The impact of drug-trafficking in West Africa
Written by Clarissa Graham (1)

“West Africa has a long history of involvement in the international drug trade.”(2) Despite the drug trade in West Africa only gaining the interest of the media in 2007, the region has been a strategic transit point for drug trafficking since 1952.(3) West Africa is the primary transit point for cocaine and other drugs trafficked from South America to Europe and North America.(4) It is also a producer and exporter of cannabis products and allegedly amphetamines.(5) This paper will discuss the social, economic and political impact of drug trafficking on the West African region.

Drug trafficking in West Africa since 2009

The globalisation of the illicit economy is not a new phenomenon of the twenty-first century. It is gaining normalcy not only in the domestic economy within states, but in the global economy as well.  With reference to the recent global financial crisis and the warning of another possible down-turn in the developed economies, it presents an opportunity for those dependent on the formal economy to engage in illicit economic endeavours to cover their losses during financial down-turn.  The drugs trade is one of the areas within the illicit economy that is highly lucrative and difficult to monitor. Its transcontinental reach and impact is not only understated, but its role in the domestic economies of supplier states and transitory states does not gain the attention it warrants. 

Since 2009, the rate of drug seizures has fallen due to increased media attention on drug trafficking and the coordinated action between West African Governments and the relevant international organisations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).(6) However a drop in the seizure of drugs and narcotics does not mean that the trade of drugs has declined, it only means that the cartels and smugglers have become more sophisticated in their methods and means of transport.(7) It is reported that there has been a repositioning of trade routes and submarines, a Boeing 727, ships and smaller planes are among some of the transportation methods used by South American cartels in the trafficking of drugs to West Africa and further abroad.(8) This is testimony to the boldness, resilience and sophistication of these cartels in avoiding detection.(9)

A recent realisation is that local players and criminal networks are taking control of an even more sophisticated system to smuggle cocaine into the rich market of the North, an indication of how the drug trade has established itself within the local population, especially the criminal network within the region.  A newer tendency has emerged that the Al Qaeda's North African Wing has established itself as a player in the trans-Sahara trade.(10) According to Alexander Schmidt, West African head of the UNODC, the terrorists are facilitating the passage of the traffickers and receive a payment either in cash or kind.(11) However, there is no proof that the terrorist groups are organising the drug trafficking themselves.(12)

Since 2009, the drug trade has declined when measuring the number of seizures made, but the lucrative nature of the trade and the sophistication of transport and communication systems have only enabled the criminal agents involved in drug trafficking to remain a step ahead of the anti-crime organisations and regional efforts to curb this trade.

One cannot ascertain the real impact that drug trafficking has on the West African region and it would certainly be erroneous to generalise the circumstances or extent of drug trafficking in one West African country with another. Nevertheless, drug trafficking extends into every sphere of the society in which it is prevalent. Should one focus on the impact that it has on the social, economic and political aspects of the state and society, it is possible to draw some common understanding regarding this issue.

Social impact: disintegration of society and human capital

Similar to the impact narcotics consumption has on consumer economies, West African countries are beginning to experience the damaging effect that narcotics trading and consumption has on its domestic economy. West Africa has only recently experienced an increase in the domestic consumption of narcotics among its populations. “[According to the United Nations], of the 35 tonnes of cocaine estimated to have reached West Africa in 2009, only 21 tonnes continued on to Europe, meaning the remainder was probably sold and consumed locally in Africa.”(13) The Inter-Governmental Action Group against money-laundering in West Africa (also known as GIABA), states that the transiting of drugs through a country means that some of it remains within the country and is either distributed as payment for services rendered or as a source of profit for local traffickers.(14)

Narcotics trading and the abuse thereof ultimately leads to the disintegration and disruption of family and society relations and a country dependent on narco-trafficking causes the unravelling of its own population and the attached value system required for its survival and cohesion. When the population of a state is weakened or compromised by drug abuse, it has the potential of rendering the population insecure as “dependency, distress, poverty and crime sets in.”(15) This insecurity is worsened by the impact drug trafficking and drug abuse has on the education of a population.

