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Africa’s Dangerous Illegal Drugs Phenomenon
Africa’s Dangerous Illegal Drugs Phenomenon

By - Adedoyin Shittu

Posted - 22-10-2019

Drug trafficking is a global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws. Reflecting the global nature of the trade, criminal groups are usually made up of citizens from multiple countries. For instance, in 2010, police in Gambia seized more than two tons of cocaine worth $1 billion in the largest-ever drug bust in West Africa. In the raid, 12 foreign nationals from the Netherlands, Venezuela, Ghana, Mexico, and Nigeria were arrested. They were all employees of a Dutch-owned fishing company that served as a front for drug cartels using Gambia as a transshipment point.


The $320 billion dollars industry is showing no sign of slowing down as the global supply of illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin are on the rise and effort by the West to stem the flow of cocaine from Latin America has made the criminals target a new route, Africa.

Added to the unemployment, poverty and pandemics, Africa is facing another disaster, “Illegal drugs trafficking”. Since Northern American countries and the European Union have tightened their measures to deter the trade, traffickers have resorted to Africa as an effective gateway for drugs. According to the 2017 UN World Drug Report, two-thirds of the cocaine smuggled between South America and Europe passes through West Africa, specifically Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo. Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania are also among the countries that have seen the highest traffic in opiates passing from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Western destinations and this illicit trade is contributing to the deterioration of state institutions and financing terrorist groups like AQIM, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

Mostly manufactured in Latin America and Asia, Africa has become a major trafficking hub because of weak regulation and organised criminals operating across national borders in the continent and West Africa is the continent’s largest regional drug market in the continent. A report commissioned by the United Nations estimates that the annual trade in cocaine alone is worth over $2 Billion Dollars just in West Africa almost equal to the foreign direct investment (FDI) in the region. The 2018 report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime also shows that 87 percent of pharmaceutical opioids seized globally came from western and central Africa along with northern Africa.

Drug trafficking in Africa is a growing problem that is having ruinous effect on the continent as it is funding terrorism in the region. Research has shown that there is a correlation between drug trafficking, terrorism and transnational crime. Between 2005 and 2008, AQIM terrorist group in the sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa made between $40 to $60 million dollars from illegal drugs alone.

Not only is drug trafficking fuelling terrorism, it is also fueling insecurity and city crimes, corruption, and public health crisis. African consumption of illegal drugs is projected to become a public health emergency but the continent has a dramatic inability to meet demand for treatment. For example, 2017 data revealed 40% of high-risk drug users in Nigeria wanted treatment but were unable to access it.

Until recently Africans were not known as major hard drugs users but the region is no longer just a safe haven for drug traffickers who ‘dump’ and use some regions as a transit point before exporting to other parts of the world. though the target market is Europe because of the high price, some find there way to the African market. Due to the increasing availability of drugs from around the world being sold at cheaper prices in African markets, a wider demographic of individuals have access to them and high consumption and production is ongoing. In the 1980s and 1990s users could be found largely in tourist spots, such as Zanzibar, or in enclaves of white hipsterdom in cities like Johannesburg but since 2006, heroin consumption has increased faster in Africa than in any other continent, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). More than 2.5 tonnes of heroin are consumed annually on the continent and the highest consumption comes from Tanzania. In Mombasa, Kenya, a drug-trafficking hub, an estimated 3.5 percent of the population has already tried heroin and the dru has an estimates of 2,500 to 5000 frequent users.

According to comprehensive research by the ENACT transnational organised crime programme, in the next 30 years, the number of drug users in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by nearly 150% making the region see the world’s biggest surge in illicit drug users. It is also anticipated that by 2050 there will be an additional 14 million Africans using illegal drugs. East Africa is set to experience the sharpest increase in the proportion of its population using illicit drugs while West Africa will remain the continent’s largest regional drug market. It was also reported that by 2050, the drug users in the region will more than double.

Drugs cartels are using the region as a channel to transport traffick their drugs into Europe by taking advantage of the region’s poverty, weak security and judicial systems, but gone are the days when Africa was just a channel. Africa and Africans are now a target market for the drug traffickers. According to a UN expert, “the North American and European markets are reaching saturation point. Latin American producers and traffickers are therefore looking for new markets. And Africa is obviously one of them.”

