Mozambique drug lord well connected

Maputo - Mozambicans look on Mohamed Bachir Suleman's glitzy shopping mall towering over the capital's harbour 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 multi party 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 US 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.

No drug convictions

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 US 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 afterwards from his home in which women relatives could be seen in the background, sobbing behind their veils.

The appearances are YouTube favourites 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.

US Embassy spokesperson 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 US has not elaborated publicly on evidence against Suleman.

Unclean money

Adam Szubin, director of the US 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".

As for Suleman's complaints that his son had to leave school, Bradford said that American businesses are barred from taking "unclean money" under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act.

Suleman is celebrated for his generosity in Mozambique. He gives to the poor at Christmas and paid for renovations at a down town mosque. He also presents gifts to opinion makers.

Milton Machel said that when he was an editor at a Mozambican newspaper in 2005, he was surprised to receive at Christmas a DVD player from Suleman, whom he did not know. Machel said senior editors persuaded him to look on the DVD player as one would a card or calendar from a lesser businessman.

Machel wonders about the relationships Suleman has forged with other journalists through such gifts. Some Mozambican newspapers have defended Suleman, angrily questioning US motives.

Machel kept the DVD player. He is now a researcher for Mozambique's Centre for Public Integrity, an independent anti-corruption watchdog group, and says that today, he won't shop at Suleman's mall.

"You can choose to not be an accomplice," Machel said. "If people stop buying things, it's a way of putting pressure on the government to come and show he's not a drugs dealer. They have to show us."

Marble floors

But the Maputo Shopping Centre is proving to be a star attraction in Maputo. President Armando Guebuza even presided over the ribbon cutting in 2007.

During a typical weekend, luxury cars ease into the narrow parking lot of Suleman's mall. Escalators connecting its six marble floors are such a novelty that giggling preteen girls dare each other to step on. Shops specialize in Polo and Armani - and Frelimo caps and scarves.

Suleman has been quoted by local media as saying he was able to build the mall, at a cost estimated at $32m, thanks "to the strength of Allah and of my family".

While most Mozambicans remain poor, some have benefited from a boom in real estate, tourism and other industries. The extent to which drug trafficking has contributed to this new found wealth remains a question mark.

Back in 2005, when he was used to receiving glowing press, Suleman told Toronto's Globe and Mail: "I'm trying to be an example - if a local business can build something so big, maybe foreigners will see that Mozambique is stable and will want to come here".

Suleman started out as a dealer in capulanas, the brightly patterned lengths of cloth Mozambican women wrap around their waists as skirts. He later moved from northern Mozambique to the capital, and went on to sell electronics before expanding into real estate.

Luis Nhachote, an anti-corruption campaigner, says he believes Suleman has laundered money. Nhachote won the country's top journalism award in 2008 for an investigation into drug trafficking allegations against others from Suleman's community of Mozambicans of south Asian origin.

At the time, Nhachote said he found no evidence against Suleman.

High level connections

He has renewed his investigations since the US announcement but says all he has been able to establish so far is that it is difficult to figure out how Suleman, who is in his 50s, was able to build a fortune.

He does not expect Suleman ever to be brought to trial in Mozambique, because hearings might expose high level collaborators in government and politics.

Joseph Hanlon, a development specialist at Britain's Open University who has made Mozambique a specialty, said Suleman's prominence and ties to Frelimo explain why the Americans singled him out. Hanlon wonders why it took Washington so long to make the allegations.

Bradford said Washington is waiting for Mozambican authorities to show they are serious about investigating Suleman for drug trafficking and money laundering.

Mozambicans authorities said last year they were investigating Suleman, but months have gone by with no developments announced. Mozambican police refused to discuss it.

Meanwhile, the good life continues at Suleman's mall. Diners can enjoy a view of Maputo's port through huge windows over sushi and $40 bottles of South African sparkling wine.

A patio outside the cinema is named Guebuza Square, after the president.

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