There’s nothing new under the Africa’s Sun! Trafficking and West Africa have a long and very interesting common history. However, today, West Africa is at risk of becoming an epicentre for drug smuggling as well as the crime and corruption associated with it. In this beautiful and exotic part of the world, drug smuggling has become a booming business; with increasingly serious side effects.
What’s behind the scene?
Due to strong anti-drugs and anti-laundering measures taken in other regions of the world (Central America, Andean Countries, Caribbean, Central Asia, and the Balkans), drug traffickers have sought out new routes in order to get their illicit product to market. Those traffickers have now taken direct aim at West Africa where geography, social conditions and weak anti-drug response capacity allow the quasi-free transit of drugs to market.
Martine Jelsma, Coordinator of Drugs & Democracy Programme at the Transnational Institute (TNI) said that “One of the lessons drawn after several decades of attempts to reduce drug routes in the world through laws of enforcement, these markets have not been diminished yet. However, they remained stable in some countries while they increased in others, mainly West Africa & Sahara.”
Jelsma explained that “Cocaine used to move from Latin America to Europe in containers or by swallowers who are considered as ‘small dealers’. This route is closed now by stepping up controls at airports through security procedures, therefore, drug cartels searched for less risky routes and they found West Africa.” He added that “West African countries started experiencing more corruption, violence, and criminal activities because local group of traffickers are becoming richer and more powerful in these countries and thus more able to have weapons and corrupt governmental officers.”
All Roads lead to Rome!
The trafficking routes through West Africa are well known by now. The goal is to reach European shores as quickly and efficiently as possible – which means Iberia, Italy, the Balkans and the Mediterranean coast. However, direct flights and container shipments to major ports of entry make the control of traffickers much more complex. The methods are also very well known: mules, shipping for containers, mixed in with petroleum products (like plastics), hidden in live animals, and flown in small aircraft.
Furthermore, the disruption caused by the numerous natural disasters over the past few years has also facilitated the traffickers’ job, since law enforcement has been otherwise occupied. All West African countries are increasingly being used as transit routes, particularly those closest to the goal, those most defenceless security-wise and those most unstable internally like the Western Sahara borders.
Corruption... As a Way of Life!
Rogers Kasirye, the Executive Director of Uganda Youth Development Link (UDEL), confirmed that one of the main conditions leading to the increased drug smuggling in West Africa are the weak law enforcements that African governments in this region are trying to implement.”
He added “In West Africa, governments are weak in terms of financial capabilities, corruption challenges, and low salaries for police and governmental officers who are easily corrupted in their turn.” According to Kasirye “the second major condition is that nations’ borders in West Africa are big and left uncontrolled and together with the increased numbers of unemployment and people demanding more money to live in better situations, smuggling dealers are finding easy to use the region and the people of the region for their trafficking interests.” He added “In countries like the Benin where there is a lot of smuggling due to political instability and in Western Sahara borders where there is illegal trafficking because of weak cease fire situation between Morocco & POLISARIO Front’, even if there is no real ongoing fighting in there, but with the presence of low control over borders, the routes are open to drug traffickers day after day.” Kasirye concluded “Only stable countries with stable borders can address successfully drug smuggling problems.
West Africa: New Drugs, New Markets!
Most cocaine entering Africa from South America makes landfall around Guinea-Bissau in the north and Ghana in the south. According to seizure data, the majority of air couriers seem to be coming from Guinea (Conakry), Mali, Nigeria and Senegal destined for France, Spain and the United Kingdom. Upon arrival, the cocaine is predominantly distributed by West African criminal networks throughout Europe.
The last World Drug Report issued by UNODC in 2010, mentioned that drug use is shifting towards new drugs and new markets. The report added, to an extent, that “the shift in demand has led to a shift in trafficking routes, with an increasing amount of cocaine flowing to Europe from the Andean countries via West Africa, causing regional instability.” The Report highlighted that "traffickers have been able to co-opt top figures in some authoritarian societies", citing the recent case of Guinea-Bissau.
Wikileaks has something to Say!
According to cables released in Wikileaks from US embassies across west Africa last year, the US and British governments have grown increasingly worried in the last two years about this new front in the "war on drugs" and how African governments are struggling against corrupt officials and a lack of resources to respond.
In this regard, Christopher Kennedy Lawford, the famous American actor, producer, and activist who was recently appointed by U.S. National Drug Control Policy as United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. Lawford said that the US is very concerned and worried about drug smuggling situation in West Africa and Sahara region. This is another global security issue that we care about.” He concluded “We are looking for what we can do and what we shall do for this problem.”
In his turn, Allan Clear, the Executive Director of the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) agrees with Lawford. Clear recalled that “Wikilileaks cables have revealed last year in its cables the increasing US fears over West African cocaine routes and increasing concerns over Latin American cartels and terror groups using West Africa as drug routes into Europe”
A Call for Action!
The Drug Cartels have now elected to reroute a large portion of their cargo via West Africa, since it is far easier and cheaper to get it through to the markets in the populated and rich North. In response, a concerted and coordinated action and better exchange of intelligence and the active support of civil society are all required in order to initiate a real decline in drug smuggling in West Africa.
By: Rowaida Mroue, Lebanon
Researcher in International Affairs
Map 1: Cocaine from South America to Europe
Source: THE INTER-GOVERNMENTAL ACTION GROUP AGAINST MONEY LAUNDERING IN WEST AFRICA (GIABA)