The Failure of the ‘War on Drugs’: Drug Trafficking in West Africa

As the West Africa Commission’s on Drugs (WACD) report asserts, since the mid-2000s drug offences have ‘taken on a dimension that threatens the security, governance and development trajectory’ of the West African countries. The convergence of international drug cartels and diverse West African criminal networks has played a major role in political upheavals, such as those processed in Guinea-Bissau and Mali, and contributes to the funding of extremist groups in some of the poorest areas in West Africa. It is estimated that the yearly values of cocaine transiting through West Africa at US$ 1.25 billion – significantly more than the annual national budgets of several countries in the region. With the intention to reduce the demand on drugs in West Africa, WACD has emphasized the need of decriminalized drug offences.

It is evident that the absence of drug treatment policies in West Africa poses significant public health risks and aggravates existing health challenges such as the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. For instance, according to the WACD, some 1.8 million people inject drugs in Sub-Saharan Africa of whom 221,000 were living with HIV. Nevertheless, even when having these numbers in mind, it still has been less accurate that the only effective way to undermine drug trafficking is inherent to decriminalization. An over-reliance on interdiction of minor offences has led to over-crowded prisons, increases in violent crime, human rights violations, and, in some cases, even to repressive state policies conducted with the use of military means. It is for this reason that the criminalization of drug-related crimes has proven to be completely ineffective. In countries such as Guinea, where there is no dedicated drug law, the option to either fine or imprison those found guilty of drug related offences provides drug traffickers with an opportunity to avoid a prison sentence by paying a fine, and also fuels corruption within the judiciary.

Traffickers find it relatively easy to establish and operate informal social networks, reshaping the relationships between and among political and security actors.

In fact, the presence of corrupted government officials can be considered as one of the key reasons why drug trafficking is succeeding in the West African region. For example, when in 2005 Columbian drug traffickers financed the re-election campaign of Guinea-Bissau’s President João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira, the governance of the country became inherent to corruption and involvement in the drug trade. By April 2012, after yet another military coup, drug trafficking developed into the key economic activity of the country’s military elite. Thus it seems that traffickers find it relatively easy to establish and operate informal social networks, reshaping the relationships between and among political and security actors. As the WACD report indicates, one of the crucial sources of weakness is ‘that elections […] are not publicly funded in most of West Africa. In many cases, candidates tend to ‘own’ parties, funding them from private resources’. This inevitably leads to the creation of electoral processes which are vulnerable to corruption by drug money.

Therefore, an appropriate balance between the protection of human rights and the existing preference for criminalizing all manner of drug-related activities is essentially needed. As the WACD notes, this necessity can be achieved and then eventually preserved only ‘by harmonizing legislation developed on the basis of existing and emerging standards in which the protection of the security, health, human rights and well-being of all people is the central goal’. In order to transform this goal into a realizable one, the WACD report calls on governments in the region to pursue the following recommendations:

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 decriminalization 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.

Flow of cocaine through West Africa, 2010
Flow of cocaine through West Africa, 2010

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