Why West Africa cannot break its drug habit
- 21 June 2010
- From the section Africa
The recent seizure of more than two tonnes of cocaine, worth an estimated $1bn (about £675m) in The Gambia has once again shone a light on West Africa as a major transit point for narcotics making their way from Latin America to Europe.
However, in the last three years, seizures of narcotics have gone down in the region. The latest figures available from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) show that 5.5 tonnes of cocaine were seized in West and Central Africa in 2007 whereas an unconfirmed 15 tonnes passed through a year previously.
But despite the falling figures, the UNODC and people on the ground in West Africa say that the drugs trade is on the increase.
It is just that the traffickers are getting more sophisticated and the narcotics are getting harder to seize.
"Criminal organisations understood that there was a lot of noise, a lot of talk in the media, so they stood back to assess the risk," says Cyriaque Sobtafo, deputy regional representative of the UNODC in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, referring to the media attention on Guinea-Bissau and Senegal after massive drugs heists in 2006.
"But they saw that the risk hasn't really changed. There has just been a repositioning of the criminal groups - they have changed their way of operating."
This latest haul in the Gambian capital, Banjul, and one in Liberia last month in which four tonnes of Colombian cocaine thought to be en-route to the Unites States were found, suggests that the narcotics trade is alive and well.
Traffickers are using new entry-points and shipping ever-larger quantities of the drug in increasingly innovative ways.
"There was a time last year when narco-traffic slowed right down," says Lucinda Ahukarie, head of the Judiciary Police in Guinea-Bissau.
The small West African country has traditionally been the main point of entry for cocaine because of more than 80 largely uninhabited islands off its coast and the lack of law enforcement capabilities.
"Now it has started again," she says - throwing her hands up, but declines to say why.
Ms Ahukarie has only 204 policemen and a handful of firearms with which to investigate the illegal trade.
The drugs are brought in by cartels from cocaine-producing countries like Colombia and Venezuela by plane across the Atlantic.
Traditionally it was Latin Americans doing the deals but now Russians, Ukrainians, Dutch, Lebanese and Moroccans are thought to be involved, with many more acting as middlemen and agents on the ground.
There are also reports that Nigerians, who use their infamous international criminal networks to disperse the drugs once in Africa, are now working direct with the drug producers in Latin America.
The cartels use politically unstable countries like Guinea-Bissau as a transit point, landing twin-propeller planes on the small landing strips that dot the region.
They bribe officials in the police or military for protection on landing.
The traffickers use ground agents to disperse the drugs across porous African borders and onwards to Europe, either by boat or on commercial flights to Europe with human mules carrying cocaine in their stomachs.
But while many African governments, supported by the European Union, the United Nations and countries like Spain and France, are working to stem the trade, the trafficking methods are getting ever more sophisticated.
In 2009, a few months after the death of Guinea's President Lansana Conte, laboratories and precursor chemicals used to make ecstasy were found in the capital, Conakry, with a street value of about $154m.
Ousmane Conte - son of the late president - admitted to being involved.
In November 2009, a Boeing plane was found abandoned and burned in the desert of northern Mali, thought to have been carrying narcotics.
These factors, say the UNODC, suggest that the traffickers are finding new ways to transport the drugs through West Africa.
What is likely, said one high-level official in Guinea-Bissau who did not want to be named, is that drugs production, like in its larger neighbour Guinea, is going on somewhere deep in the bush.
There is also evidence, he said, that opium is making its way from Afghanistan, through the Middle East and into West Africa on its way to the consumer markets in the United States.
Political instability in places like Guinea-Bissau, whose legal and security frameworks are already dangerously fragile, is crucial for drugs traffickers to keep using the country as a point of entry to valuable consumer markets in Europe.
On 1 April, the military ousted the army chief of staff in Guinea-Bissau and arrested the prime minister, who they later released.
"Those events were all organised by the military to have a free way for bringing in drugs," said a local analyst who asked not to be named.
Large amounts of money are made trafficking drugs through the weak states like The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, but the process does not stop there.
The profits go on to countries with stronger economies, like Senegal and Ivory Coast, to be "cleaned" in formal businesses like bars and in the construction business.
"When Ivory Coast had its war in 2002, all the money-laundering came here," says Alioune Tine, president of the Dakar-based organisation the African Assembly for the Defence of Human Rights (Radho).
He also attributes Dakar's construction boom to the drug-trafficking business.
"When you pay high-ranking officials who are in a position of responsibility low salaries, what you get is corruption."