UN releases threat assessment of organised crime in West Africa

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has released a report about drugs in West Africa, and how their presence is destabilising the region. Almost a third of the countries in West Africa have experienced a coup d’état in the last four years. The largest problem that the UNODC identifies is the fact that West Africa is a transit point for cocaine. Traffickers smuggle in cocaine from Latin America (mainly Brazil) which is then smuggled to Europe, where cocaine is even more expensive than it is in the US. The UNODC claims that the entire military budget of many West African countries is less than the wholesale price of a ton of cocaine in Europe.

As rival criminal organisations struggle to control a region which is crucial for their business, the rule of law has begun to retreat. Although there’s no evidence, it is quite possible that the rebellion in northern Mali is partly funded by drug money. The UNODC is also concerned about the amount of methamphetamine being produced in the region, which is then sold in East Asia and South Africa. Drugs are “both a cause and a consequence of weak governance”.

The UNODC has claimed one success though: the flow of cocaine through West Africa has gone down from 47 tons in 2007 to 18 tons. But how confident are they that this is correct? Illegal drug trafficking is by its very nature shadowy, so the only way they could arrive at those figures is by measuring how much cocaine has been discovered by the authorities. How do we know the actual flow of cocaine is drying up? What if the authorities have become more incompetent at finding drugs, or if the criminals have become better at hiding them?

The UNODC estimates that 3000 West Africans smuggled crystal meth into East Asian countries via air travel in 2010. But again, this is at best an educated guess.

To demonstrate the problems in West Africa, the UNODC point out that many West Africans are arrested for drug trafficking outside of Africa. For example in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Portugal, native West Africans make up more than a quarter of the foreign cocaine traffickers that were arrested in 2011. And 150 West African crystal meth couriers were caught in East Asia in 2010. But there’s a distinct possibility that the police in these countries are singling out West Africans for searches – in other words, that these statistics are the result of racial profiling.

It’s not only the statistics that the UNODC produce that are dubious – so are their recommendations: “Unless the flows of contraband are addressed, instability and lawlessness will persist, and it will remain difficult to build state capacity and the rule of law in the region.” That is, West African states need to do more of the same until it starts to work. But as long as there is demand for drugs, there will be drug trafficking. Perhaps the best way to prevent it from causing chaos would be to bring it into the light of day?

If you want to read the report for yourself, click here.