Instability is decimating Mali’s cultural heritage

Without a single prosecution, the illegal trade in artefacts is causing a catastrophic loss for the country.

Mali is a country rich in heritage and cultural artefacts. Terracotta and bronze figurines, ancient beads, medieval manuscripts and other archaeological objects from Djenné, Mopti and surrounding areas in Central Mali tell of this rich history.

However, 90% of sites in Mali have been looted, archaeologists estimate, and the illegal trade in artefacts is rife. ‘The subjective value of art makes it difficult to say how much it is all worth,’ says Julia Stanyard, an analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

In July 2020, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned art lovers in market countries of a false certification scam involving the illegal trade in African antiquities. The million-euro fraud involved the sale of artefacts – including the Djenné terracottas – with fake certificates that appeared to be authorised by UNESCO.

This scam indicates an organised form of looting and trading in cultural property. But despite the steady and catastrophic loss for the collective cultural heritage of the Malian people, little information exists on this illicit trade.

Smuggling routes favour ungoverned spaces, with artefacts moving through Morocco and Algeria to Europe

Organised crime, terrorism and international crime are an unholy trinity of offences taking place in Mali. The illegal trade in artefacts occurs in the context of severe insecurity in the region and in Mali itself. Since the outbreak of conflict in the country in 2012, smuggling routes favour its ungoverned spaces, with goods – including plundered cultural artefacts – transiting through Morocco and Algeria into Europe and beyond.

There is a growing collaboration between organised crime networks and violent extremist groups in Mali. Both take advantage of each other’s tactics and operations, as well as the conflict, increasing insecurity and opportunity for criminal activity in the region.

Investigating this pervasive theft is complex. Each type of artefact has a different trafficking route and market, requiring a different strategy to identify the perpetrator and address the criminal value chain involved in the smuggling and trading of that artefact. The National Museum of Mali, the Diréction Nationale du Patrimoine Culturel (National Directorate of Cultural Heritage) and law enforcement agencies are best placed to do this.

Both the directorate and police are legally mandated to protect archaeological sites, but insecurity and limited capacity have crippled their work. It’s almost impossible for officials to access sites, and a lack of financing to raise awareness in local communities compromises their protective mandates. It would also be near impossible to arrest illegal traders of cultural artefacts in Mali in isolation of other complex crimes.

It would be near impossible to arrest Mali’s illegal artefacts traders in isolation of other complex crimes

Capacity building and training of law enforcement agencies provided by development partners, including the World Customs Organization and UNESCO, have helped. Informal networks of cultural authorities have also been established in West Africa to identify artefacts and distinguish genuine antiquities from trinkets in transit countries.

Increased prosecution should be at the centre of a broader, more comprehensive response. However, while any criminal justice system faced with Mali’s complexities would struggle to investigate and prosecute such cases, there hasn’t been one prosecution in Mali related to the illegal trade in cultural property. For criminals involved in this illicit business, this means very low risk and very high rewards.

Four main problems prevent Mali from stemming the illegal trade in cultural artefacts. First, in a multimillion-euro industry, there is little deterrent for would-be criminals. Laws nationalise excavated archaeological artefacts, prohibit excavations by private individuals and criminalise the theft or misappropriation of cultural property. And while Mali has incorporated the 1970 Convention on Illicit Trafficking into its domestic laws, offences attract only administrative penalties.

Second, there is little clarity on what qualifies as cultural heritage and artefacts. This applies not just to Mali but to the whole West African region. Databases, such as INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art Database, help identify antiquities, but data sets for artefacts from West Africa are incomplete.

Despite the damage to Mali’s cultural heritage, little information exists on this illegal trade

Comprehensive and accessible information would allow the authorities, such as border security officials, to identify genuine artefacts. This is an essential first step in stemming the flow of stolen antiquities from the country. Yet access to data and sharing live information across different agencies is challenging in the current context.

The third problem is that the legislative framework in Mali is siloed. Organised crime, international crime and counter-terrorism laws rarely speak to each other. As a result, criminal justice responses fail at the outset to draw links between actors and their modus operandi.

Fourth, Mali’s judicial system is relatively weak. Few effective investigations result in successful prosecutions for complex crimes in general. A key indicator is that Mali’s government referred its own situation to the International Criminal Court in 2012. This led to the conviction of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for the war crime of the destruction of cultural and religious sites in Mali.

To stem the illicit trade in Mali’s cultural heritage, the problems mentioned above must be tackled. With media attention turning to artefacts stolen from the country, the time is right to raise awareness of the issue in destination countries and bring public pressure to bear. Should this opportunity be lost, so too would be the remainder of Mali’s unique heritage – an irretrievable loss that may be impossible to restore.

Allan Ngari, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator for West Africa, ISS Dakar

This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.

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