Drugs markets in the islands of the western Indian Ocean — drug-related corruption in the Seychelles (Part Four)
Seychelles’ presidential election in October 2020 was described as a ‘political earthquake’. The successful opposition candidate, Wavel Ramkalawan, had pledged to tackle corruption and counter drug trafficking, major issues in Seychelles, the country with the highest level of heroin use in the world. Time will tell whether Ramkalawan’s focus is really on tackling corruption or rather on penalising drug use. Part Four in a four-part series.
In October 2020, a landmark presidential election took place in Seychelles. Opposition candidate Wavel Ramkalawan unseated the incumbent, Danny Faure, in what was described as a “political earthquake”: the first victory for an opposition party in a presidential election since Seychelles’ independence from the UK over four decades ago.
Tackling corruption and illicit drugs markets were major themes in the election campaign. Seychelles is home to a booming illegal drugs market, principally for heroin. The small island nation reports the highest rate of per capita heroin consumption in the world, and there is a common public perception that corruption is widespread, which underpins the flourishing drugs market.
Several months into the new administration’s term, questions remain as to whether they are taking action on corruption, and whether the new approach to addressing the drugs market is effective or rather doing harm to people who use drugs (PWUD).
Corruption has moved up the political agenda
Countering corruption has long been a prominent issue in newly elected president Ramkalawan’s political campaigning. As opposition leader, he pledged to eliminate corruption, nepotism and drug trafficking and accused the former president, James Michel, of inaction against known drug traffickers. Following the opposition’s majority win in parliament in 2016, the Finance and Public Accounts Committee (FPAC), led by Ramkalawan, revealed several anomalies in public spending, which helped put corruption on the political agenda.
The FPAC revealed irregular payments amounting to 90-million rupees ($6.2-million) that involved the Financial Intelligence Unit and the National Drugs Enforcement Agency, now called the Anti-Narcotics Bureau (ANB). The payments were made to two offshore companies based in Mauritius. The Irish nationals managing these agencies at the time left Seychelles amid accusations of misconduct prior to these revelations.
The 2020 election manifesto of Ramkalawan’s party, LDS (the Linyon Demokratik Seselwa or Seychelles Democratic Alliance), argued “it is clear that corruption has undermined government and society in our country. It has betrayed good governance principles, the rule of law and justice, and fairness in access to opportunity.” The party consequently pledged to investigate cases of corruption and implement new policies for combating drug trafficking.
“These campaigns are thought to have resonated with the Seychelles electorate. The new government campaigned on eradicating corruption in the last election. They probably won because of these promises,” said Andy Labonte, a member of the now-ruling LDS party in the National Assembly.
Clive Camille, a journalist with the Seychelles broadcast network, TéléSesel, agreed: “[Since] the revelations by FPAC in Parliament, corruption has been the talk in the country. Many people are angry about these allegations and want to see justice done.” Corruption and drugs markets have become high priority policy issues in discussions on social media platforms among Seychelles’ voters. In 2017, a survey by the Seychelles Anti-Corruption Commission found that 82.8% of the 15,000 participants considered corruption to be very high in Seychelles.
Luciana Sophola, chairperson of the Seychelles civil society organisation Association for Rights Information and Democracy, argued that investigations into corruption — relating not only to drugs but also to public-sector corruption as a whole — were often met with resistance. “Before, with the old government, there were lots of laissez-faire [approaches to corruption issues]. I am not blaming the president, but human beings who could not care less”. She added that, in her experience, there had been many cases when people had reported corruption where the investigation would reach a certain level of seniority before being blocked with no action taken.
The roots of this corruption can be traced back decades. Former president France-Albert René, who came to power in a 1977 coup, reportedly ruled through systems of patronage and cronyism. René was accused of illegally confiscating land and property to put it into the hands of powerful families connected to his party, and of jailing and assassinating political rivals at home and in exile.
René’s strategies for maintaining power included illegal land grabbing from political opponents and misusing public money for political campaigns. The legacy of this era continues to shape political life in Seychelles. Commenting on the recent election, Seychelles journalist Patrick Muirhead argued that the incumbent president “was unable to distance his party’s campaign from mounting evidence of past political murders, torture and corruption when Seychelles was still a one-party state”. Restricted media freedom in Seychelles has, however, rendered it difficult for corruption to be widely discussed publicly and for journalists to investigate allegations of corruption.
“Corruption is part of this national history, ingrained in the culture,” said Labonte. “It will take some time to make people realise that this is not good practice and should stop.” Now that he is in office, Ramkalawan has reiterated pledges that his government will take firm action on drug trafficking and corruption.
Seychelles’ drugs markets are a significant driver of corruption
Heroin is the most significant illegal market in Seychelles. The number of heroin users has grown rapidly in recent years, with the Agency for the Prevention of Drug Abuse and Rehabilitation (Apdar) having estimated the number of users at 5,000–6,000 by November 2019, equivalent to around 10% of the island’s working-age population. Other drugs, such as crack cocaine, are now also becoming more commonly used.
PWUD, interviewed by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) in 2020, made repeated allegations that corruption is widespread among law enforcement structures. Some reported incidents of drug dealers being arrested but then released after a payoff was made; others reported instances of seized drugs being resold by police officers.
