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Home Discussion Papers Conflict & Terrorism Drug economy(?): Africa and the international illicit drug trade
Drug economy(?): Africa and the international illicit drug trade
Written by Marina Reyskens (1) Friday, 02 March 2012 03:45

Whilst much attention has been given to the scourge of illicit drug trading on black markets in Latin America, drug trafficking in Africa has continued to increase in severity. African-organised criminal networks have been described as being globally-reaching, flexible and fluid.(2) Its scope and scale has caused international agencies and police alike to be more concerned that Africa’s illicit drug trade could follow that of Mexico’s “gang-fuelled violence.”(3)

In addition, there are fears that the proliferation of this illegal drug trade risks “becoming a development model”(4) for vulnerable countries to follow. As a further cause for concern is the fact that fake malaria drugs are being traded on these illicit markets.(5) It is, therefore, argued that these illicit markets “represent some of the gravest problems in all societies…jeopardising international safety and security.”(6)

Contextualising drug trafficking in Africa

Currently, the main centres of global heroin production are in two main areas: the region known as the Golden Triangle – the countries of Burma, Laos and Thailand – and the Golden Crescent – encompassing Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.(7) However, among the most prominent African areas involved and affected by international drug trafficking are West Africa (Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Nigeria), southern Africa and East Africa.(8)

The illicit drug trade is estimated at more than US$ 500 billion per annum.(9) It is known that thousands of kilograms of illicit drugs change hands across the globe on a daily basis. In addition, “hundreds of people are murdered in incidents directly related to trafficking [every week].”(10) The United States has stated that drug trafficking in West Africa has “become institutionalised.”(11) In other words, the drug trade in this region has become so entrenched in its trade that it is essentially a part of the country’s economy. For example, for many West African countries, the illicit drug trade “makes a huge, though unofficial, contribution to national income.”(12)

According to the United Nations (UN), over a quarter of Europe’s cocaine is illicitly trading via Africa.(13) In the late 1990s, West African cocaine seizures “were less than 100 kilograms.”(14) This is contrasted to the seizure of “nearly 6,500 kilograms”(15) by 2009. Moreover, according UN statistics of 2009,(16) approximately one third of the cocaine destined for Europe via West Africa was being used in the domestic African market. In addition, Africa has migrated from being a “drug transit point because of its porous borders” into being a “large production and consumption area.”(17) This indicates that not only is the drug trade expanding, it is also creating a veritable domestic consumption market for hard drugs on the continent. It is thus evident that the illicit drug trade has presented itself as a severe and worrying problem in Africa.

History of the African drug trade

Although the African illicit drug trade has gained increased international attention over recent years, it does not mean not imply that drugs were not traded on the black market in the past. In contrast, West Africa in fact has “a long history”(18) of trafficking and organised crime.

In colonial times, West Africa experienced illegal trading in its resources(19) and it became an area of transit for the European and American drug market.(20) Over time, many West African economies “became increasingly informal and progressively dominated by criminal networks.”(21)

West African drug trafficking in the early 1980s was mostly limited to individuals transporting small amounts of drugs on via air travel to Europe and passing through relatively unnoticed.(22) One such favourable condition for drug trafficking remaining largely unnoticed was due to the fact that West Africa was not yet a drug hub nor a producing area, and this meant that European and North American airport security were “not expecting” drugs to be smuggled in from West Africa.(23) Drugs were mainly carried in from Latin America. Similarly, due to political matters around the time of the transition to democracy, the illicit drug trade in South Africa was also not given excessive attention – which is partly why it managed to flourish during this time.(24)  

However, by the mid-1980s, Nigeria gained a negative reputation as being a drug trafficking country.(25) By 1991, approximately 60% of heroin found at JFK Airport in New York was “carried by Nigerians or through Nigerian organisations.”(26) This prompted Nigeria to become known as “the hub of African narcotics trafficking”(27) in 1998.

