by Garth Cilliers

Drug trafficking

A serious West African problem that will not go away

Drug Smuggling
Drug smuggling.JPG
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has declared that transnational organised crime is one of the major threats to international, national and individual well-being and security. Drug trafficking, in particular, is one of these crime activities, generating enormous profits which can be used to finance all kinds of nefarious goings-on, including the destabilisation of states and regions. 

Johnnie Carson, United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, recently remarked that “West Africa is one of the most fragile regions of the world. Fifteen of its 17 countries have experienced coups, weak institutions, political instability, corruption and poverty to create an inviting climate for traffickers”.

This remark ties in with the finding in 2007 by the UNODC that West Africa had become the new transit point of choice for syndicates trafficking narcotics, especially cocaine, from South America into the lucrative European market.

Since this finding little has changed. In fact recent indicators suggest that West Africa is holding firmly on to this unwelcome status.

Even worse, more drugs, including opium and heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan, are now being trafficked through the Middle East into East and West Africa to consumers elsewhere while methamphetamine is being produced in growing quantities across West Africa, mainly in Ghana and Nigeria.

Meanwhile Ukrainian, Dutch, Lebanese, Russian, Moroccan and local West African drug syndicates have joined their South American counterparts in using the West African drug route. 

Until the UNODC lifted the lid, there was little to suggest that West Africa had become a popular drug trafficking route positioned so far from all the other existing smuggling routes.

With the international media turning to other more burning issues, interest and coverage of the West African drug dilemma waned until it was rekindled with recent observations that increased drug trafficking in West Africa is a direct result of the regional instability caused by the regime change in Libya.

Renewed attention

Recent news items have confirmed that drug trafficking is again on the increase in West Africa with Mali and Guinea-Bissau, already dubbed a narco state, featuring most prominently.

In the case of Mali, it is ascribed to the almost complete disintegration of responsible government and the activities of fundamentalist groups in the north of the country.

Until 2008 when Malian forces intercepted 750kg of cocaine, equivalent to 36% of the Malian military budget that year, drug syndicates had largely ignored the country mainly because it is landlocked and was considered to be politically too stable to exploit.

But a recent United Nations mission in the Sahel region reported that northern Mali has now become a dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime, terrorism and rebellion.
There are also allegations that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is involved in drug trafficking in northern Mali to finance its activities.

Some observers and sceptics caution that this should be treated with circumspection. They argue that these allegations are driven by US officials wanting to justify America’s stated policy of "target, isolate and eliminate" al-Qaeda-linked fundamentalist groups in Africa because they are intent on harming the US and US interests.

“We see Africa as the new frontier in terms of counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics issues,” explains the chief of the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s Europe, Asia and Africa section. “It’s a place that we need to get ahead of — we’re already behind the curve in some ways, and we need to catch up.” 

American involvement

The controversial US military Africa Command (Africom) is playing a pivotal role in the fight against the African drug trade although its priority remains the al-Qaeda linked groups active in East and West Africa. For Africom the drug trade is a legitimate target because of the drug syndicates' alleged links to fundamentalist Islamic groups.

Testifying before the US Congress earlier this year the commanding officer of Africom, General Carter Ham, singled out narcotics trafficking as a destabilising influence throughout Africa, particularly in West Africa.

“The Africans are not the overall consumers of these drugs that are coming from Central and South America, but they are the transit point for the narcotics that go into Europe.

“Yet the consequences impact Africa directly, breeding corruption and undermining good governance wherever illegal narcotics flow." And that, he told Congress, “works contrary to our national interests.”

General Ham’s remarks are in line with the US national strategy to combat transnational organised crime, released in July 2012, which recognises transnational crime as a national security threat to US interests and seeks to galvanise every available tool to confront it.

To this another senior US official added, “For the foreseeable future drug trafficking will continue to be the world’s most lucrative criminal enterprise and therefore, the one with the greatest ability to fund terrorists, insurgents and other threats to our national security.”

Acknowledge with caution

It is wise to admit that the link between the international drug trade and underdevelopment, crime, violence and social decay cannot be ignored. It is, therefore, in the interest of the international community, and West African states in particular, to address this issue before its effects on West Africa and the rest of the African continent grow any worse.

But for all the good intentions it is also dangerous to allow foreign influence, in this instance American influence, too much leeway. In fighting the international drug trade it can easily become a smokescreen to pursue political and military goals in a region where political instability and fundamentalists are already attracting a lot of American attention.

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