Drug Trafficking in West Africa

The West African drug trade is one of the most well-established and expanded drug markets in the world.  According to two UNODC reports, the first released in December of 2007 and the second in October of 2008, cocaine is smuggled through every country in the region and at least 50 tons of cocaine from Latin America are entering West Africa  every year. West Africa is currently the main intermediary in the cocaine trade between Latin America and Europe. The global cocaine trade has been going under some changes: South American drug traders choose to target the European Market, instead of the North American, and for their target West Africa is the perfect place to develop smuggling networks. Here are some scary facts that the UNODC reports reveal:

• At least 33 tons of cocaine have been seized on route to Europe via West Africa since 2005.
• It is estimated that 40 tons (27%) of the cocaine consumed annually in Europe is currently transiting West Africa.
• West African cocaine seizures were more than 60 times higher in the first three quarters of 2007 than they were in the year of 2002.
• European cocaine demand is presently between 135 and 145 tons per year.
• Most of the cocaine enters Africa through Guinea-Bissau, which is one of the world’s poorest regions and one of the most severely affected countries by the drug trade. After entering Guinea-Bissau or Ghana, the cocaine is smuggled to Europe by boat or commercial flights to France, the United Kingdom and Spain.

Why is drug trafficking so expanded in this particular region? This question is quite complicated, but there are some obvious reasons for which West Africa is the champion in drug trade in an international level. The most obvious reason is the total absence of the rule of law. Drug traffickers operate with impunity in a corrupt environment, where justice is an unknown word. West African politics are based on bribe and personal interest and political campaigns are funded and affected by drug money. However, it is highly possible that  there are some officials who are concerned about the impunity and the paralysis of the law, but they are often faced with powerful,  corrupt networks that do not allow them to take any action in order to change the situation.

The absence of the rule of law, coupled with institutional and structural weaknesses, unemployment, the lack of education and poverty makes West African countries the ideal place for drug traffickers to begin with. It is much easier for drug networks to operate in countries where chaotic conditions prevail and where they know they are not going to get easily caught. The 2007 UNODC report reveals that even when the international drug traffickers are arrested in West Africa, they are almost never sentenced. Guinea-Bissau is the best example, since there is no jail at all for the international traffickers.

Apart from the structural and legal deficiencies, West Africa also suffers from a problematic, dysfunctional value system. The West African population has a certain ambition to get rich through the wrong means, in other words places huge value in acquiring wealth not through hard work, transparency, and fair institutions, but through illegality, fraud, dirty money and complete immorality. This tendency might of course have other reasons, mainly historical, which are not to be explored here. What matters in this instance are the destructive results of this massive drug trade for the people and the future of those countries and all the rest linked with them.

One good example of the dramatic consequences of the drug trafficking are those Africans who are used as drug mules by the Heads of the drug trade- or the ‘drug barons’ as they are called. According to OnlineNigeria.com, many Nigerians, used as drug mules, who are usually in desperate need of money, travel to China and other countries with the illusion that the country they travel to is simply a transit point and that they will finally get to the countries they were told to by their ‘bosses’, countries such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. What usually happens is that all these Africans are detained in the countries they thought of as ‘transit’, without being able to seek legal help. In most occasions they suffer mistreatment, violence and humiliation from the authorities. Many of them end up dying in prison, just because they were immigrants and caught with a certain amount of drugs. And what happens to the ‘drug barons’? Usually nothing. They keep on doing what they know well, in collaboration with whole political and societal networks. It is always the weak who pays the price- this is the rule of law in corrupt and unequal societies.

Money laundering, collaboration of politicians and drug traffickers, corrupted systems, political instability, all are linked together in a cycle of an extreme illegality. In fact, political campaigns in many occasions are fully funded by drug barons! The black market takes advantage of the illegality, raises the prices of drugs to the maximum and the result is huge profit and dirty money. But why is this so? The UN keeps talking about security enforcement, strict responses to illicit drugs, punishing the traffickers, restitution of justice, development and economic reform. What if one of the answers to this corrupted system is decriminalization and regulation of drugs? What if illegality causes the whole problem? Security, justice and development cannot be enforced if drugs remain illegal, because all the people, groups and networks that base their funding on the illegal drug trade, will continue to make dirty money, even if institutions and structures seem to be externally changed. The more arrests, imprisonment, drug seizures and controls are applied, the more underground drug operations will keep on taking place and the more the black market will prevail. Through the adoption of a drug policy that decriminalizes and regulates drugs, the first step against money laundering will be done.

The new state of affairs that has to be established in those countries needs to contain an effective drug policy, based on harm reduction strategies and focused on targeting the corrupt and dangerous drug traffickers and at the same time healing the victims through different harm reduction programs. It is important to bear in mind that harsh, sharp, punitive drug policies will aggravate the current situation instead of improving it. It is always crucial to distinguish between the criminals and the innocent and drug policy must be carefully designed, so as to create safe networks of lives for the people affected by drugs and promote justice.

Reforming the systems of so many countries with such a tradition in corrupted drug networks and with a present of complete absence of the rule of law is definitely a painful and difficult mission, but if sustainable networks of employment, health and security are gradually built, through an effective drug policy reform, the future of these countries will have a chance of improving and the lives of millions of people will be radically changed.