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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The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
The quantities of recycled plastic in Kenya remain insignificant, but the long-term ecological cost of disposing plastic waste in the environment will be immeasurable.
One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to are the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labour through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.
Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.
The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.
In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.
Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash, and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 per cent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilogrammes of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.
Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.
On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates, and the even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.
For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.
In Kenya recycling doesn’t work
Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states, numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?
While disposing plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is provably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.
According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture and colour. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and moulded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.
These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for re-use by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
To put it in context, less than 45 per cent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.
Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements therefore turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.
Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
Global research led by plastics expert Dr Roland Geyer claims that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 per cent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 per cent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 per cent atrophied during the process while only 2 per cent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.
Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.
Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste
The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products, and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded for greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.
Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic
A radical behavioural shift by producers, packaging firms and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 per cent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates and cutlery.
The mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.
Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to plastic. Currently there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.
Reimagining a post-plastic country
In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 per cent of which is plastic waste.
“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.
A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, the World Bank President Barber Conable recognised that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.
Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift the society away from plastic products and integrate the alternatives in the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers, if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.
With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disposability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.
The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyer.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon.
On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multi-nationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.
In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.
Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 per cent) are members of PETCO.
The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behaviour and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.
Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
Even as Kenya’s land-based resources continue to shrink because of a rapidly growing population, microplastic pollution of Kenya’s Indian Ocean is putting in jeopardy the country’s maritime resources.
Five scientists, Joyce Kerubo, John M. Onyari and Agnes Muthumbi from the University of Nairobi, Deborah Robertson-Andersson from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, and Edward Ndirui Kimani from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), undertook a research study last year that returned a harsh verdict of a high presence of microplastics (MPs) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
MPs are plastic pellets, fragments, and fibres that enter the environment and are less than 5mm in dimension. The primary sources of MPs are vehicle tyres, synthetic textiles, paints, personal care products, and plastic products that have disintegrated into tiny particles because of environmental turbulence.
The study by the five scientists, Microplastic Polymers in Surface Waters and Sediments in the Creeks along the Kenya Coast, Western Indian Ocean (WIO), identified four polymer types in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. High-density polythene is the most abundant at 38.3 per cent, followed by polypropylene (34.6 per cent), low-density polythene (27.1 per cent), and medium density polythene (17.1 per cent). The research findings were published in the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research on 18 October 2021.
The concentration of MPs in the surface waters along the Kenyan coastline was higher compared to other parts of the world, the study warned. The findings of the study also confirmed those of previous studies on the presence of MPs in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
The scientists also cautioned that the documented information on the specific polymeric composition of these particles in seawater and in the sediments along the Kenyan coast was insufficient. The findings, the study offered, demonstrated the extent of exposure to MPs in Kenya’s ocean ecosystems, therefore justifying policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste, and the protection of the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
It drew testing samples from three creeks: Tudor and Port Reitz in Mombasa County and Mida in Kilifi County. Tudor Creek covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometres and is fed by two seasonal rivers—Kombeni and Tsalu—that originate around Mariakani, about 32 kilometres northwest of Mombasa. The two seasonal rivers collect runoff containing plastic and other waste from the mainland and discharge it into the creek.
Surrounding Tudor creek are several densely populated informal settlements that include Mishomoroni and Mikindani that may add MPs to the ocean. According to the study findings, the majority of the MPs were fibrous materials from textiles and ropes, probably from wastewater from washing clothes and from fishing activities.
Other key facilities that could contribute to the pollution include shipping activities at the Port of Mombasa, meat processing at Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), Coast General Hospital, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) and Kipevu Power Station. Before it was rehabilitated, Mombasa County Government dumped a lot of waste at Kibarani, near the two creeks and just next to the ocean.
Tudor Creek recorded the highest pollution, also as a result of rain runoff from Kongowea market and Muoroto slums, and Mikindani sewage effluent. Moreover, according to the study, which could, however, not determine the proportions, many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
Mida Creek was used as a control in the study as it does not have river inflows. In addition, the creek is in a marine reserve that forms part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. However, MPs from different polymers were found in sediment and surface water samples from all the sites—including Mida Creek which is within Watamu National Marine Reserve—which the researchers had thought to be safe from pollution by industrial effluent, sewage disposal, and fishing activities.
