trafficking hub,” he says.

Goredema also claims that Mozambique has been part of regional drug trafficking programmes led by international agencies such as Interpol, and that it has engaged in bilateral initiatives with the likes of South Africa.

However, others suggest that Mozambican government’s efforts to curb its role as a transit hub may be compromised. One the one hand, authorities may simply lack the capacity and resources needed to effectively tackle the drugs trade, but on the other, there may even be a degree of complicity amongst some officials.

In Africa and the War on Drugs, Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig describe the extreme end of government collaboration in the drugs trade as one in which the state is “bought by powerful drug cartels, which gain official protection for their business or in even more extreme cases co-opt state actors into active positions within the trade.” There is little evidence to suggest the situation is such in Mozambique, but custom officials at borders, airports and ports and often reported to be involved in the trade or to accept bribes to turn a blind eye. Meanwhile there are also allegations of some senior government officials profiting from narcotics. According to Hanlon, figures in the Mozambican government may be linked with heroin in particular, allowing certain groups licence to trade in the drug and enjoying a cut of the profits in the process.

Some observers also see the lack of high-level prosecutions related to drugs as further evidence of government inaction, if not complicity. “Mozambican drug kingpin” Mohamed Bachir Suleman, for example, was added to the US government’s list of the world’s leading drug traffickers in 2010. The US claimed that “Suleman leads a well-financed narcotics trafficking and money laundering network in Mozambique” and prohibited American corporations from doing business with him. Mozambican authorities promised to investigate following the allegations, but to this day Suleman remains a free man. Some have pointed to the fact that the businessman, who is a bit of a local hero in Maputo, lives in a mansion down the road from the president and has reportedly donated millions over the years to the ruling party, Frelimo.

Back in Vilanculos, it is unlikely any unsuspecting visitor would give a second thought to the splinter group of dhows sailing out towards the horizon. But later that day, they may well come across the group’s catch of the day behind closed doors and on secluded street corners. Cocaine, which unlike heroin is not regulated by figures in the Mozambican government, continues to find its way into the hands of the locals and tourists alike, creating a situation one resident described as “terrible.”

Like with the other drugs traded in or via Mozambique, not a great deal is known about the cocaine trade. It is notable, for example, that Paul Fauvet, Editor of the Mozambican News Agency (AIM), told Think Africa Press he was surprised to hear of cocaine entering the country via maritime routes, while some such as Hanlon were less so. What seems to be agreed on, however, is that Mozambique’s problem will continue to grow if steps are not taken by the international community and Mozambican government alike to learn more about the trafficking networks, address rising domestic drug use, and address corruption from the pettiest levels to the highest.

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