Drug Use Rising in West Africa

Stephen DeAngelis

August 07, 2008

Until oil was discovered in and around West Africa, that area was best known as the hub of the 18th and 19th century slave trade. In recent years, West Africa has also seen savage civil wars, which has left some countries devastated and in chaos. With relative peace restored and the discovery of oil, people (including criminals) are seeing opportunities to exploit. Where the West sees oil, criminals see what my colleague Tom Barnett calls “seam states.” These are states that have just enough connectivity with the developed world so that they can carry out their nefarious activities, but not so much connectivity that they can’t live comfortably “off the scope” of most law enforcement agencies. The more corrupt the area, the better for them. The latest challenge to confront West Africa is cocaine [“Cocaine Finds Africa,” by Antonio Maria Costa, Washington Post, 29 July 2008].

“West Africa is under attack. The region has become a hub for cocaine smuggling from Latin America to Europe. States that we seldom hear about, such as Guinea-Bissau and neighboring Guinea, are at risk of being captured by drug cartels in collusion with corrupt forces in government and the military.”

As I have repeatedly pointed out, corruption undermines progress more than almost any other challenge faced by countries gripped with poverty. When corruption is found within both the political and security sectors, there is little anyone can do to help that country progress until such corruption is rooted out. The question is who will do the rooting? Unfortunately for some African countries, it looks like corruption is taking deeper root.

“With the exception of cannabis in Morocco, Africa never used to have a drug problem. That has changed, however, in the past five years. Around 50 tons of cocaine are being shipped from the Andean countries to Europe via West Africa every year — and that is a conservative estimate. Actual amounts could be at least five times higher. The volume seized is rising sharply: from 266 kilograms in 2003, to 3,161 in 2006, to 6,458 in 2007. This steep increase will no doubt continue. This month alone, more than 600 kilos were seized in a plane with fake Red Cross markings at the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and at the international airport in Bissau, several hundred boxes were unloaded from a jet. The profiteers in this illicit trade — mostly but not only Latinos — stand out on the streets of West African towns. They drive luxury cars, buy up the best hotels and are building haciendas and other opulent examples of ‘narcotecture.'”

As Latin American countries clean up their acts (see my post about Colombia), the cartels are moving to seam states. Lacking the resources of developed nations, honest local law enforcement officers find themselves out-equipped and out-manned.

“Law enforcement has been helpless against this onslaught. Drug planes don’t have to fly below the radar, because in most cases there is no radar (or electricity). Soldiers sometimes help smugglers by closing airports and unloading the cargo. Police cars run out of gas when giving chase or are left in the dust by smugglers’ all-terrain vehicles. There are no local navies to intercept the ships coming from Latin America or to chase the 2,000-horsepower boats that speed drugs up the coast to Europe. Traffickers are seldom brought to trial; in some cases, there are no prisons to put them in. Even when they are charged, they are usually released because evidence is not collected or needed laws are not in place.”

In my discussions about Development-in-a-Box™, I have stressed that there are certain pre-conditions that must exist before development can take place. Atop that list is security. Too often people think about security just in terms of military might. Law enforcement is an even more important part of the security picture. As Costa points out, security is one reason that the rest of the world should be concerned with what is happening in West Africa.

“Drugs have become a security issue. Drug money is perverting the weak economies of the region. In some cases, the value of the drugs being trafficked is greater than a country’s national income. The influence that this buys is rotting these fragile states; traffickers are buying favors and protection from candidates in elections. Quick intervention by the international community five years ago prevented a crisis in Cape Verde, but the cartels merely shifted their operations to Guinea-Bissau. Now Guinea is under threat; Guinea’s neighbor Sierra Leone could be next. Without a regional response, the problem will move from country to country.”

I often talk about the need for a holistic approach to building a sustainable economy in a developing state. Costa, who is executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, underscores the importance of taking a holistic approach to regional problems as well as national challenges. But she notes that the road ahead is bumpy.

“Containing this threat will not be easy. Poverty is the biggest problem. These countries are the worst performers on the human development index — their populations at the bottom of the ‘bottom billion.’ Unemployed and desperate youths are vulnerable to being recruited as foot soldiers for criminal groups. West African countries must take control of their coasts and airspace. This requires hardware (boats, planes and radar), know-how (investigative techniques and container security) and counter-narcotics intelligence. Some of these capabilities can be developed nationally, but some assistance will have to come from abroad. Cooperation among customs officials, border guards, the police and counter-narcotics agents — at ports and airports, for example — has made Cape Verde a less attractive transit point for drug traffickers. The same approach should be adopted elsewhere. Because the drug trade defies borders, regional cooperation is vital, particularly intelligence-sharing. Stronger legal cooperation among West African nations would enable more effective extradition, mutual legal assistance and confiscation of the proceeds of crime. Working contacts must also be strengthened between countries of origin and destination, in South America and Europe, respectively.”

Costa notes that some nascent efforts have begun but, by themselves, are insufficient to counter the challenges ahead. She harkens back to getting rid of corruption and building local capacities and infrastructures.

“In some cases, mechanisms for intelligence-sharing are under construction. But measures, and even laws, to fight organized crime and corruption will be meaningless without the political will and capacity to implement them. Too often, drugs that are seized disappear instead of being destroyed. Judges, police and witnesses are intimidated. Security forces turn a blind eye or lend a hand to smuggling. The highest authorities must recognize the stakes. Their failure to act is a sign of helplessness or complicity. Political will would be strengthened if regional leaders were rewarded for their integrity and punished for corruption. At the moment, the honest ones feel abandoned and the crooked ones act with impunity. We must reduce vulnerability to drugs and crime with greater development. And greater justice would build faith in the rule of law. West Africa’s drug trafficking problem is still relatively small compared with that of West Asia, the Caribbean or Latin America. But it is growing exponentially and threatens to turn the region into a center of lawlessness. Such instability is the last thing Africa needs. The affected countries and the international community must act before the situation spirals out of control.”

The drug problem is simply another challenge that must be thrown in the mix as the search for solutions continues. These challenges cannot be countered serially but must be attacked simultaneously. Progress must be made in all areas so that the economy and quality of life in all sectors rise in unison. Any other approach will turn out to be more like a “whack-the-varmint” game found in amusement parks. Although tackling a multitude of problems simultaneously is more difficult, it is the only strategy that can maintain sufficient momentum to make real and lasting progress. Unfortunately, the international community has yet to settle on a grand strategy of how to attack these problems, let alone the mechanism for doing so.