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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Not just in transit: Drugs, the state and society in West Africa

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Deeply concerned by the growing threats of drug trafficking and consumption in West Africa, Kofi Annan, chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation and former secretary-general of the United Nations, convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) in January 2013. The Commission’s objectives are to mobilise public awareness and political commitment around the challenges posed by drug trafficking; develop evidence-based policy recommendations; and promote regional and local capacity and ownership to manage these challenges.

 Chaired by former president Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, the commission comprises a diverse group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary. The Commission is an independent body and can therefore speak with impartiality and directness. This report is the culmination of one and a half years of engagement by the Commission with national, regional and international parties including the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It is informed by a series of background papers, drafted by leading experts from Africa and beyond


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Report summary

This report examines the increase in drug trafficking and consumption in West Africa and their impact on the state and on society. It concludes with recommendations on how the region can respond humanely, effectively and preemptively to these problems.


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A new hub for global traffickers

 In an increasingly interconnected world, West Africa has become an attractive destination for transnational organised crime. Drug cartels have collaborated with local partners to turn the region into a significant transit route to Europe and North America for illicit drugs produced in South America and Asia. West Africa has long produced cannabis, mainly for local consumption, but is now also becoming a producer and exporter of synthetic drugs such as amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS).

The drugs trade is currently valued at hundreds of millions of dollars in West Africa, a region where the majority of the countries are still among the poorest in the world. The growth in drug trafficking comes as the region is emerging from years of political conflict and, in some countries, prolonged violence. This instability has left a legacy of fragile state institutions and weak criminal justice systems that are vulnerable to infiltration and corruption by organised crime, and are hard pressed to keep up with the quickly adapting skills of the traffickers.

The growth of trafficking has been accompanied by increasing local consumption of illicit drugs. In the absence of reliable data, it is not possible to report exactly how many people are affected and how many of those who use drugs are dependent. But there is little doubt that consumption is increasing and that the region is neither prepared nor equipped to deal with the problem.


Trafficking is undermining states that were already weak

Drug trafficking networks have established footholds in West African countries by exploiting already weak governance systems and loopholes in legislation. They also benefit from extensive networks of enablers and fixers in the formal and informal sectors, which provide them easy access to airports, ports, storage and transport facilities, communication systems and official documentation. As elsewhere, successful interdiction efforts in some countries have not stopped the flow of drugs. They have just led to a temporary abatement in trafficking in a given country, or displaced it elsewhere in the region.

The drug trade has also led to an increase in money laundering in the region. Despite progress in establishing effective anti-money laundering regimes, the needs still outweigh capacity, resources, and in some instances, political resolve.

Interdiction efforts, though improving, are hampered by capacity constraints and interference by the well-connected. A tendency to focus on numbers of seizures and arrests masks the failure to counter the drug-related activities of individuals in positions of public trust who do most harm to society. As a result, it is mostly small-time dealers, users or couriers who are arrested.

The criminalisation of drug use and possession places significant pressure on already overburdened criminal justice systems. It can also incite corruption within the judiciary and the police; provoke violence and human rights violations, while also blighting the future prospects of those detained for relatively minor offences. Lastly, it can drive major disease epidemics such as HIV and hepatitis C. In the light of these unintended consequences, the current practice of criminalising every aspect of the drug trade should be abandoned.

In some countries, the ruling elite, the security services or extremist groups have competed – sometimes violently – for access to the spoils of drug trafficking, deepening political instability. Such drug-related violence has not become a major feature of the drug trade in West Africa.

Lessons from other regions, where weak governance systems and underdevelopment or neglect by government of impoverished regions have coincided with an increase in drug trafficking, indicate that West Africa may well face such situations in the future.

The link between traffickers and extremists appears more opportunistic than ideological. Militarising the response is not the answer, as it could increase the political leverage and popular appeal of groups that traffic drugs, and spur more violence, as has happened elsewhere.


A major threat to public health is going untreated

The passage of cocaine, heroin and ATS through West Africa is leading to increased use, especially among younger generations. The real extent of drug use – particularly problematic drug use – is still largely unknown, although there are strong indications that it is increasing and creating additional health problems.

Every country has an interest in reducing drug demand and preventing new drug use. Yet, the experience of the past decades has shown that efforts are better expended by targeting problematic drug use, not least because it accounts for the largest share of the demand.

Decriminalising drug use is one of the most effective ways to reduce problematic drug use as it is likely to facilitate access to treatment for those who need it. However, the absence of drug treatment policies in West Africa, notably for people with problematic use, poses significant public health risks, potentially aggravating existing health challenges such as the spread of HIV.

Research has consistently shown that investments in treatment and harm reduction services can lead to economic and social benefits far in excess of the resources invested.

But across West Africa, even the most basic drug-related health and treatment services are scarce. Most services are provided by psychiatric hospitals, which may be overcrowded and not have specialised drug dependence services, or by traditional healers and faith-based facilities, which have been reported in many places to use scientifically unsound methods and even methods that are cruel or inhumane. Available facilities are generally poorly funded, and few have adequate numbers of personnel with skills and experience in managing substance use disorders.

This situation exists in part due to a glaring absence of treatment policies, standards and monitoring systems that regulate the delivery of services in these facilities. It is also due to the fact that people who use drugs are often heavily stigmatised, and are deemed as not meriting the expenditure of state resources.


The principal recommendations

Through its regional partnerships, notably the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union (AU), West Africa already has a solid inter-governmental framework for responding to drug trafficking and drug use. External bilateral and multilateral partners, as well as the United Nations, are also stepping up their support. However, given the multi-faceted nature of the drug problem, future progress will require enhanced cooperation between governments, specialised services and civil society in the producing, transit and consumer countries. Hence the Commission’s recommendations are both multidimensional and addressed to all who have an interest in strengthening West Africa’s commitment and capacity to manage the critical problems that stem from the growth of drug trafficking and consumption in the region.

The report calls on governments and other stakeholders in the region and beyond to:

1. Treat drug use as a public health issue with socio-economic causes and consequences, rather than as a criminal justice matter;

2. Actively confront the political and governance challenges that incite corruption within governments, the security services and the judiciary, which traffickers exploit;

3. Develop, reform and/or harmonise drug laws on the basis of existing and emerging minimum standards and pursue decriminalisation of drug use and low-level non-violent drug offences;

4. Strengthen law enforcement for more selective deterrence, focusing on highlevel targets;

5. Avoid militarisation of drug policy and related counter-trafficking measures, of the kind that some Latin American countries have applied at great cost without reducing supply;

6. Ensure that the shared responsibility of producer, transit and consumer countries is translated into operational strategies, including the sharing of experience among leaders from affected countries within and beyond West Africa;

7. Balance external assistance between support for security and justice efforts on the one hand, and support for public health efforts on the other, particularly with regard to the provision of treatment and harm reduction services;

8. Invest in the collection of baseline data (including citizen surveys) and research on drug trafficking and drug consumption.


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