Organised crime and poor policy behind Africa’s looming drugs crisis
In Africa, there is a correlation between corruption and drug trafficking and this is observable in various forms. The networks’ ability of the drug cartels to penetrate political systems and the enabling environment created by corruption often generates “inside help” in avoiding detection. Many drug trafficking groups in very low-income countries tend to be richer than the governments. As a result, they are able to bribe their way through and buy their protection from the state while they continue to expand their businesses with the government’s tacit consent. It should also be said that today drug cartels no longer buy businesses but power, they have been included into the government and this has made them unreachable by the law. Various parts of Africa have become transit points for the global trade in illicit drugs and they have successfully entrench the business into the government to win favours.

Guinea-Bissau, home to about 1.8 million people and covers just 10,800 square miles, has over the years been a safe haven for drug smugglers and Colombia drug lords live in opulence and impunity on the island of the tiny country. The plethora of remote islands and unpoliced mangrove creeks makes it ideal territory for smugglers. Over the years the drug lords from South America have successfully used the country as hideout and a hub to traffick their illicit drugs. Drug lords have also been able to successfully infiltrate the government. According to the UNODC, smugglers drop sealed packages containing small quantities of cocaine into the coastal waters of the country. The packages are retrieved by local fishermen and passed on to military officials and politicians, who oversee their safe transport to Bissau. The drugs trade in the country may now be as high as the country’s national income and much of the country ruling class have been implicated by the illicit trade over the years.

Early September 2019, police seized more than 1.8 tonnes of cocaine hidden in flour bags and from intelligence operation, police arrested eight people: four Bissau-Guineans, three Colombians and a Malian two weeks later. According to the police, the shipment was on its way to Islamist militants: “The drugs belong to the terrorist network Al Qaeda. The cocaine comes from Colombia. But the destination is the Arab Maghreb,” said Domingos Monteiro, deputy director of the judicial police. For years, the United Nations described Guinea-Bissau as a “narco state” and shipments of cocaine from Latin America are continuing to come across the Atlantic from the country. Recently the UNODC raised the alarm over the increasing importation of hard drugs including cocaine and Tramadol into Nigeria and other West Africa countries through the Gulf of Guinea.

Kenya is another trafficking hub for hard drugs and Mombasa has been found to be a major drug trafficking hub and route for heroin and cocaine destined for Europe. The porous border of Lunga Lunga makes it easy for traffickers to smuggle drugs into Mombasa from neighbouring Tanzania and traffickers use small boats and yachts to smuggle drugs into the country. This has led to an increase in the use of heroin and cocaine in Mombasa. Once the drugs are within Kenya’s territory, smugglers have several options at their disposal. They could either take a plane straight to Europe or Dubai, or move the drugs to Nairobi for onward transit to Europe and Dubai, or send their loot to South Africa or West Africa to use an even less obvious route.

A 2018 report by the US’ Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) linked prominent politicians and businessmen with connections within the Government to a drug trafficking syndicate in Kenya. Reports indicate that following the extradition and sentencing of the Akasha brothers, Ibrahim and Baktash, new drug barons are stepping in to fill the gap in the Eastern country.

Read More: Terrorism in the Sahel: No End in Sight

How to address the illicit drug crisis phenomenon
Most drugs remain illegal across the continent, but the illegal drug markets continues to expand even as illicit crops are destroyed, drug users imprisoned, illicit labs dismantled, and drug shipments seized. The continent is also contending with an economical, political and security threat in relation to illegal drugs. There is also a stretch on health facilities as the continent cannot address the growing number of chronic drug users. This means that the drug crisis should be addressed urgently and a new direction in drug policy is needed in the continent.

The multinational nature of criminal networks makes it very difficult for any individual country to have visibility on an entire narcotics network. So a continental and pan-African approach to the crisis should be utilised because “it takes a network to defeat a network.” All regions of the continent should bolster their intelligence-led cross-border law enforcement to curb supply and production of illicit drugs, targeting traffickers rather than users. Regional and global mechanisms must also show flexibility in responding to the ever changing tactics of drug networks. Attention should also be paid to rebuilding trust in government institutions because when security institutions are corrupt and lack the confidence of citizens, they become prone to abuse by crime syndicates working in league with unethical officials.


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