Cocaine wraps seized by police in Benin. Image via
At the end of June, the United Nations held its annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Yury Fedotov, head of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, marked the occasion with a speech. It wasn't packed with surprises; turns out Afghanistan is still the world's largest opium producer, the legal-highs market is still booming, and the planet's governments still aren't winning the war on drugs.
However, Fedotov did make an interesting point about the emerging cocaine market, mainly in western Africa. “In Africa, [cocaine] consumption appears to be growing,” he announced, before asserting—worryingly—that this noted increase in “drug trade and organized crime is fueling economic and political instability in Africa.” As a planet," Fedotov said, "we must not allow illicit drugs to slow down development on the continent and the international community must lend assistance to those countries that are particularly blighted by coke and its sociopolitical side-effects: corruption, gang warfare, addiction, crime, illness, poverty, etc."
What Yury failed to acknowledge, though, is that the UN’s policies are partially—if inadvertently—responsible for the rise in Africa's drug problems. The heavy policing on traditional cocaine routes from South America has caused the smugglers to pivot and instead use countries like Ghana and Nigeria to get their product through to European customers.
I spoke to Adeolu Ogunrombi from the West African Commission On Drugs, an organization paying serious attention to this issue, and asked him what the situation is like on the ground. Given that the next image in this article is of a very serious-looking man holding a massive gun, I think we can assume that the situation on the ground isn't a great one.
Malian soldiers on a training exercise with US troops. Photo via
VICE: So, Adeleolu. Where does all this cocaine come from?
Adeleolu Ogunrombi: The cocaine comes from Latin America, over the Atlantic and through West Africa toward its intended customers in Europe.
And is this really a new smuggling route?
The West African route has been exploited for a long time, but what we’ve witnessed in the last decade is an increase in the volume of drugs passing through the region as transnational drug cartels collaborate with local criminal and smuggling networks, corrupt officials, and terrorists to transport their goods to Europe and North America. The traditional routes are being policed more heavily, so the traffickers find alternatives.
Is this having any effect on the use of cocaine in the area?
Yes, the consumption of cocaine and other hard drugs in the area is increasing. This affects most of the countries within the region, from Mali to Cape Verde, Nigeria to Sierra Leone, and Ghana to Guinea-Bissau. The 2013 World Drug Report showed Nigeria topping the list of hard drug consumers in Africa, with a very high level of cocaine use.
And you think that increase is because of the trafficking? You're saying that there are "spillover" markets?
Yes. As the drugs are trafficked through the countries, some of the product inevitably finds its way into the local supply. According to the UNODC, about 30 percent of trafficked drugs are consumed locally. Because of the increase in availability, the drugs are becoming more affordable and accessible. For example, a hit of crack cocaine is about $2 or $3—a price much more suited to the area.
This has created all sorts of problems, including an increase in the number of people who are addicted and the number of injecting drug users. Young people are increasingly being affected, too.
An HIV awareness message in Simonga village, Zambia. Photo via
If you’ve got people injecting drugs, you’re going to have a problem with the spread of HIV and AIDS through dirty needles. Do you feel that West Africa has the facilities to deal with any increase in addicts caused by these new trafficking routes?
That’s a big challenge at the moment, because the infrastructure isn't there and harm reduction services are next to nonexistent. Law enforcement within the region still embraces a punitive approach. There was a recent case in Ghana, which was also reported in the print media, of a young man who was caught smoking marijuana. Police shot him dead during their efforts to arrest him.
Jesus. Who's doing the trafficking?
I can’t really give you a list of all the people involved, but we've had reported cases of people from Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil. Cartels from these countries then meet local contacts in the West African countries who know the area.
If you look at all of the violence in Mexico—the drug cartels fighting among themselves, civilians getting hurt and killed, and the political process being undermined—do you worry about that happening in West Africa?
Of course. You can look at the situation in Latin America as guidance; everyone is fighting for control of the region, and competing for powerful positions because of the huge amount of money they get from the trade. Such a situation may arise in West Africa as well if the necessary measures aren't put in place. Bare in mind, too, that the value of the cocaine passing through the region is far higher than the national budgets of some of the transit countries themselves.
Do you, like Yury Fedotov, think organizations such as yours need more funding?
Definitely. But it’s not just that. While many people allude to the growing challenge of drug trafficking and consumption within the region, it is yet to be one of the main agendas of many governments and institutions within West Africa. Not many people know about the gravity of the situation, how it is undermining security, governance, and development as a whole—no one is talking about it.
So you need money to raise awareness?
Yes, and the right approach to drug control in general. At the moment we stick with the traditional tactic, the indicators of which are the number of arrests, the number of drug seizures, etc. Whereas our progress should be measured by the number of people in need of drug treatment who are able to access it without fear of arrest or coercion, the number of new cases of drug-related HIV being averted—things to do with health rather than crime.
So it’s not the drugs that are the main concern, it's the laws that are triggering worse problems?
I'd say so, yes. The laws themselves are what are causing problems all over the world. When you’re driving the drug user population underground by making their habit illegal and putting the trade completely in the hands of criminal groups, the social harms produced are much greater than the harms of the drugs themselves.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
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