Many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
The study attributed the pollution at Mida Creek to high tourism activities, boat and dhow fishing activities, densely populated villages such as Dabaso, Ngala, and Kirepwe and the mangrove vegetation cover of tall trees that binds soil particles thus favouring the accumulation of MPs.
According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in March 2019, plastic—which makes up a sizable proportion of marine pollution—can now be found in all the world’s oceans, but concentrations are thought to be highest in coastal areas and reef environments where the vast majority of this litter originates from land-based sources.
In Kenya, daily plastic consumption is estimated at 0.3 Kilograms per person. In 2018, Kenya imported between 45,000 and 57,000 metric tonnes of plastic.
Earlier in 2020, KMFRI had carried out its own study—Microplastics Pollution in Coastal Nearshore Surface Waters in Vanga, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, Kenya—that painted an even gloomier picture of MP pollution.
The four sampling locations represented the South coast, Mombasa and the North coast of Kenya’s coastal nearshore waters, and looked into considering fishing, recreation, and industrial activities, as well as the municipal effluent that finds its way into these target areas.
The objective of the study was to assess the abundance MPs and their composition in Kenya’s coastal near-shore waters during the two rainy seasons at the Kenyan coast: the north-east monsoon which runs between November and March, and the south-east monsoon which runs from April to October.
The results showed a widely varied distribution of MPs between the two seasons, with the overall highest concentrations occurring during the south-east monsoon when surface runoff from rainwater and from effluent from the major towns is high.
As confirmed in other research studies, the concentrations recorded by KMFRI, were quite high compared to other parts of the world. This provided baseline data for MPs, showing that population, anthropogenic activities and seasonal variations a play key role in influencing pollution by MPs.
Total MP concentrations in all the study areas during the north-east and the south-east monsoon seasons ranged between 83 MPs/m³ and 8266 MPs/m³ and between 126 MPs/m³ and 12,256 MPs/m³ respectively, with a mean of 3228 MPs/m³. The highest microplastic levels were found in Mombasa at 12,256 MPs/m³ during the south-east monsoon season, where runoff and effluent due to heavy rains are thought to be the primary source. The next highest levels were found in Malindi, occurring during the south-east monsoon season, because of inflows from River Sabaki.
Boat activities and tourism during the north-east monsoon season and runoff from the town during the south-east monsoon season mostly affected Lamu, while fishing activities, as well and runoff from the town, could be responsible for the abundance of MPs recorded in Vanga.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population. Although most of the solid waste generated in the county is organic—largely from households, hotels, restaurants and agricultural produce markets, the largest being Kongowea and Marikiti—plastic takes up a significant share.
In its County Sessional Paper No 01 of 2019, Mombasa County estimated daily waste production at 2,200 tons, 68 per cent of which is organic. Approximately 18 per cent of this waste is plastics, cardboard, paper and metals.
Other inorganic waste such as e-waste, construction waste and junk makes up an estimated 14 per cent of the waste generated. Public and private health facilities generate an estimated 2 to 3 tonnes of biomedical waste daily.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population.
Most of the solid waste generated is disposed in undesignated open grounds—in VOK, Kwa Karama, Kadongo, Junda, Saratoga, and Mcheleni. It is disposed in the same form as it is generated without being recycled or reused. Disposal of solid waste in the open has continuously had a negative environmental health impact through the contamination of water sources.
Moreover, with the limited investment in solid waste recycling and recovery systems, disposal methods in the county have been a contributor to public nuisance.
There are two designated dumpsites, namely Mwakirunge in Kisauni and Shonda in Likoni. However, these dumpsites are poorly managed and do not respect the prescribed environmental health standards while Mombasa County government’s budgetary allocation for solid waste management is not sufficient to meet the desired results.
MPs are harmful to human health, experts say. The ingestion of MPs by species at the base of the food web causes human food safety concerns, as little is known about their effects on the food that finally lands on our menu.