The belief in the benefit of education is undermined by the ‘get-rich-quick-mentality’ that establishes itself among the youth.(16) The lucrative prospects, power and high profit rates attached to drug trafficking becomes attractive to marginalised young males. However, it also produces unskilled, unemployed and unproductive citizens who are at risk of abusing the substance themselves, thereby amplifying the drug culture within the region.(17) Consequently, the West African economy is burdened with a declining and weakened labour force and a civil society divided and rendered powerless.

Economic impact: establishing the narco-economy

The lucrative business of drug trafficking creates the illusion that it is a short-term route to economic prosperity. According to GIABA, narco-economies necessitate the building of better and efficient infrastructure and communication technologies to facilitate streamlined and cost-effective trafficking.(18) The supplementary construction boom provides the necessary jobs and accommodation, while the payment received from these opportunities increase the injection of monies into the domestic economy.(19) The economy therefore looks healthier, but the reality is that only a few individuals who control the cash benefit from this economic boom.(20) It should be stressed that the economic boom does not last long and does not necessarily trickle down to the poorer masses. It only worsens the economic credibility of the region and renders the economy and the prosperity of the population dependent on drug trafficking. Aside from this, wealthy drug traffickers prefer to export their cash to safer financial and economic climates, while some choose to decrease their spending in the local economy to avoid detection.(21) Drug trafficking and the money-laundering that comes with illicit trading places the banking system under considerable pressure to accept dirty money. Although it builds the banking system’s net worth, it subsequently puts it at risk of prosecution or the risk of sudden and large cash withdrawals.(22)

Increased violence and crime that persists in these countries and the decline of a productive and reliable work force undermines the region’s business and tourism sectors.(23) This discourages investment within the region, leading to a further dependency on drug trafficking and declining prospects of escaping that dependency. “The economic weight of this flow could create a ‘Dutch disease’ effect, in which other forms of commercial activity become less attractive than drug trafficking”(24) and this inevitably has a negative effect on state revenue, rendering the Government unable to provide public goods and services facilitative of domestic development and economic growth.

Political impact: emergence of the narco-state

With weakening economic credibility and transnational criminal networks operating within borders, it becomes difficult for West African Governments to build and sustain the capacity and political will necessary to prevent these criminal agents from taking over state institutions and the domestic economy. Often, the net worth of individuals or criminal networks who engage in these activities is higher than the country’s national income. This provides the opportunity for these criminal networks and drug lords to infiltrate the Government and usurp control of state institutions to aid their activities or avoid prosecution.(25) These cartels work with local criminal gangs and corrupt officials where some consignments are handled by corrupt armies, customs and police forces.(26) Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UNODC, is quoted as saying that “…drug cartels buy more than real estate, banks and businesses; they buy elections, candidates and parties. In a word they buy power.”(27) The drug trade in effect corrupts the Government as well as state institutions, capturing weak states in exchange for protection and money. The state and the Government become compliant to the drugs trade and its allegiance to the drug lords renders it negligent to the rights of the population. 

The narcotics trafficking network even extends its impact into the legal system of West African countries. It becomes overburdened with court cases related to drugs “backlogs increase; prisons fill up, resources offering help and rehabilitation are insufficient and the whole attitude of fear in society seeks retribution and punishment instead of rehabilitation and reintegration”.(28) Costa further emphasises that prosecutors and judges lack the evidence or the will to bring to justice powerful criminals with powerful friends.(29)

ECOWAS response to drug trafficking

"Before 2001, the drug law enforcement departments in West Africa did not have appreciable collaboration with one another...one Agency would find it difficult to release information because of the uncertainty of the preservation of confidentiality of the information in the destination country.”(30) This situation led to the founding of the West African Joint Operations initiative, a collaborative between Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration Regional Office in Lagos, whose focus was to contain the illicit drug trafficking problem across the region, which still remains weak, however.(31)

In June 2007, the Authority of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government expressed concerns about the upsurge of drug trafficking in the region and mandated the ECOWAS Commission to take urgent action and report to the Authority on efforts to stem the surge.(32) The Commission requested that GIABA, a specialised institution of the ECOWAS, prepare and present a provisional, short-term Plan of Action for Drugs Control, which was effectively done.(33)