According to interviewees from the Seychelles prison authority, street-level corruption among law enforcement officers has become increasingly brazen and “normalised”, with police officers having been witnessed taking bribes openly in front of colleagues and the public. Several interviewees — including former ANB officers and representatives of the prison service — specifically identified the ANB as being affected by corruption issues, and the problem extending to a high level.
Several months after the election, PWUD in Seychelles report that these trends continue. “Drug dealers are highly protected by government officials and police, as well as the drugs community. We know them,” said John*. “If the law enforcement and government officials say they don’t know who the big dealers are, they are telling you lies because those people are in their circle.
“Brother, dealers are well protected by the police. Even if you know them, you cannot say anything,” agreed Thomas*, another PWUD. Many PWUD echoed these statements, noting that certain traffickers benefit from police protection while investigations are targeted at their rivals.
Representatives of the Drug Utilization Response Network Seychelles (Durns), a civil society organisation run by current and former PWUD, support these claims. Durns representatives asked: “Are you telling me the government cannot trace or do not know these people [major drug traffickers]? The small country that we are? No way.”
Raymond St Ange, Superintendent of Prisons, acknowledged that corruption is also an issue among prison staff and that entrenched corruption may take a long time to change. “Some people do not want to let go of the benefits of their corrupted activities,” he said. Given the cost of living in Seychelles, he argued that the incentive to make money from corrupt activities is high and noted that “[many staff] are used to selling cigarettes [and] lighters and smuggling drugs inside the prison. This is also the case for other government officials,” he noted. “Many law enforcement officers let themselves get trapped in these activities.”
Seychelles’ response to reported corruption
Reports of drug-related corruption and rising public frustration about corruption in government have not yet translated into criminal investigations and prosecutions. The Anti-Corruption Commission of Seychelles reported to the GI-TOC that, as of March 2021, no cases of corruption have yet been criminally prosecuted or passed to the attorney general for criminal investigation. The commission was created following new anti-corruption legislation that was passed in 2016. However, they report that to date no cases active under their mandate have picked up corruption allegations relating to drugs issues.
According to Clive Camille of TéléSesel, the lack of prosecutions does not reflect well on the new administration’s claims to be acting on corruption. “As a journalist, I see this as a political tactic used by the political party in power to get more credibility and discredit the previous administration,” he said. “We are just hearing ‘corruption, corruption’, and yet no one has been prosecuted and sentenced.”
But other commentators, including Sophola, pointed out that the new administration is in its infancy. “Most people [expect action on corruption] to happen overnight. It is to be remembered that it has been only five months since the change in government,” she noted. Sophola argued that the new administration has been taking steps in the fight against corruption that would not have been politically possible before. For example, the president has encouraged greater freedom of information and transparency with the media by ministers, which is hoped to bring about a culture change in government.
A report from the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money-Laundering Group published in 2018 identified a number of deficiencies in Seychelles’ financial sector, which led to the country being included on the EU list of non-cooperative jurisdictions in 2020. Although the country remains on the list following an update in February 2021, the new administration has passed amendments to several pieces of legislation to address these deficiencies. The amendments include legislation to promote transparency about beneficial ownership of companies and to facilitate information sharing between enforcement agencies investigating corruption and money laundering. These changes have been welcomed by Transparency International Seychelles, which stated that such legislation has “a defining role in strengthening efforts to prevent, curb and penalise corrupt activities”.
PWUD report more police harassment
Although it may be too early to fully assess the new administration’s action on corruption, one change was consistently reported since the new administration took office. PWUD and Durns representatives report that police patrols at street level have increased and police behaviour towards PWUD has become more aggressive.
“Now you see them [police] three to four times a day in the ghetto [area where drugs are used]”, said Thomas. “They come to harass us, taking away our syringes, which have just been given to us by Apdar, legally. They are more aggressive and abusive in their approach,” he said.
Jane*, another PWUD, agreed. She noted that ANB officers have become particularly aggressive towards the drug-using community. According to her, the situation has become “worse than before”, with officers confiscating and throwing away syringes used for injecting heroin, and using tear gas on PWUD.
These reports suggest that the new administration’s tough stance on corruption and trafficking has driven a parallel law enforcement crackdown on PWUD. This follows claims in the LDS manifesto to “eliminate” drug use in the country. PWUD feel that they are being used for “political mileage” by the new administration, in pursuit of policies that will increase the harm of drug use.
Durns representatives said that the PWUD they work with “have expressed concern about the new way of doing things by the police: harassment and abusive behaviour. There is the fear that the policy would regress to zero tolerance like before”. “Like before” refers to the period before 2016, when reforms were made to the Misuse of Drugs Act, and the subsequent establishment of Apdar. With these reforms, Seychelles shifted towards a drug-use policy focused more on “harm reduction” and established initiatives such as an extensive methadone programme. Before this shift, however, a “zero tolerance” approach criminalised drug use. Jane concluded: “Drug users are political tools, like pieces on a chessboard.”
It remains to be seen whether investigations and prosecutions into drug-related corruption will gain any traction under the new administration. In contrast, aggressive actions targeted at PWUD, such as confiscating syringes, undermine harm-reduction work by agencies such as Apdar, and do not address the links between drug trafficking and corruption. DM
*Not their real names.
This article appears in the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime’s monthly East and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally. To receive monthly Risk Bulletin updates, please sign up here.
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