Shortly after separatist militant groups took northern Mali in 2012, British American Tobacco (BAT) began flooding the West African nation with unbranded packs of cigarettes aided by another large tobacco company and the French-backed Malian state. The smuggled smokes arrive through ports in neighboring Guinea, Togo, and Benin from where they are transported to distribution points inside Mali and moved across the Sahara into Libya, Algeria, and Europe by an assortment of rebel militias, al Qaeda offshoots, and jihadists in a hugely profitable enterprise, that is further fragmenting the former French colony.
According to an in-depth investigative report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the illegal tobacco trade in Mali moves close to a 4.7 billion surplus cigarettes a year in “clean-label” Dunhill, American Legend, and Marlboro brands, which come mostly from BAT’s South African production facilities, though a solid number is hard to ascertain despite leaked BAT documents, trade data and information gleaned from customs officials.
OCCRP could not determine precisely how much profit British American Tobacco generates from its illicit business since it does not separate figures by country in its annual reports. However, gross annual revenue estimates ranging from $85 to $160 Million for Mali alone could place the number in the tens of millions.
Evidence of the sudden upsurge in tobacco products taking place after the north’s descent into a lawless war zone is provided by leaked tobacco industry documents published by the University of Bath, which show a marked increase in the supply from 2013 onwards. The latest calculations put the number of cigarettes available in Mali at around 8 billion, which contrasts sharply with the reported rate of smokers in the country of 19.6 million, estimated to be about 12 percent by the World Health Organization (WHO) or about 9.5 packs a day per every Malian smoker.
Propping up the illegal cigarette market might seem counterintuitive for the tobacco industry, but, in reality, it affords it an opportunity to boost profits by engaging in massive tax avoidance schemes, undermine domestic cigarette brands in many countries, and bypass any cultural or social constraints, such as those imposed by strict Islamic sects. The contraband trade also offers some indirect benefits to the broader Western presence in West Africa, specifically, as it helps grease the wheels of corruption in client states.
Smoke and mirrors
In 2012, the WHO came out with the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products or Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP), which sought to curb the “grey market” distribution of tobacco in order to stem what it has deemed to be a considerable threat to public health. While this effort was reached after four years of negotiations with Big Tobacco, it remains vulnerable to the influence of the tobacco giants, who find ways to subvert the global “track and trace” (T&T) mandate of the ITP designed to reduce tobacco smuggling.
A 2017 study by the University of Bath found that tobacco industry cigarettes account for two-thirds of the worldwide trade in illicit tobacco and revealed how industry stalwarts like Philip Morris International (PMI) control the T&T standards through their own patented cigarette pack authentication system called Codentify. The “non-secure” product verification system was developed prior to the ITP protocol, which stipulated that the tobacco industry should play no part in the implementation of T&T methods.
Through a series of underhanded tactics and front companies, Codentify was sold as an independent counterfeit identification standard. Leaked British American Tobacco documents show how prior to the 2012 FCTC Conference where ITP was finally adopted, preparations were made to counter opposition to any industry solutions, and a number of front groups were established to obfuscate the technology’s origins.
ATOS, the French multinational technology company that was involved in the development of Codentity, promoted the digital coding system at the 2011 Asia-Pacific Tax Forum and actively participated in its implementation in Lithuania.
A pan-industry working group called the Digital Coding and Tracking Association (DCTA) was the main front group established by the tobacco industry to promote the adoption of Codentity. Launched in 2013 by the “Big Four” (BAT, PMI, Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International (JTI), DCTA encouraged its acceptance among governments and law enforcement agencies, including INTERPOL and the European Union.
The ash bin of history
Inhabited since prehistoric times, Mali was at one point the center of trade in the ancient world and of Islamic thought in the famed city of Timbuktu. The Mali Empire reached the height of its power during the fourteenth century and later formed part of France’s colonial territory in West Africa, known as French Sudan, from 1880 until 1959. An attempt to unite the colonies into a single federation under a quasi-post-colonial arrangement, that maintained French control over the region’s natural resources, economic policies, currency, and defense while affording minimal self-determination to the West African members, did not prosper. Less than a year later, in 1960, tensions erupted in a conflict that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the federation and the creation of the modern-day Republic of Mali.
Today, France continues to have a significant influence over the nation’s affairs. The current conflict in Mali is directly related to the military operation it launched in 2013 at the request of the Malian French-backed government. Operation Serval was part of France’s “war on terror” and intended to drive out “Islamic militants” who were advancing southward from the north of the country. In August of 2020, the army seized power in a coup, which had been receiving assistance from the European Union and the United States as “part of international efforts to stabilize the West African country as it grapples with Islamist militants and a struggling economy.”
A clear trend is sweeping through the African nation, whose people are becoming increasingly wary of foreign interference, and French military operations, in particular. The last seven years of French intervention in Mali have not had the desired effect and, predictably, the West’s failures are being projected onto Russia, blaming the Kremlin for the coup, instead of using Occam’s razor to figure out that perhaps the Malian people do not want to remain under the thumb of European power.
The illicit cigarette trade in Mali is just another expression of the pernicious foreign influence in resource-rich West Africa, where so many Western companies extract the raw materials needed for their wares. The multi-million-dollar contraband market of Marlboros, Dunhills, and American Legends not only serves to line the pockets of a few of these foreign corporations but also contributes to the continued destabilization of the country and the wider West African region that allows their destructive impact to persist.
Feature photo | A French soldier lights up a cigarette outside a food store in Gao, northern Mali. Jerome Delay | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.