The 1990s also saw South Africa starting to become a base for West African drug traffickers to conduct operations from.(28) South Africa was and still is particularly attractive as it has excellent infrastructure to support such operations, mainly dealing in marijuana and local ‘mandrax.’(29) West Africa has now come to be known as a “new hub”(30) for the illicit drug trade between Europe and Latin America.

Reasons for and effects of drug trafficking

In many poor West African countries, the plague of unemployment, political instability and socio-economic chaos essentially breeds illicit trade in various goods. In essence, drug trafficking is seen by many as a “viable source of income”(31) in these countries. Thus, drug traffickers from organised crime networks across the globe are acutely aware of this vulnerability and exploit this desperation.

The chief favourable factor that causes West Africa’s illicit drug trade to flourish is that many post-conflict West African states are weak, poor, under-developed and have fragile economies, making them vulnerable to organised crime. In addition, countries that are poor and emerging from recent conflict are even more susceptible to the influence and emergence of criminal networks.(32) For example, out of the world’s most underdeveloped nations, 15 of them are West African states.(33)

Owing to widespread corruption, unemployment and poverty, many West African drug traffickers justify their criminal activities as they “view the black market as the only way to redistribute wealth.”(34) This clearly points to the underlying cause.

It is important to remember that illicit drug trading “is not the main cause of destabilisation,”(35) instead it is “a consequence of the pre-existing lack of stability…in the region.”(36) Weak states are ideal for drug trafficking to operate in.(37) Other factors that have essentially allowed the West African illicit drug trade to flourish in recent years is due to “the exceptionally favourable political context,”(38) as well as the “lack of international attention given to West Africa.”(39) Furthermore, a general lack of effective “institutions, governability and social values”(40) all play a role in creating the ideal environment for any kind of illicit activity to take place. It is also widely known that high levels of West Africa’s political and military elite are “easily bribed or are even involved in the drug trade themselves.”(41)

As confirmed by the UN, “crime hinders development.”(42) This is especially evident with international organised crime, as it serves to undermine “the rule of law, governance, the environment, human rights and health.”(43) Organised drug trafficking is no exception and the continuation of the illicit drug trade in Africa is extremely harmful as it is a destabilising force for already fragile nations.(44)

Characteristics of the West African drug trade

Generally, one finds that drug networks in West Africa are “small groups revolving around loose and fluid networks based on personal contacts.”(45) Foreign criminal networks are well aware of West Africa’s “well-developed smuggling networks”(46) and are, therefore, often described as being “dumping ground[s] for weapons and fake medicines.”(47) However, illicit activities in West Africa are not limited to drug trafficking alone; other underground activities such as human and weapons trafficking also plague this region. Fake malaria drugs are also being produced and traded illegally.(48) Taking advantage of a vulnerable region, Latin American drug traffickers “have created new distribution routes”(49) into West Africa. 

Guinea and Guinea-Bissau

The Republic of Guinea is an example of the illicit drug trade snaking its way up to the highest rankings of Government administration. After a coup in 2008, it was reported that members of the late President Lansana Conté had “an established interest in the cocaine trade.”(50)

Its neighbour, Guinea-Bissau, has often been described as a “narco-state.”(51) A ‘narco-state’ can be defined as a state where “corruption infiltrates the highest levels of Government and the economy depends largely on drug profits.”(52) Guinea-Bissau has an “unguarded coastline,” as well as “a near-total absence of the rule of law.”(53) Illegal shipments flourish undetected in Guinea-Bissau’s “unpatrolled archipelago of [coastal] islands.”(54) This makes it ideal for the transportation of illicit drugs via sea freight.

Nigeria

Nigeria is another such West African country that has managed to “penetrate drug markets in every continent.”(55) The Nigerian illicit drug network has often been described as among the “most sophisticated and finely-tuned trans-shipment, money-moving and document-forging organisations in the world.”(56) It is also known that several Nigerian criminal networks are “operating from neighbouring countries”(57) in order to make use of foreign infrastructure supportive to their activities. 