The minuscule size of MPs renders them invisible to filter-feeding fauna, leading to unintentional ingestion. In a study published in December 2020 in the Africa Journal of Marine Science, W. Awuor, Agnes Muthumbi and Deborah Robertson-Andersson confirmed the presence of MPs in marine life. The study investigated MPs in oysters and in three species of brachyuran crabs.
They did sampling in eight stations distributed between three sites—Tudor, Port Reitz and Mida Creek—in January and February 2018, during low spring tide. The sample comprised 206 crabs and 70 oysters.
The study identified MP fibres of different colours—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, green, blue—as well as colourless ones. Colourless fibres were the most prevalent, comprising at least 60 per cent of the total MPs. The mean lengths of the MP fibres were between 0.1 and 4.2 mm.
The study exposes MP pollution along the Kenyan coast and its uptake by marine fauna, and thus strengthens the case for better control of plastic waste in the ocean. “Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” said the head of UN Environment’s coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander, in 2019.
“Waste continues to leak from land, and coral reefs are on the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear and plastic lost from aquaculture. With the effects of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”
According to UNEP, there remains a significant lack of knowledge on the true impact of plastics on the reef environment, including the level of concentrations of MPs across coral reef eco-regions in order to understand the scale of the issue in a standardised manner.
“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change.”
Concerns about ocean pollution have been raised at a time when the country is looking at the Blue Economy as the country’s next economic growth frontier. In effect, Kenya’s land-based resources have been shrinking because of a rapidly growing population and it is therefore prudent for the government to shift the focus to the country’s ocean resources spread over an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of the country’s total land mass.
Kenya has from the outset not been keen on growing the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965, failed to anchor the Blue Economy in the country’s economic growth agenda, despite its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.
The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than KSh2.2 trillion in annual outputs, with Kenya’s share standing at about 20 per cent of this figure. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes worth KSh90 billion in 2013. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth KSh2.3 billion during that year.
In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said that by failing to fully exploit the Blue Economy, Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually. But if the opportunities offered by the Blue Economy are to be exploited, a policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste is urgently required to protect the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony
Meriem Naïli writes about the continuing struggle for the independence of Western Sahara. Occupied by Morocco since the 1970s, in contravention of the International Court of Justice and the UN. The internationally recognised liberation movement, POLISARIO, has fought and campaigned for independence since the early 1970s. Naïli explains what is going on, and the legal efforts to secure the country’s freedom.
The conflict over Western Sahara can be described as a conflict over self-determination that has been frozen in the past three decades. Western Sahara is a territory in North-West Africa, bordered by Morocco in the north, Algeria and Mauritania in the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. A former Spanish colony, it has been listed by the UN since 1963 as one of the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories, but the only such territory without a registered administrating power.
Since becoming independent from France in 1956, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara and has since the late 1970s formally annexed around 80% of its territory, over which it exercises de facto control in contravention of the conclusions reached by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its advisory opinion of October 15, 1975, on this matter. The court indeed did not find any “legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory” (Western Sahara (1975), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1975, p.12).
On 14 November 1975, the Madrid Accords – formally the Declaration of Principles on Western Sahara – were signed between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania setting the conditions under which Spain would withdraw from the territory and divide its administration between the two African states. Its paragraph two reads that “Spain shall immediately proceed to establish a temporary administration in the territory, in which Morocco and Mauritania shall participate in collaboration with the Jemâa [a tribal assembly established by Spain in May 1967 to serve as a local consultative link with the colonial administration], and to which the responsibilities and powers referred to in the preceding paragraph shall be transferred.”
Although it was never published on the Boletin Oficial del Estado [the official State journal where decrees and orders are published on a weekly basis], the accord was executed, and Mauritania and Morocco subsequently partitioned the territory in April 1976. Protocols to the Madrid Accords also allowed for the transfer of the Bou Craa phosphate mine and its infrastructure and for Spain to continue its involvement in the coastal fisheries.
Yet in Paragraph 6 of his 2002 advisory opinion, UN Deputy Secretary General Hans Corell, reaffirmed that the 1975 Madrid Agreement between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania “did not transfer sovereignty over the Territory, nor did it confer upon any of the signatories the status of an administering Power, a status which Spain alone could not have unilaterally transferred.”
