Cablegate: For Whom the Whistle Blows: An Office Du Niger

Published: Fri 9 Nov 2007 07:32 AM
DE RUEHBP #1321/01 3130732
R 090732Z NOV 07
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: 06 BAMAKO 00918
BAMAKO 00001321 001.2 OF 003
1.(SBU) Summary: On August 12, 2007, farmers in Niono
discovered the body of Youssouf Dembele, mutilated by
multiple hacks of a machete. Dembele was the Secretary
General of the Niono chapter of the African Solidarity for
Democracy and Independence (SADI) party - a small opposition
party known for defending the rights of rural farmers.
During recent legislative elections, Dembele masterminded
SADI's upset victory of two of Niono's three seats in the
Malian National Assembly. He was also, according to his
colleagues, the primary whistle-blower behind a still
unfolding USD 15.5 million corruption scandal involving the
Office du Niger, the government agency charged with
overseeing agricultural production in Mali's major
rice-growing region. SADI's national leadership has
described Dembele's murder as a "political assassination"
orchestrated by government officials and political opponents
in Niono. Although the investigation into Dembele's death
continues, many have interpreted the killing, and the slow
pace of the subsequent investigation, as further warning that
those challenging the status quo of corruption and impunity
within the Office du Niger do so at their own risk. End
A Day Before Dying
2.(U) On August 11 the Malian Constitutional Court ratified
the results of the July 2007 legislative elections. The
Court's decision confirmed that 4 of the 147 seats in the
National Assembly now belonged to SADI - a small but
extremely vocal opposition party whose only member of
government, then Minister of Culture Cheikh Oumar Sissoko,
had actively campaigned against President Amadou Toumani
Toure during both the April presidential and July legislative
elections. SADI's presidential candidate, Oumar Mariko, ran
on a platform that advocated the nationalization of local
industries and finished fourth with less than three percent
of the total vote.
3.(U) SADI's second-round legislative victory in Niono was
perhaps the most remarkable, albeit overlooked, event of an
electoral season that offered few if any surprises. During
the July 22 second round of voting, SADI's Niono candidates
out-polled those run by the two giants of Malian politics -
the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA) and the Union for
Democracy and the Republic (URD) - both flush with funds from
supporters of President Toure in Bamako. Trading on local
outrage over the rampant corruption for which the Office du
Niger is known, Youssouf Dembele created a grassroots
groundswell strong enough to overpower the ADEMA and URD
political machines, and beat back local officials' attempts
to tip the electoral scales.
4.(U) On August 6 Dembele appeared on the airwaves of a
local radio station, Radio Kayira, which is owned by SADI and
known for its reporting on corruption within the Office du
Niger. In 2004, after the Office du Niger evicted roughly
4000 farmers in Niono ostensibly for failing to pay their
irrigation bills, Radio Kayira advocated acts of civil
disobedience - a move credited with forcing the Malian
government to identify alternative land plots for at least
some of those evicted. On August 6 Dembele told Radio Kayira
and its listeners that he would provide SADI's newly elected
National Assembly Deputies with the remaining documents in
his possession regarding Office du Niger corruption as soon
as Mali's Constitutional Court ratified SADI's victory. On
August 11 the Court rendered SADI's victory in Niono
official. Farmers discovered Dembele's mutilated body in a
field 5 km from Niono early the next morning.
The Whistle Blows For Thee
5.(U) The Office du Niger oversees the irrigation of
approximately 1 million hectares of government owned land in
central Mali. Farmers working Office du Niger land pay
irrigation fees either with cash or the in-kind equivalent
which is often kilograms of rice. Until the 1990s the Office
du Niger provided local farmers with fertilizers and seeds
and regulated how harvested products were sold. Now village
committees sign contracts with private vendors for
fertilizer, milling services and the sale of harvested
products. While the economic liberalization and land tenure
improvements of the 1990s resulted in increased rice
production and better management practices, all is still not
well within the Office du Niger.
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6.(U) In 2006 the Malian Verificateur General's (VG) Office,
which is the only independent agency responsible for
investigating cases of corruption in Mali, discovered funds
totaling USD 1 million missing from the Office du Niger's
books. More troubling, the VG discovered the missing million
after looking at only one line item (irrigation payments by
local farmers) in just one of the Office du Niger's five rice
growing zones: the 72,000 hectare region of Niono (ref A).
7.(U) Obviously aware of the VG's pending report, the Malian
government sacked the Director of the Office du Niger,
Youssouf Keita, just days before details of the VG's
investigation were released in 2006. Authorities in Niono
also briefly detained three mid-level Office du Niger
officials. These individuals were later released and no
charges were filed. In July 2007 the scandal in the Office
du Niger ballooned to USD 15.5 million after the VG released
a generic overview of its investigation into all the Office
du Niger's five regions. The Office du Niger scandal was the
largest case of corruption investigated by the VG in
2006-2007 not involving customs duties tied to fuel imports.
The VG's complete report, however, has not been made public.
8.(SBU) Associates of Youssouf Dembele maintain that
Dembele, who had once worked at the Office du Niger, played a
crucial role in passing information to the VG that brought
the corruption scandal in Niono to light. Daniel Tessouguet,
the head of the VG's investigation team in Niono, denied
working with Dembele. "All of the farmers in Niono,"
Tessouguet told the Embassy, "know that funds in the Office
du Niger are not being used properly." But, Tessouguet
continued, the VG does not need the assistance of private
citizens to conduct a financial audit. Tessouguet refused to
comment on whether the VG team conducted interviews or used
statements by locals in Niono to guide their investigations.