A Dutch experiment was carried out in Schiphol International Airport in 2002 where customs official “searched every Nigerian arriving…from Aruba and the Dutch Antilles”(58) – a popular drug smuggling route. The results of the experiment showed that 75% of the Nigerians searched were smuggling drugs.(59)

Even though Nigeria is mainly a transit point for drugs arriving from Latin America to Europe, Nigerian drug networks are also known to operate in China, Great Britain, India and South Africa. However, due to the underground nature of these operations, as well as the lack of concrete data on illicit drug trafficking, these networks could potentially be even more widespread. For example, in Nigeria itself, owing to weak judicial and political institutions, much of the illegal activity that takes place goes undetected through the state’s systems.(60) As of January 2012, 1,000 Nigerians were being held in Chinese jails for drug crimes.(61)

Southern and East Africa

Drug traffickers that operate in southern African markets are notoriously of West African origin and the most extensive drug market in the southern African region is that of South Africa.(62) The chief drug that is traded in this market by West African dealers is cocaine. Besides being involved in illicit drug networks, West African criminals are also involved in the stolen goods and counterfeit black markets in South Africa.(63) Other neighbouring countries in the region are either entry or exit points for illicit drugs and smugglers themselves or the trade of other counterfeit goods.

South Africa’s Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces are significant producers of cannabis, which reaches the rest of the continent.(64) Cannabis grows in the wild in Ethiopia and in parts of southern Africa and has historically been “incorporated into ritual[s] and healing”(65) in these regions. It is thought that Arab traders introduced cannabis to North and East African countries(66) and, over time, East Africa has “become a port of entry and transhipment for the opiate trade.”(67) In December 2011, a woman from South African was executed in China for smuggling drugs.(68) Another South African woman was arrested in Thailand for drug smuggling during the same period.(69)

Links between drugs and conflict

It is indeed apt to say that the revenues of the international illicit drug trade enables “transnational criminal organisations to penetrate, contaminate and corrupt the structures of Government…society”(70) and the economy. Illicit goods markets are also linked to armed conflicts in Africa and elsewhere.

The Geopolitical Observatory for Drugs (OGD) states that conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa have “encouraged drug trafficking.”(71) It comes as no surprise then that in recent years, nine members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) experienced civil wars and that these countries are involved in some way with the drug trade.(72)

Links between political campaigns and drug revenues have been found on multiple occasions in several countries in West Africa.(73) Similarly, illicit drugs have been manufactured and trafficked to directly fund arms in many African conflicts and civil wars.(74) Numerous examples can be found in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Guinea-Bissau, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Sudan. More specific examples can be found in the financing of civil wars and rebellions with cannabis revenues in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Senegal.(75)

Domestic and international action

Although many countries have signed various anti-drug conventions, most have either “no drug strategy” or have “archaic and draconian anti-drug laws,”(76) which do nothing to aid the solution. For example, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea- Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone are involved in the West Africa Coast Initiative (WACI) by ECOWAS and the UN.(77) The programme incorporates multilateral capacity building, justice and law-enforcement co-operation plans. Several other programs, such as the 2010 Airport Communication Project (AIRCOP), have been developed to improve international customs at airports.(78)

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) was formed in 1946 as an advisory body to matters related to the international drug trade.(79) Among the most notable UN drug conventions are the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the 1988 Vienna Convention, and the 2000 Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.(80)

Whilst not absent, international action to counter the African drug trade has been limited in its efforts. Although the United States military is involved in cutting-off the Latin American drug routes to Africa, this military approach is not a viable long-term solution.(81) Cutting-off one particular drug route will mean that drug networks will simply find new ones. Similarly, research has shown that drug seizure efforts at borders and ports have “limited or low success rates.”(82)

What is also a root of the problem is that one-time drug couriers and mules are constantly being arrested and jailed, yet the drug lords and mafia heads of international criminal organisations remain untouched.(83) Suggestions that universal legalisation of drugs will “attack the illicit drug market head-on”(84) have also come to the fore. The argument is that prohibiting drugs “cause an underground black market to form.”(85)

Critics are sceptical that the scope of West Africa’s illicit drug markets will be reduced in the short term.(86) West Africa is plagued by instability, ineffective institutions, widespread corruption and the absence of strong governance.

