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Finding a Fix: The Rise of Drug Trafficking and Usage in West Africa

Efforts against drug trafficking have so far fallen flat. If they want to tackle drugs, governments will have to engage civil society organisations and mobilise public opinion.
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Cocaine from South America seized in Benin. Photograph by Dulue Mbachu/International Relations and Security Network.

The rise of powerful and wealthy organised crime syndicates now illicitly trafficking narcotics across West Africa has thrown yet another poison into the ‘toxic brew’ of threats plaguing the region. The rise in drug trafficking, including an increase in local drug production and consumption, is fast becoming a major challenge in the pursuit of peace, stability and security.

It is a challenge that requires a coordinated and multi-pronged solution, as well as the active involvement of civil society actors across the region.

Reaching a new high

In late January, Ghana’s Vice-President Kwesi Amissah-Arthur inaugurated the West Africa Commission on Drugs. Convened by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and chaired by the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the commission plans to examine ways and means of combating drug trafficking and its effects. The establishment of the commission is certainly welcomed, and its inauguration timely.

Trans-shipment of illicit narcotics from Latin America through to West Africa and onwards to Europe has increased significantly in recent years. Since 2008, the volume of cocaine transiting through West Africa was roughly 50 tons a year and its annual worth estimated at $2 billion. Nearly 50% of all non-US-bound cocaine, or about 13% of all global flows, is now believed to be smuggled through West Africa. Just six hours away from Europe, and about 1,600 miles across the Atlantic from Latin America, West Africa’s geographical proximity to European markets make it strategically well-located for drug-smuggling purposes.

West Africa is not only a trans-shipment zone; local production and consumption is also on the rise – especially among its burgeoning youth population. Over 70% of the sub-region’s estimated 300 million people are under the age of 35. The vast majority have limited education and are unemployed or working in the informal sector. Lack of employment opportunities or reliable income put youth in precarious positions where they may be vulnerable to involvement in the drug trade and drug use itself. In desperate circumstances, drugs offer a means of escaping the harsh realities of everyday life.

Apart from the damaging effects of drug use on West Africa’s peoples, related offences such as corruption and money-laundering have also had a severe impact on the socio-economic development and governance of the region.

Drug-related corruption and money-laundering exacerbate the chronic poverty in many West African states by disrupting effective economic governance. In a number of countries, the profits from trafficked drugs exceed the gross national income. Rampant drug trafficking empowers criminal elements operating outside the law, undermines governance, weakens state institutions, and perverts the criminal justice system by bribing prosecutors, police officers, and judges. Drug traffickers do not simply undermine governments; they also use illicit money to buy, and in some cases seize, political and economic power and then wield such power in the most outrageous and scandalous manner.

Finding a fix

A lot of time and resources have been invested in trying to combat this scourge. At the regional level, the African Union (AU) has just developed its fourth revised plan of action. This new 2013-2017 policy on drug control seeks to strengthen continental and international cooperation and further integrate drug control issues into national legal and institutional frameworks.

At a sub-regional level, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a declaration in 1998 entitled “Community Flame Ceremony: the fight against drugs”. That same year, the bloc set up a regional fund for financing drug control activities in West Africa. Ten years later, in 2008, ECOWAS adopted the Praia Plan of Action and the Abuja Declaration to address the security threats posed by drug trafficking in the sub-region. Unfortunately, all of these initiatives have so far had very limited success.

At the national level, almost all ECOWAS states have adopted National Integrated Programmes (NIPs). Many states have amended their drug trafficking and consumption legislations, empowered their judicial authorities, established new drug enforcement agencies and imposed stiffer penalties for offenders.

But these have fared no better than the regional efforts, and the obvious question remains: why have these plans and policies continued to fall short?

A shot in the arm for CSOs needed

Many factors may help explain continued shortcomings. Poor implementation, lack of funding, and singularly focusing on toughening punitive measures are all reasons to consider. Most policies have narrowly focused on one dimension instead of employing a multi-pronged approach. Apart from the absence of political will and a clear vision from West Africa’s leaders, there has been a failure, or inability, to mobilise a critical mass of the population to actively participate in the full length of the process – from inception to implementation, through to monitoring and review.

At the regional and national levels, the dual failures to build alliances with civil society, non-governmental and community-based organisations, or to educate the populace, have been major missing elements in the fight against narcotics trafficking and use. Most governments continue to treat the drug problem as the exclusive domain of the state. Mere lip service is paid to engaging civil society.

But civil society organisations, including NGOs and community-based organisations, have an important role in raising awareness and educating citizens. So far, only token efforts have been made to provide information about the health, socioeconomic, and security problems associated with drug trafficking and consumption. In many countries, citizens unaware of the harmful impact of drugs continue to idolise drug-lords and dream of amassing their vast wealth, cruising around in flashy ‘Hummers’ as so many drug barons do.

Most civil society groups currently lack the necessary expertise to make a meaningful contribution to the fight. There is an ardent need to strengthen the capacity of civil society to monitor and report on drug trafficking and other related crimes and to help implement the various regional and national action plans. Civil society groups can engage the public – including influential religious and traditional leaders – and help facilitate public debate. Both steps can make a huge difference in educating people about the impact of drugs.

In most instances, policies have been driven by external considerations. Civil society can help reverse this trend and ensure that local perspectives are heard and that initiatives are locally owned.

The new West Africa Commission on Drugs has set as one of its key objectives to mobilise public opinion and catalyse political support for further action at national, regional and international levels before drug-fuelled problems become totally unmanageable. In other parts of the world, civil society-led efforts have helped overturn social norms. It can be done in West Africa too.

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It's fair to say that in this regard Portugal has proven that legalisation works and the US has proven the 'war on drugs' never will. So what's it going to be, the obviously right or the plainly wrong choice, time will tell but the most likely is the latter, as per usual.

The people of Africa need to know that mobilising society does not work.  Look at the tonnes of money spent in the United States on a drug war they are not winning.  Drug dealers love the war on drugs because it drives the prices higher.  Politicians, police and preachers love the war on drugs because it keeps money flowing into their hands.The only way to win against the drug merchants is to terminate them with extreme prejudice.

Thanks to WACSI for this information. Yes, civil society have to wake up to challenge the existing policies for drug management and their implememtation. There seems to be a back and forth action. There are a few actors on our porous borders where there is heavy trafficking. Again in war torn parts of the region the vulnerable youth are used to traffic loads of drugs. Drugs and arms trafficking are related and must be tackled together. Most countries have Small Arms Commissions and Drug and Narcotic Control Units, however these do not collaborate. Civil society working on Small Arms could begin to work on drugs as well! Thank you Afia for this discussion and information. Janet Adama Mohammed