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) is the internationally recognised national liberation movement representing the indigenous people of Western Sahara. Through the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), it has been campaigning since its creation in May 1973 in favour of independence from Spain through a referendum on self-determination to be supervised by the UN. A war broke out shortly after Morocco and Mauritania’s invasion in November 1975. Spain officially withdrew from the territory on 26 February 1976 and the Sahrawi leadership proclaimed the establishment of the SADR the following day.
In 1984, the SADR was admitted as a full member of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union), resulting in Morocco’s decision to withdraw the same year in protest. Morocco would only (re)join the African Union (AU) in 2017. The admission of the SADR to the OAU consolidated the movement in favour of its recognition internationally, with 84 UN member states officially recognising the SADR.
In the meantime, to strengthen its colonization of the territory, Morocco had begun building what it later called “le mur de défense” (the defence wall). In August 1980, following the withdrawal of Mauritanian troops the previous year, Morocco sought to “secure” a part of the territory that Mauritania had occupied. Construction of the wall – or “berm” – was completed in 1987 with an eventual overall length of just under 2,500km.
A “coordination mission” was established in 1985 by the UN and the OAU with representatives dispatched to find a solution to the conflict between the two parties. After consultations, the joint OAU-UN mission drew up a proposal for settlement accepted by the two parties on 30 August 1988 and would later be detailed in the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) report of 18 June 1990 and the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution establishing United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
Since 1979 and the surrender of Mauritania, around 80% of the territory has remained under Morocco’s military and administrative occupation.
Deployment of MINURSO
The Settlement Plan agreed to in principle between Morocco and POLISARIO in August 1988 was submitted to the UNSC on 12 July 1989 and approved in 1990. On 29 April 1991, the UNSC established MINURSO in resolution 690, the terms of reference for it being set out in the UNSG’s report of 19 April 1991. The plan provided for a cease-fire, followed by the organisation of a referendum of self-determination for which the people of Western Sahara had to choose between two options: integration with Morocco or plain and simple independence.
In this regard, it provided for the creation of an Identification Commission to resolve the issue of the eligibility ofSahrawi voters for the referendum, an issue which has since generated a great deal of tension between the two parties. A Technical Commission was created by mid-1989 to implement the Plan, with a schedule based on several phases and a deployment of UN observers following the proclamation of a ceasefire.
Talks quickly began to draw up a voters list amid great differences between the parties. POLISARIO maintained that the Spanish census of 1974 was the only valid basis, with 66,925 eligible adult electors, while Morocco demanded inclusion of all the inhabitants who, as settlers, continued to populate the occupied part of the territory as well as people from southern Morocco. It was decided that the 1974 Spanish census would serve as a basis, and the parties were to propose voters for inclusion on the grounds that they were omitted from the 1974 census.
In 1991, the first list was published with around 86,000 voters. However, the process of identifying voters would be obstructed in later years, mainly by Morocco which attempted to include as many Moroccan settlers as possible. The criteria for eligibility had sometimes been modified to accommodate Morocco’s demands and concerns. Up to 180,000 applications had been filed on the part of the Kingdom, the majority of which had been rejected by the UN Commission as they did not satisfy the criteria for eligibility.
Consequently, the proclamation of “D-Day”, to mark the beginning of a twelve-week transition period following the cease-fire leading to the referendum on self-determination, kept being postponed and eventually was never declared.
Following the rejection by Morocco of the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara (known as Baker Plan II) and the complete suspension of UN referendum preparation activities in 2003, Morocco’s proposal for autonomy of the territory under its sovereignty in 2007 crystallised the stalemate [the Peace Plan is contained in Annex II of UNSG report S/2003/565, and available here].
The Baker Plan II had envisioned a four or five-year transitional power-sharing period between an autonomous Western Sahara Authority and the Moroccan state before the organisation of a self-determination referendum during which the entire population of the territory could vote for the status of the territory – including an option for independence. It was ‘supported’ by the UNSC in resolution S/RES/1495 and reluctantly accepted by POLISARIO but rejected by Morocco.
