As if West Africa doesn't have enough hurdles to surmount, the rise of massive, powerful and wealthy organized crime syndicates now illicitly trafficking narcotic across West Africa has thrown yet another dangerous ingredient into the already lengthy and 'toxic brew' of threats plaguing the region.
The rise in drug trafficking, including an increase in local drug production and consumption, is fast becoming a mighty adversary to overcome in the pursuit of peace, stability and security in West Africa. It is a challenge that requires a coordinated and multi-pronged solution. It also requires the active involvement of civil society actors across the region.
In early February, Ghana's Vice President Kwesi Amissah-Arthur inaugurated the West Africa Commission on Drugs. Convened by Kofi Annan and chaired by the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the Commission plans to examine ways to crack down on drug trafficking and prioritize grappling with drug trafficking's impacts on West Africa.
The establishment of the Commission is welcomed and its inauguration timely.
Trans-shipment of illicit narcotics from Latin America through to West Africa and onwards to Europe has increased significantly. Since 2008, the volume of cocaine transiting through West Africa has soared to around 50 tons a year - worth an estimated US$2 billion. Nearly 50 percent of all non-US bound cocaine or about 13 percent of the entire global flow is now smuggled through West Africa.
But the region is not only a trans-shipment zone, local production and consumption are also on the rise - especially among its burgeoning youth population. Over 70 percent of the sub-region's estimated 300 million people are under the age of 35. The vast majority have limited education and are unemployed or working in the informal sector. Lack of employment opportunities or reliable income put youth in precarious positions where they may be vulnerable to involvement in the drug-trade and drug use itself.
In desperate and troubling circumstances, drugs offer a means of escaping the harsh realities of everyday life.
Apart from the damaging effects of drug use on West Africans, related offences such as corruption and money laundering have also had a severe impact on the socio-economic development and governance of the region. Drug-related corruption and money laundering accentuate the chronic poverty in many West African states by disrupting effective economic governance. In a number of countries, the profits from trafficked drugs exceed the gross national income.
Rampant drug trafficking empowers criminal elements, weakens state institutions, perverts the criminal justice system, and hijacks prosecutors, police officers, and judges. Drug traffickers do not simply undermine governments, they also use illicit money to acquire - and in some cases seize - political and economic power and then wield this power in the most outrageous and scandalous manner.
A lot of time and resources have been invested in trying to combat this scourge. The African Union (AU) has just developed its fourth revised plan of action. This new 2013-2017 policy on drug control seeks to strengthen continental and international cooperation and further integrate drug control issues into national legal and institutional frameworks.
As for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - it set up a regional fund for financing drug control activities in West Africa way back in 1998. Ten years later, ECOWAS adopted the Praia Plan of Action and the Abuja Declaration to address the security threats posed by drug trafficking in the sub-region. All of these initiatives have had very limited success.
At the national level, almost all ECOWAS states have adopted National Integrated Programmes (NIPs). Many states have amended their drug trafficking and consumption legislation, empowered their judicial authorities, established new drug enforcement agencies and imposed stiffer penalties for offenders. These have fared no better than the regional efforts.
The obvious question is: why have these plans and policies continued to fall short?
Many factors may help explain the failure. Poor implementation, lack of funding, and focusing solely on toughening punitive measures are all reasons to consider. Most policies have not adopted a multi-pronged approach. In addition, apart from the absence of political will and a clear vision from West Africa's leaders, there has been an inability to mobilize a critical mass of the population to actively participate in the process - from inception to implementation, through to monitoring and review.
At the regional and national levels, the failure to educate the populace and to build alliances with civil society, non-governmental and community-based organisations have been major missing elements in the fight against the use and trafficking of narcotics.
Most governments continue to treat the drug problem as the exclusive domain of the state. Mere lip service is paid to engaging civil society. Civil society, including NGOs and community-based organizations, has an important role to play in raising awareness and educating citizens. Only token efforts have been made to provide information about the health, socio-economic, and security problems associated with drug trafficking and consumption. In many countries, citizens remain unaware of the harmful impact of drugs and continue to idolize the drugs lords and dream of amassing their vast wealth and of cruising around in flashy 'Hummers' as so many drug barons do.
Most civil society groups currently lack the necessary expertise to make a meaningful contribution to this fight. There is an urgent need to strengthen the capacity of civil society to monitor and report on drug trafficking and other related crimes and to help implement the various regional and national action plans. Civil society groups can engage the public - including influential religious and traditional leaders - and help facilitate public debate. Both steps can make a huge difference in educating people about the impact of drugs.
In most instances, policies have been driven by external considerations. Civil society can help to reverse this trend and ensure that local perspectives are heard and that initiatives are locally owned.
The new West Africa Commission on Drugs has set as one of its key objectives to mobilize public opinion and catalyse political support for further action at national, regional and international levels before drug-fuelled problems become totally unmanageable. In other parts of the world, civil society-led efforts have helped to change social norms and contribute to real progress on some of these critical issues.