East Africa

How The American Military Funds The Drug and Uranium Trade in Africa

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Photo Credit: BPTU / Shutterstock.com

On October 4th, US military personnel were on their way back to their forward operating base in Niger. They had been on a reconnaissance mission to the village of Tongo Tongo, near Niger’s border with Mali. US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford says that fifty ISIS fighters ambushed them. The soldiers did not call for air support for the first hour, said General Dunford, thinking perhaps that they could handle the attack. By the time the drones came along with French fighter aircraft, ISIS had disappeared.

Tongo Tongo is in the middle of a belt that is ground zero for the illicit trade that defines the Sahara. West of Tongo Tongo is Gao (Mali) and to its east is Agadez (Niger). These are the main ports for South American cocaine, flown in on various kinds of aircraft (Air Cocaine, as they are called) and then driven across the Sahara Desert in trucks to be taken by small boats across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Evidence of the cocaine trade is everywhere – whether in Gao’s neighborhood known as Cocaine Bougou or in the nickname of one of the leading chiefs in Agadez – Cherif Ould Abidine – known as Cherif or Mr. Cocaine.

Cocaine is one dramatic commodity. There are others: refugees and guns. This belt of towns just below the Sahara played a historic role as caravanserais for the old trades in gold, salt and weaponry. The creation of nation-states closed off some of these routes. In particular, Libya – under the previous regime of Muammar Gaddafi – largely shut down the illicit commerce from Mali and Niger. NATO’s war against Libya, which created chaos in that country, opened these routes up. Fleets of white Toyota trucks arrived in the desert to carry refugees and drugs to Europe and to bring weapons into central and western Africa. The trucks run from Agadez to Sabha (Libya) before they find their way to the port cities. There are several kinds of refugees – the adventurers (les aventuriers), many single young men who are leaving behind deserts of opportunity for Europe, and war refugees. Both are desperate, fodder in the hands of the smugglers who must get them – and the drugs – across the forbidding sands.

Firmly opposed to the refugee traffic across the Mediterranean, the European Union (EU) has joined hands with governments in Niger and elsewhere to make this southern border of the Sahara their frontier. Niger passed a draconian law in 2015 against smuggling. The EU provided funds to Niger’s military and police, which have started an all-out war against the smugglers. In 2016, Niger arrested over a

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