A Ministerial Meeting was held in Cape Verde in October 2008, which produced a Political Declaration and the Plan of Action that was adopted by the Heads of State in December 2008.(34) It is backed by the UN Office for West Africa, Interpol and the UN Departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping Operations. The regional plan aims to build national and regional capacities in the area of law enforcement, forensics, intelligence, border management and money laundering.(35) In 2009, the West Africa Coast Initiative was launched to combat organised crime and drug trafficking wreaking havoc in the region.(36) The UNODC is also working closely with ECOWAS, which has effectively adopted a regional plan to take aggressive action against cocaine trafficking.(37)

Thus far, these regional initiatives (in collaboration with international efforts) have stifled the drug trade to a certain extent. Seizures of drugs off the West African coast and inland have declined. However, regional efforts and initiative requires more funding and better strategic and technological assistance to keep track of the changing nature and sophistication of criminal activities.

Concluding remarks

When the executive director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, sounds an alarm about the risk of drug money “perverting economies and rotting society, and of drug profits possibly financing insurgency”, he is really describing an existing state of affairs rather than some future nightmare.(38)

The impact of drug trafficking on the West African region has become a viable and threatening issue, not only for West African states and ECOWAS, but Africa and the wider international community. It has the potential of rendering a region captive to the drug trade and affiliated criminal activities. Concerted action (regional and international) is needed not only to stop the impact and persistence of drug trafficking, but to assist the individual states of West Africa to establish an economy that is not dependent on the revenue created by drug trafficking, and subsequent to that, establishing a political climate that is conducive to democratic governance and the rule of law.


(1) Clarissa Graham through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )
(2) Ellis, S. 2009. West Africa’s International Drug Trade. African Affairs, 108 (431), pp.171-196.
(3) Ibid.
(4) ‘Drug crime poses serious threat to West Africa, warns UN official’, United Nations News Centre, 28 October 2008, http://www.un.org
(5) Ellis, S. 2009. West Africa’s International Drug Trade. African Affairs, 108 (431), pp.171-196.
(6) ‘West Africa drug trade: New transit hub for cocaine trafficking fuels corruption, threatens security’, United Nations website, 2008, http://www.un.org
(7) ‘West Africa drugs trafficking “increasingly sophisticated”’, BBC News, 21 June 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk
(8) McConnell, T. ‘West Africa newest market in global drug trade’, Globalpost, 24 June 2011, http://www.globalpost.com.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Lewis, D. ‘West Africa drugs trade going the way of Mexico-UN’, Reuters, 20 June 2011, http://af.reuters.com
(11) Ibid.
(12) Ibid.
(13) McConnell, T. ‘West Africa newest market in global drug trade’, Globalpost, 24 June 2011, http://www.globalpost.com.
(14) Shehu, A. ‘Drug Trafficking and its Impact of West Africa’, GIABA website, 2009,  http://www.giaba.org.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Lewis, D. ‘West Africa drugs trade going the way of Mexico-UN’, Reuters, 20 June 2011, http://af.reuters.com.  
(26) McConnell, T. ‘West Africa newest market in global drug trade’, Globalpost, 24 June 2011, http://www.globalpost.com.
(27) ‘West Africa under attack’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 28 October 2008, http://www.unodc.org.  
(28) Shehu, A. ‘Drug Trafficking and its Impact of West Africa’, GIABA website, 2009,  http://www.giaba.org.
(29) ‘Drug crime poses serious threat to West Africa, warns UN official’, United Nations News Centre, 28 October 2008, http://www.un.org.
(30) Shehu, A. ‘Drug Trafficking and its Impact of West Africa’, GIABA website, 2009,  http://www.giaba.org.
(31) Ibid.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Ibid.
(35) ‘Drug crime poses serious threat to West Africa, warns UN official’, United Nations News Centre, 28 October 2008, http://www.un.org.
(36) Ibid.
(37) Ibid.
(38) Ellis, S. 2009. West Africa’s International Drug Trade. African Affairs, 108 (431), pp.171-196.