West Africa: Understanding the Nature and Threats of Drug Trafficking to National and Regional Security in West Africa


Since the 1990s, West Africa has become a major transit and repackaging hub for cocaine and heroin originating from the Latin American and Asian producing areas to European markets.

Drug trafficking is far from new to the region. However, the phenomenon rapidly expanded in the mid-2000s as a result of a strategic shift of Latin American drug syndicates towards the rapidly growing European market and in response to more robust U.S. anti-narcotics strategies. This strategic shift led the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to state in 2008 that '... the crisis of drug trafficking ... is gaining attention. Alarm bells are ringing ... West Africa has become a hub for cocaine trafficking. This is more than a drugs problem. It is a serious security threat' (UNODC 2008: 1).

West Africa presents an ideal geographical choice for the narcotics trade. First, it serves as a logistical transit center for drug traffickers: its geography, particularly, Guinea Bissau with its numerous uninhabited islands and archipela goes makes detection difficult and facilitates transit; the region boasts well-established networks of West African smugglers and crime syndicates, leading international analysts to conclude in 2004 that there are definitive African criminal networks emerging; and a vulnerable political environment that creates opportunities for such operations. In several countries, civil wars, insurgency operations, and coups d'etat have led to diminishing human capital, social infrastructure and productive national development assets. They have also generated instability, with an increase in the number of armed groups operating in the region and an increase in flows of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Instability in North Africa has also seen flows of heavier weapons entering through the Sahel region (Aning and Amedzrator 2012). As in the case of Mali, drug traffickers have often exploited such instability to further their own interests. While violence on the scale of Latin American drug trafficking is yet to manifest itself, the potential for the drug trade to become a source of violent political competition in some countries nonetheless exists.

More recently, and as reports on drug use in the region increase, experts have highlighted the human security threats posed by drug trafficking, for which institutions and policy makers are particularly ill-prepared to respond to. One of the main challenges lies in the fact that the predominant approach to drug trafficking in the region to date has been based on the international narcotics control regime which is centered on stemming the supply of drugs through law enforcement efforts. Limited focus has been placed on the health and developmental aspects of the spill over effects of drug trafficking, which over time could constitute a greater security threat to West Africa than currently acknowledged.

Over the past few years, the UN Security Council has periodically discussed the growing threat posed by drug trafficking in Africa, and more recently, West Africa and the Sahel Region. The latter has led to the adoption of several important UN Security Council Presidential Statements (PRSTs) in which the UN Secretary-General was urged to consider mainstreaming the issue of drug trafficking as a factor in conflict prevention strategies, conflict analysis, integrated missions' assessment and planning and peace building support. In February 2012, the president of the Council issued a statement '... calling for system-wide United Nations action to help combat the spread of illicit weapons and drug trafficking, piracy and terrorist activity in a cross-section of fragile countries already struggling to overcome the consequences of years of civil war and instability.' The Secretary-General's July 2012 report on the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA) activity stated that the region continues to be a transit point for cocaine and heroin and countries in the region are not prepared to deal with the related rising consumption rates. The existence of trafficking routes through the Sahel has also generated concern, because it remains outside the control of most government forces, elevating the fear that insurgent and terrorist groups reap the rewards of trafficking there.

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