West Africa: Drugs and Corruption

"Growing number of organized crime which operates largely with impunity, is breeding corruption, threatening security across region where the value of drugs present is higher than national GDPs of some of the countries". Surprisingly this statement does not refer to Latin and Central America and Asia commonly associated with drug trade. In the last few decades we can observe a drastic increase of illegal activities of this kind in Africa, particularly its western coast. This trend, predominantly applies to the trafficking of cocaine which makes West Africa becoming a key transit hub for drug shipments to Europe.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is becoming increasingly concerned with the rapid development of drug trafficking in Africa. In the 2008 report UNODC claimed that exploding cocaine trade in West Africa is destroying weak economies and corrupting broad sectors of the population – from youth to police, military officers, and senior government officials. In the words of UNODC’s Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa “The threat is spreading rapidly throughout the region, turning West Africa’s Gold Coast into the Coke Coast”.

By large, most of the cocaine enters Africa through Guinea-Bissau and Ghana and is then smuggled to Europe by boat or commercial plane destined for France, the United Kingdom and Spain. With reference to UNODC report, nowadays cocaine is smuggled through every country in the region. Furthermore, UNODC predicts that each year more then 50 tons of this substance find their way to West Africa, worth approximately US2$ billion on the street level (which is more then an annual budget of most West African states). High profitability of drugs trade may have corrupting influence. As assumed by UNODC, present poverty and instability in the region combined with the easy profits from narco-business may have an effect of creating first African “narco-states” with corruption penetrating the high-profile officials and economy relying mainly on drug profits.

Although situation is appalling everywhere in the region it is still possible to identify countries where the present level of drug-related activities is particularity high.  Guinea-Bissau is the most common example with its GDP equal to the value of 6 tons of cocaine in Europe (US$304 million). Omnipresent poverty, unguarded coastline and almost absent rule of law enable traffickers to operate with almost no limits.

As observed by experts from the UNODC, organized crime including the drug trafficking is best facilitated by the involvement of state officials. No matter if active or passive in their actions, politicians, high-rank military authorities and civil servants can largely smooth the path for the traffickers to operate also blurring the line between the state and the organized crime. Although unsurprisingly, officials refrain from pleading guilty when accused of corruption or earning money through drug trade, it is increasingly evident that West African organized crime is commonly relying on the protection of state authorities.

During the last decade, UNODC and other monitoring bodies including media were able to identify several examples of the procedure of this kind. In 2004 a gang of traffickers in Ghana was arrested under the suspicion of smuggling 675 kilograms of cocaine (valued circa US$140 millions). Astonishingly court decided to release them on bail of just US$200,000. Ghanaian researcher Kwesi Aning claims that “even those who work for the Narcotics Control Board … are scared to confront the levels of corruption in the criminal justice system.”  More visible connection between crime and government was recently observed in Guinea-Bissau where a son of former military dictator (Lansana Conte) was arrested. As reveled, drug cartel has enjoyed protections from political figures on the constant basis. In Nigeria (a second most corrupted state in the world according to the 2003 Transparency International Report), a member of Nigerian Federal House of Representatives (Maurice Ibekwe) was accused of financial fraud, forgery and conspiracy. He had served as Chairman of the House Sub-Committee on Police Affairs.

According to UNODC situation is even worse in the states overwhelmed by internal conflict. In Sierra Leone and Liberia it is believed that at least at some point both countries were under the control of organized crime. For example in Sierra Leone, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was powerful enough to force government to share the power with them and legitimizing it by placing its leader Foday Sankoh on the position equivalent to vice-president. Additionally, between 1997 and 1998, power was in hands of Armed Forces Ruling Council which are believed to be pioneers in the inviting global traffickers to the West Africa.

Corruption, which therefore is widely present in the West Africa results in tragic consequences, where state is not able to fight effectively with drug traffickers. To fight this phenomenon, UN is seeking to employ its forces and mobilize other international organizations to quickly react and intervene. Also countries themselves are proposing to implement harsher punishment (including death penalty) for the drug-related offences (situation presently observed in Gambia). Nevertheless it is doubtful if the alarming trend of drug smuggle in West Africa can be reverted until the deep reaching reforms of the judicial systems and, corruption punishment will be established.