As stated by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, “the [West African] region needs more help from those countries that are producing and consuming these drugs.”(87) Improved Government and multilateral action is required in order to effectively combat the international illicit drug trade. It is imperative that an approach is led by West African states and supported by other African countries, as well as international partners. Civil society and state institutions should be more robust in order to more effectively fight corruption.

Concluding remarks

As seen from the above discussion, “corrupt Government begets a corrupt society and vice versa.”(88) West Africa, in particular, fits this description and is in dire need of an effective, co-ordinated, regional and international approach to halt the menace of drug trafficking.

Oftentimes, individuals that become involved in drug trafficking are merely the victims of their ineffective society and turn to the promise of reward in drug smuggling. Therefore, in order for a viable approach to be successful in combating the drug scourge in Africa, a domestic-international solution needs to be implemented that addresses the heart of the problem – from the bottom up, instead of the top-down. In other words, focus needs to be placed on improving weak and unstable state structures which allow drug trafficking to flourish instead of targeting the kingpins at the head of the networks.

NOTES

(1) Contact Marina Reyskens through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict & Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(3) Anon., 2011. West Africa’s ‘cocaine coast’. Strategic Comments, 17(5), pp.1-3.
(4) Atenga, T.H., ’Africa ‘a hub for drugs’’, the Mail & Guardian, 19 October 1998, http://mg.co.za.
(5) Boseley, S. ‘Fake, dodgy drugs drive malaria crisis in Africa’, the Mail & Guardian, 17 January 2012, http://mg.co.za.
(6) Jenner, M.S., 2011. International drug trafficking: a global problem with a domestic solution. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(2), pp.901-927.
(7) Akyeampong, E., 2005. Diaspora and drug trafficking in West Africa: a case study of Ghana. African Affairs, 104(416), pp.429-447.
(8) Madeira, L.F. et al., ‘The international cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau: current trends and risks’, Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre Noref Working Paper, February 2011, http://peacebuilding.no.
(9) Jenner, M.S., 2011. International drug trafficking: a global problem with a domestic solution. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(2), pp.901-927.
(10) Ibid.
(11) ‘US embassy cables: West African drug trade is ‘becoming institutionalised’’, the Guardian, 14 December 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(12) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(13) Keeley, G. and Lewis, P., ‘The West African connection: drug barons find new route on to the streets of Britain’, the Guardian, 27 August 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Annan, K., ‘Save West Africa from the drugs barons’, the Observer, 29 January 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(17) Atenga, T.H., ’Africa ‘a hub for drugs’’, the Mail & Guardian, 19 October 1998, http://mg.co.za.
(18) Madeira, L.F. et al., ‘The international cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau: current trends and risks’, Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre Noref Working Paper, February 2011, http://peacebuilding.no.
(19) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(20) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(21) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(22) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Akyeampong, E., 2005. Diaspora and drug trafficking in West Africa: a case study of Ghana. African Affairs, 104(416), pp.429-447.
(27) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(28) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(29) Ibid.
(30) Madeira, L.F. et al., ‘The international cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau: current trends and risks’, Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre Noref Working Paper, February 2011, http://peacebuilding.no.
(31) Anon., 2011. West Africa’s ‘cocaine coast’. Strategic Comments, 17(5), pp.1-3.
