The Global Drugs Trade Finds a Profitable Hub in West Africa

1,660kg of cocaine was found in Guinea-Bissau in September 2019, in one of Africa’s biggest drug seizures. The drugs, found in a bungalow outside Canchungo, Guinea-Bissau, was seized with another 250kg of cocaine found in a couple of houses nearby.

Three Colombians, a Mexican and eight other people were arrested at the scenes of the crime. A further eighteen cars were seized, along with a speedboat. The drugs were headed for Europe, where the UN World Drug Report 2019 has recorded increased cocaine use, alongside North America.

Earlier in March, Guinea-Bissau police seized 800kg of cocaine in the country known as “smuggler’s paradise”. Poverty and corrupt, dysfunctional judicial systems have left West Africa increasingly prone to drug smuggling rings.

More than a decade ago, Colombian drug cartels arrived in West Africa. Their purpose was to turn the region into a transit hub for cocaine being imported from Latin America and into Europe. Africa’s political instability has also left citizens vulnerable to the drug smuggling trade.

‘The fact of the matter is that without assistance, Guinea-Bissau is at the mercy of wealthy, well-armed and technologically advanced narcotics traffickers,’ said the Consultancy Africa Intelligence agency.

A senior official at the US’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) said: “Geographically, West Africa makes sense. The logical thing is for the cartels to take the shortest crossing over the ocean to West Africa, by plane – to one of the many airstrips left behind by decades of war, or by drop into the thousands of little bays – or by boat all the way. A ship can drop anchor in waters completely unmonitored, while fleets of smaller craft take the contraband ashore.

“A place like Guinea Bissau is a failed state anyway, so it’s like moving into an empty house.

“There is no prison in Guinea-Bissau. One rusty ship patrols a coastline of 350km, and an archipelago of 82 islands. The airspace is un-patrolled. The police have few cars, no petrol, no radios, handcuffs or phones.

“You walk in, buy the services you need from the government, army and people, and take over. The cocaine can then be stored safely and shipped to Europe, either by ship to Spain or Portugal, across land via Morocco on the old cannabis trail, or directly by air using ‘mules’.”

The global drugs trade is an incredibly complex, illicit industry. Law enforcement worldwide have found it impossible to control this industry, because of its complexity.

From the farmers who feed their families growing cocaine to the law enforcement officers who turn a blind eye for a ‘cut’ of the profits, to the everyday citizen in Europe – including wealthy, powerful people, some politicians – who abuse the drugs, the drug chain is too long and too complex to be defeated.

The United States would finally admit to this impossibility when different states began legalising recreational marijuana use, starting with Colorado in 2012. Unfortunately, this war on drugs would come at a huge cost to the country’s African American population who were deliberately criminalised for decades, by the US government, for using and selling marijuana.

In Europe, the rhetoric of blame continues to be used when talking about drug trafficking in Africa. News reports fully blame the lack of police equipment and social infrastructure that have attracted Latin American drug lords to operate in the area. Yet, West Africa’s drug trafficking would not be catalysed if demand from Europe didn’t make drug trafficking extremely profitable.

This is a rhetoric of power: the people who use the drugs from safe distances are allowed to point fingers at those who grow, make and traffic the drugs in unsafe, dangerous and, many times, hopeless conditions.

In 2011, Matthew S. Jenner, from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law would argue against criminalising drug trafficking.

“Forty years ago, the world declared war on drugs,” he wrote. “Today, after decades of failing to adequately control drug consumption, an even graver problem has emerged: violent drug traffickers have taken the industry hostage and will stop at nothing to preserve their power.

“Governments have instituted dozens of programs to dismantle the illicit drug industry, but they have seen only marginal success.”

In 2009, the West Africa Coast Initiative (WACI) was launched by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (DPA/UNOWAS), Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and The International Crime Police Organization (INTERPOL).

Its goal is to use force to “address the menace of transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking.” It is operational in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Cote D’Ivoire.

“All the venues are being screened to expand the WACI programme implementation beyond the initial five targeted States, to serve as a model for all ECOWAS members,” its website states.

The presence of WACI in these countries will only serve to make drug traffickers more crafty in their trade, and government officials more prone to corruption.

The global drugs trade is “one of the top five largest industries in the world after the arms trade”. Rather than making forceful attempts to squash this globalised and heavily-profitable network, Africa’s biggest challenge would be to fix the sociopolitical and economic problems drawing its local population to this industry.

The future of the African Union is dependent on the continent achieving its aims to “promote sustainable development at the economic, social and cultural levels” and to “promote peace, security, and stability on the continent”.

The ENACT transnational organised crime programme’s research and analysis of Africa’s drug trade, policy, and future consumption trends reveals that sub-Saharan Africa will see the globe’s biggest surge in illicit drug users in the next 30 years, caused by organised crime and ineffective policy. With one in four people in the world predicted to be African by that time, the AU must hasten to achieve its sociopolitical and economic aims by its 2063 deadline.

West Africa’s opiate crisis, today, is an example of bigger problems to come if the AU does not meet its objectives. The same problems that caused West Africa’s drug trafficking boom are the same problems that will continue to exacerbate the problem unless the root of this continental malaise is addressed.