9.(SBU) Despite Tessouguet's denials, SADI leaders in Bamako
maintain that Dembele met personally with Tessouguet and
members of his team regarding the finances of the Office du
Niger. SADI's Secretary General Oumar Mariko, who was
elected to the National Assembly in July and is now the
Chairman of the Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, told
the Embassy that the Verificateur General's office actually
called him to thank SADI for its collaboration. "Several
SADI members," said Mariko, "testified against the Office du
Niger and delivered documents and now they are all
A Motive for Murder
10.(U) African political parties are often criticized for
revolving around personalities rather than policy positions.
During the 2007 legislative elections, however, Youssouf
Dembele and SADI crafted a platform that pledged to protect
small-time farmers exploited by the Office du Niger, local
government officials and prominent economic operators. In so
doing Dembele created a grassroots groundswell and a perfect
storm of resentment.
11.(U) Dembele attacked Niono's vested political and
economic interests. He accused the Office du Niger of
over-charging for irrigation fees and keeping phantom
accounts; local government officials of privileging the
interests of the Office du Niger over the rights of local
farmers; and economic operators of selling fertilizer mixed
with gravel to farmers at marked-up cost. Most of the
individuals within these three groups - Office du Niger
management, local government and the economic sector - belong
to one of Mali's three largest political parties: the
Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA), its off-shoot the
Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) and the Mouvement
Citoyen which is a pseudo-political party dedicated to
supporting the career of President Toure. Indeed, the
businessman accused of selling bad fertilizer also happened
to be ADEMA's legislative candidate in Niono. For the 2007
election cycle ADEMA and the URD joined with the Mouvement
Citoyen to support President Toure and his interests.
12.(SBU) During the second round of legislative voting on
July 22, SADI's candidates went head to head with a split
ADEMA-URD ticket. Oumar Mariko described the legislative
elections in Niono as "completely staged." Youssouf Dembele
and other local SADI leaders denounced what they regarded as
government sponsored fraud. "I can still hear his voice
now," said Mariko, recalling how Dembele decried cases of
government intimidation, pre-votes, double and triple votes,
and other misdeeds that occured during the ballot counting
BAMAKO 00001321 003.2 OF 003
process within polling stations.
13.(U) SADI's grassroots organizing and anti-establishment
platform paid off. Despite attempts by government officials
and others to tilt the scales, SADI out-polled the rival
ADEMA-URD ticket with just under 53 percent of the vote. As
SADI waited for the Constitutional Court to ratify nationwide
election results, Dembele made his August 6 appearance on
Radio Kayira and hinted that he was prepared to pass more
material to the Verificateur General.
--------------------------------------------- --
Political Assassination, Family Dispute or Both
--------------------------------------------- --
14.(U) SADI leaders are convinced Dembele's murder was a
political assassination orchestrated by political opponents
and abetted by local officials. Mariko told the Embassy that
SADI members in Niono no longer believe they are protected by
local police and that SADI has evacuated at least two
individuals, including the brother of Youssouf Dembele, to
Bamako for safety. Following Dembele's murder, several SADI
supporters and two journalists for Radio Kayira allegedly
received threats of various kinds.
15.(U) Security officials in Niono arrested Youssouf
Dembele's son, Ousmane Dembele, on August 15 on suspicion of
murder. Dembele remains in prison. In October authorities
also arrested Alpha Djeneko, who helped organize the ADEMA
candidate's legislative campaign. According to an upper
level official at the Ministry of Justice in Bamako,
authorities have not uncovered any clues suggesting Dembele's
death was politically motivated. The Ministry said
investigators have not, however, ruled out revenge as a
Radio Kayira Closed
16.(U) On Nov. 4 the Mayor of Niono shut down Radio Kayira
for advertising unauthorized meetings supposedly intended to
encourage residents to confront local authorities over the
stalled murder investigation, and broadcasting the names of
potential murder suspects. In a letter addressed to the
radio station, Mayor Aboubacar Fomba said: "Given the need to
preserve public peace in the town of Niono, I have decided to
close Radio Kayira until further notice." SADI president and
now former Minister of Culture Sissoko traveled to Niono
following Radio Kayira's closure to meet with local
Comment: Corruption in the Office du Niger
17.(SBU) Until the reforms of the 1990s, Malians used to
refer to the Office du Niger as a government within the
government. While the Office du Niger is no longer
omnipotent, it still casts a long and often dark shadow over
those living within Mali's main rice growing regions. The
Verificateur General's 2007 report quantified for the first
time the scale and depth of corruption within the Office du
Niger. It is unfortunate that the VG, which is supposedly
independent from the Malian government, has yet to release
the full report on the Office du Niger. Equally unfortunate
is the Malian judicial system's apparent failure to include
the Office du Niger file, which is one of the largest
corruption scandals yet uncovered by the VG, among the
handful of cases scheduled to be investigated by the
government's public prosecutor. The message this sends to
those living within the Office du Niger zone is that small
time farmers and peasants remain beholden - whether accurate
or not - to the interests and apparent impunity of the Office
du Niger. The slow pace of the Dembele murder investigation
and closing of Radio Kayira only reinforce this message.
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