The absence of human rights monitoring prerogatives for MINURSO has emerged as an issue for the people of Western Sahara as a result of the stalemate in the referendum process in the last two decades. MINURSO is the only post-Cold War peacekeeping operation to be deprived of such prerogatives.
Amongst the four operations currently deployed that are totally deprived of human rights monitoring components (UNFICYP in Northern Cyprus, UNIFIL in Lebanon, UNDOF in the Israeli-Syrian sector and MINURSO), MINURSO stands out as not having attained its purpose through the organisation of a referendum. In addition, among the missions that did organise referendums (namely UNTAG in Namibia and UNAMET in East Timor), all had some sort of human rights oversight mechanism stemming from their mandates.
On 8 November 2010, a protest camp established by Sahrawis near Laayoune (capital of Western Sahara) was dismantled by the Moroccan police. The camp had been set up a month earlier in protest at the ongoing discrimination, poverty, and human rights abuses against Sahrawis. When dismantling the camp, gross human rights violations were reported – see reports by Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (2011) and Amnesty International (2010).
This episode revived the international community’s interest in Western Sahara and therefore strengthened the demand by Sahrawi activists to “extend the mandate of MINURSO to monitor human rights” (see Irene Fernández-Molina, “Protests under Occupation: The Spring inside Western Sahara” in Mediterranean Politics, 20:2 (2015): 235–254).
Such an extension was close to being achieved in April 2013, when an UNSC resolution draft penned by the US unprecedentedly incorporated this element, although it was eventually taken out. This failed venture remains to date the most serious attempt to add human rights monitoring mechanisms to MINURSO. Supporters of this amendment to the mandate are facing the opposition by Moroccan officials who hold that it is not the raison d’être of the mission, and it could jeopardize the negotiation process.
What’s going on now?
At the time of writing, the people of Western Sahara are yet to express the country’s right to self-determination through popular consultation or any other means agreed between the parties. The conflict therefore remains unresolved since the ceasefire and has mostly been described as “frozen” by observers.
On the ground, resistance from Sahrawi activists remain very much active. Despite the risks of arbitrary arrest, repression or even torture, the Sahrawi people living under occupation have organised themselves to ensure their voices are heard and violations are reported. Freedom House in 2021 have, yet again, in its yearly report, rated Western Sahara as one of the worst countries in the world with regards to political rights and civil liberties.
Despite a clear deterioration of the peace process over the decades, several factors have signalled a renewed interest in this protracted conflict among key actors and observers from the international community. A Special Envoy of the AU Council Chairperson for Western Sahara (Joaquim Alberto Chissano from Mozambique) was appointed by the Peace and Security Council in June 2014. This was followed by Morocco becoming a member of the AU in January 2017.
More recently, major events have begun to de-crystalise the status quo. The war resumed on 13 November 2020 following almost 30 years of ceasefire. Additionally, for the first time, a UN member state – the US – recognised Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Former US President Trump’s declaration on 10 December 2020 to that effect was made less than a month after the resumption of armed conflict. It has not, however, been renounced by the current Biden administration. As this recognition secured Morocco’s support for Israel as per the Abrahamic Accords, reversing Donald Trump’s decision would have wider geopolitical repercussions.
In September 2021, the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) issued decisions invalidating fisheries and trade agreements between Morocco and the EU insofar as they extended to Western Sahara, rejecting Morocco’s sovereignty. This decision is the latest episode of a legal battle taking place before the European courts.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), had previously reaffirmed the legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, set by the UN in 1963 following the last report transmitted by Spain – as Administering Power – on Spanish Sahara under Article 73 of the UN Charter. The Court rejected in December 2016 any claims of sovereignty by Morocco by restating the distinct statuses of both territories.
The last colony in Africa remains largely under occupation and the UN mission in place is still deprived of any kind of human rights monitoring. In the meantime, the Kingdom of Morocco has been trading away peace in the form of military accords and trade partnerships. This situation must end – with freedom, and sovereignty finally won by Western Sahara.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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