Mozambique, a budding narco-state?
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 1:50 PM
MAPUTO, Mozambique -- Mozambicans see Mohamed Bachir Suleman's glitzy shopping mall as a symbol of a modern future for their impoverished country. Suleman throws Christmas parties for the poor and gives liberally to the long-ruling party.
He's so well known that most Mozambicans just call him MBS. But Washington calls him a drug lord, abetted by "endemic corruption" in this country that risks becoming Africa's newest narco-state.
Last June, President Barack Obama put Suleman on a list of specially designated narcotics traffickers and barred Americans from doing business with him. Nine months later, the business tycoon has not been arrested and lives in luxury, although authorities insist they're investigating.
Suleman, who lives down the street from the president in a mansion boasting a huge chandelier in a glass-walled entryway, is believed to have given millions of dollars over the years to the ruling FRELIMO party, which has won every election since the nation's first multiparty vote in 1994.
These donations raise questions about whether Suleman is using drug money to buy the support of powerful protectors who will allow Mozambique to become Africa's next narco-state, like countries in West Africa that became transshipment points for Colombian cocaine bound for Europe.
This nation located along the Indian Ocean in southeast Africa has already become a drug transshipment point, with smugglers taking advantage of its long borders and "endemic corruption," the U.S. State Department said in an annual report released this month. The United States believes heroin and other drugs, mostly from south Asia where Suleman's family originally hailed from, are being sent to Europe and South Africa through Mozambique.
Despite all this activity, the State Department notes that: "Mozambique has yet to convict any major drug traffickers in the courts."
Mozambicans may have been shocked to see one of their leading citizens listed by Washington as a drug trafficker but there's a certain admiration for anyone who has managed to make it, by whatever means, in one of the world's least developed countries.
Soon after the U.S. listed Suleman as a kingpin in June, he called reporters to his office to deny the allegations. State TV broadcast his news conference and another statement he made shortly afterward from his home in which women relatives could be seen in the background, sobbing behind their veils. The appearances are YouTube favorites among Mozambicans. Suleman, at times tearful, declares death would have been preferable to such public humiliation. He laments that his son was forced to leave the American International School of Mozambique because of the blacklisting.
Suleman declined a request from The Associated Press to be interviewed, saying through intermediaries that his doctor has advised him to rest due to an undisclosed illness.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Tobias Bradford said individuals are blacklisted only after lengthy investigations and reviews, and that no central figure has been removed because of error in the decade the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act has been in existence. The U.S. has not elaborated publicly on evidence against Suleman.
Adam Szubin, director of the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said when Suleman was blacklisted last June that he is "a large-scale narcotics trafficker in Mozambique, and his network contributes to the growing trend of narcotics trafficking and related money laundering across southern Africa."