It was a hushed-up contract for one of Africa’s biggest land deals, signed with the backing of two authoritarians who have since been deposed. Naturally, I wanted a copy.
Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi backed a deal in 2008 to lease 100,000 hectares of Mali’s best farmland. Terms of the agreement, and the contact itself, weren’t released publicly. Many wondered what the deal contained.
Getting a copy of the contract, to see exactly what was promised, was a key part of my investigation into a growing phenomenon of foreign land investment that critics refer to as “land grabbing”.
PAPERS IN BAMAKO?
In my search for the mystery contract, I traveled first to the agriculture ministry in central Bamako.
The capital’s administrative city – a centre for Malian state power - was completed in 2010 and financed by Libya.
Built in an Arabesque castle-like concrete style typical of the Gulf states, the collection of three-story office buildings stands as a metaphor for the massive influence Gaddafi once wielded here, as he sought to buy allies and political support with his brand of petrol diplomacy.
Mali has virtually no oil. But a few select regions in the desert country have another valuable commodity – water. This, according to some analysts, is what Libya really wanted from its Malian land deal.
Today, Gaddafi is dead following a 2011 rebellion in Libya, and government functions in Bamako at a sleepy, bureaucratic pace.
Administrators in flowing pinks dresses and hijabs stroll around between meetings, gossiping and cracking jokes. A guard at the agriculture ministry is sleeping at his desk when I enter the building, looking for an official who can talk about the contract.
“I prefer not to say much about the Malibya transaction,” Paul Coulibaly, a senior advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture told me during a long interview in his office, as I sought information on the Libyan land deal. “I wasn’t here in 2008.”
The contract had been made public he said – but he couldn’t find a copy. Every other analyst who follows Mali’s land market said the contract was not publicly available.
Secrecy is just one of the complaints about the deal. The project never had an adequate social or environmental impact assessment, said Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst with UK-based Verisk Maplecroft, a consultancy.
The supposed plan to grow rice for the Libyan market would require large amounts of water, causing a “huge strain on the environment”, she told me in a phone interview.
But “what was in the contract was never publicly announced,” she said.
SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
But in an airy office away from Mali’s central bureaucratic offices, a Bamako political veteran had what I was looking for.
As someone who has trained many of Mali’s senior officials, he got the contract a few years back from a former protégée. The source didn’t want his name used - he wasn’t supposed to have a copy of the deal.
The document didn't include an often-discussed claim that all the rice grown on the concession would be shipped back to Libya, bypassing hungry Malians.
It did, however, contain clauses critics find alarming. The land was given to Libya free of charge, and the deal offered the project all the water it needed, from a canal or from underground. The deal was signed by the agriculture ministers of Mali and Libya at the time.
The plan has stalled since Gaddafi’s ouster and no one really knows what will happen to the 100,000 hectares now.
Arriving at the site three hours from Bamako in a rickety, smoke-belching 4x4, I couldn’t help thinking: Is this it?
Apart from some fading billboards promoting the Malibya project, and one large irrigation canal, the land Libya leased from Mali looked much like it must have for the past 200 years: largely undeveloped and populated by small farmers, cattle herders and the occasional roadside vendor.
Despite the controversy surrounding the deal, some people living near the site said they wished the project would re-start.
“Malibya: It’s a good thing,” said Abdoulaye Sidibe, a grocer who once sold sodas and biscuits to labourers when Libya began work on canals to water its concession. “A lot of people were working building the canals (to irrigate the land), but they aren’t building anymore,” he said.
In contrast with the barren sands of the Sahara to the north, coconuts, mangos, and millet grow in the area around the Libyan concession, thanks partially to an irrigation dam built by French colonialists in the 1930s.
But handing precious water access to foreign investors strikes some locals as a bad idea.
“Water from the canal is not accessible to local farmers,” Nouhoun Coulibaly, who lives near the concession site, told me as he drank tea in the shade near the main canal with half a dozen other seasonal farm labourers, now unemployed.
“The population is not benefiting,” he said.