(32) Annan, K., ‘Save West Africa from the drugs barons’, the Observer, 29 January 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(33) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(34) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(35) Madeira, L.F. et al., ‘The international cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau: current trends and risks’, Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre Noref Working Paper, February 2011, http://peacebuilding.no.
(36) Ibid.
(37) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(38) Ibid.
(39) Ibid.
(40) Ibid.
(41) Ibid.
(42) Ibid.
(43) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(44) Cole, D., ‘US warns of increased drug trafficking in West Africa’, the Mail & Guardian, 29 April 2009, http://mg.co.za.
(45) Akyeampong, E., 2005. Diaspora and drug trafficking in West Africa: a case study of Ghana. African Affairs, 104(416), pp.429-447.
(46) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(47) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(48) ‘Fake malaria drugs could ‘put millions at risk’’, BBC News, 17 January 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(49) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(50) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(51) Gilbert, M., ‘Guinea-Bissau: a narco-developmental state?’ African Arguments, 24 May 2011, http://africanarguments.org.
(52) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(53) ‘Fake malaria drugs could ‘put millions at risk’’, BBC News, 17 January 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(54) Anon., 2011. West Africa’s ‘cocaine coast’. Strategic Comments, 17(5), pp.1-3.
(55) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(56) Ibid.
(57) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(58) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(59) Ibid.
(60) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(61) ‘Drug Trafficking revenue by country’, HavocScope Data, http://www.havocscope.com.
(62) Shaw, M., 2002. West African criminal networks in South and southern Africa. African Affairs, 101, pp.291-316.
(63) Ibid.
(64) Atenga, T.H., ’Africa ‘a hub for drugs’’, the Mail & Guardian, 19 October 1998, http://mg.co.za.
(65) Akyeampong, E., 2005. Diaspora and drug trafficking in West Africa: a case study of Ghana. African Affairs, 104(416), pp.429-447.
(66) Ibid.
(67) Hübschle, A., ‘Counting the costs of archaic drug policies and strategies in Southern Africa’, Institute of Security Studies, 27 September 2011, http://www.issafrica.org.
(68) ‘Clemency pleas fail: China executes SA’s Janice Linden’, the Mail & Guardian, 12 December 2011, http://mg.co.za.
(69) Ibid.
(70) Jenner, M.S., 2011. International drug trafficking: a global problem with a domestic solution. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(2), pp.901-927.
(71) Atenga, T.H., ’Africa ‘a hub for drugs’’, the Mail & Guardian, 19 October 1998, http://mg.co.za.
(72) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(73) Ellis, S., 2009. West Africa’s international drug trade. African Affairs, 108(431), pp.171-196.
(74) Atenga, T.H., ’Africa ‘a hub for drugs’’, the Mail & Guardian, 19 October 1998, http://mg.co.za.
(75) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(76) Hübschle, A., ‘Counting the costs of archaic drug policies and strategies in Southern Africa’, Institute of Security Studies, 27 September 2011, http://www.issafrica.org.
(77) Anon., 2011. West Africa’s ‘cocaine coast’. Strategic Comments, 17(5), pp.1-3.
(78) Ibid.
(79) Jenner, M.S., 2011. International drug trafficking: a global problem with a domestic solution. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(2), pp.901-927.
(80) Ibid.
(81) Cole, D., ‘US warns of increased drug trafficking in West Africa’, the Mail & Guardian, 29 April 2009, http://mg.co.za.
(82) Hübschle, A., ‘Counting the costs of archaic drug policies and strategies in Southern Africa’, Institute of Security Studies, 27 September 2011, http://www.issafrica.org.
(83) Ibid.
(84) Jenner, M.S., 2011. International drug trafficking: a global problem with a domestic solution. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(2), pp.901-927.
(85) Ibid.
(86) Wannenburg, G., 2005. Organised crime in West Africa. African Security Review, 14(4), pp.1-22.
(87) Annan, K., ‘Save West Africa from the drugs barons’, the Observer, 29 January 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(88) Akyeampong, E., 2005. Diaspora and drug trafficking in West Africa: a case study of Ghana. African Affairs, 104(416), pp.429-447.

 

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