West Africa: The Cocaine Coast

This the first in a series of articles on the role of drugs in African society, their impact and the growing use of the continent as a transnational hub for drugs trafficking. Here I will attempt to give an overview of the problem in West Africa and its potential impacts.


The ongoing shift in the international Cocaine trade to and through Africa has become a well documented issue. The growth of seizures in recent years, from below 1000kg in 2002 to over 6500kg by 2009 is highly significant, especially in the somewhat "facilitating" context that is African society and government. The vast majority of these seizures happen in West Africa and although recent levels have dropped there is little to suggest that this is due to a decline in trade, more likely the trade has permeated deeper into society whilst also spreading through the region making seizures less likely. The problem undoubtedly persists as highlighted by statements from the current and former UN secretary-generals speaking out on the vulnerability of the region earlier this year.

According to the UNODC Drug's Report 13% of Europe's Cocaine passed through West Africa, this is a trend that could potentially be on the up. There has been a concerted effort by the UN to police the seas around the region with the establishment of the West Africa Coast Initiative, but with thousands of miles of coastline and limited capacity of local law enforcement means this is a battle that cannot be won on enforcement alone. There also remains one of the key drivers for involvement in the drugs trade, poverty.


Poverty allows organised crime to take advantage of the local population, whilst the people themselves are susceptible to the promises of easily obtained and vastly superior sums of money. Given these two factors alone and the proximity of the region to Europe, a key and growing market for Cocaine, it becomes apparent why organised crime is focusing on West Africa as a trade route. 


Given the vast rise in trafficking over the last decade the major issue is its potential impact on states and society in the region. From a state perspective there are several key impacts, corruption, economic and health. Corruption, a perennial problem in many African states, has the potential to breakdown completely the relationship between officials and society. Officials can become geared to supporting the development of drugs based activities, making profits through their involvement. Officials aiding drug traffickers rather than developing their local communities, the primary relationship is no longer with the people but the drugs traffickers and organised crime. In that situation society and state institutions do not develop, because a stronger state and society would limit the freedom of the drugs trade. This level of corruption can then lead to a spiralling situation of mistrust and underdevelopment, culminating in the collapse of government and social order.

The health effects of society becoming so heavily involved in drugs is of major concern for governments. With such greater quantities of drugs passing through the region it becomes inevitable that local consumption levels will rise. The UNODC report claims that one third of Cocaine that enters West Africa is consumed there. This is a massive rise that has significant knock on effect on society causing family breakdown, a rise in crime and a negative impact on education, all of which in-turn effects the economy and causes a greater reliance on the drugs themselves. There has also been a rise in the use of Heroin in the region, the UNODC report for 2012 shows significant increases in Heroin seizures with a doubling in Nigeria. This shows a worrying trend towards the drug in a region where governments are ill equipped to provide the preventative and treatment based medical care required.

The economic effects too can be disturbing and can be in part attributed to the corruption. The vast majority of the local wealth created is held in the hands of a few and the true profits more realistically go to foreign actors, there is little trickledown effect. National economies can become partly reliant on the drugs trade. There is then little money for actual development and business and of course the state sees none of the profits but still handles the financial burdens associated, making establishing the conditions required to escape this reliance on drugs smuggling all the more difficult.


Having become a somewhat stable corner of the continent in recent years with some of Africa's wealthiest and most democratic nations in Ghana and the Ivory Coast there are worrying signs of how easily this progress can be undone. In April of this year a military coup in Guinea-Bissau took place only two weeks from a second round of democratic elections. Since then an interim government has been established, the Junta are however still in control and a massive rise in the amount of Cocaine entering the country has led many to label the situation a "Cocaine Coup".


In Mali rebellion in the north has left the country divided. Drugs are not seen as a major cause of the conflict, more the returning Tuareg militia hired by former Libya Dictator Colonel Qaddafi, enabling Tuareg rebels with support from Islamist group Ansar Dine to force out the Malian army. But there is great potential for drugs to become a factor in the conflict’s resolution, where the two former allies are now fighting each other. Mali is also in a prime position along the drugs trafficking route to Europe or even east across the Sahara towards Asia. Although there is little evidence that Ansar Dine deal in drugs themselves, it has been suggested that they are facilitating the passage of drugs traffickers taking payment in return. Mali and Guinea-Bissau are two examples of how drug trafficking and the money involved can destabilise a government and region, or provide an opportunity for separatist groups to take advantage of drugs money to consolidate their position. 


There is evidence of the cocaine issue across West Africa. Ghana, a country heralded for its economic and political stability has seen vast amounts of cocaine vanish from courts and an MP attempt to smuggle heroin. This shows the true scale of the problem and its potential to engulf even the democratic and economic stalwarts of the region. 


On the evidence it is clear that the region is under great threat, the weaknesses in state and society coupled with a history of corruption and poverty make for perfect drug trafficking ground. Of the 15 countries that make up the Economic Community of West African States 9 have had civil wars in recent years. These wars have not been created by the drugs trade, but they have established the perfect environment in which it can flourish and damage the regions recovery. However, supported by the UN West Africa is making a concerted and organised effort in trying to turn the tide against the drugs economy. With developing instability in the Sahel, Islamist groups encroaching and an ever growing market in Europe and Asia the battles will however, only intensify.