The twenty-first century expansion of the transnational drug trade in Africa.

AuthorBybee, Ashley Neese

In the last decade, West Africa emerged as a major transit hub for Latin American Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) transporting cocaine to Western Europe. Since that time, there has been cause for hope and despair. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and an array of international donors have made great strides in acknowledging the growing problem of drug trafficking and have implemented practical measures to stem this flow. All the while, the fears of many observers have been confirmed as the insidious effects of the drug trade have begun to take effect in many West African states. Consumption is on the rise and narco-corruption now undermines the rule of law and legitimate economic growth necessary for development and stability. One of the most alarming trends that place Africa and Africans on the radar of policy makers, law enforcement, and researchers alike is the number ornery fronts on which the illicit drug trade is growing. Its geographic expansion beyond the relatively confined region of West Africa is now endangering East and Southern Africa. The arrival of new drugs to the region--heroin and Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS, commonly referred to as synthetic drugs)--has been accompanied by the discovery of local manufacturing facilities to process them. Lastly, the growing level of involvement by Africans--who initially served as facilitators but now appear to be taking a more proactive role--raises concerns that a new generation of African DTOs is rising in the ranks. This paper examines how each of these trends are contributing to the twenty-first century expansion of the drug trade in Africa and summarizes some of the impacts they are having on the states and their populations.


Globalization, which is the integration of regional economies, societies, and cultures, is considered one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century. In addition to multitude of cultural, political, economic, and technological benefits it brings to many fortunate populations, globalization has also brought with it opportunities for the weak, poor, and oppressed to participate in traditionally closed markets. (1) Yet, while globalization has been lauded for fostering free trade and economic prosperity, its so-called dark side has also created opportunities for criminals and nonstate actors to enrich and empower themselves by taking advantage of lucrative illicit markets, or by creating new ones. (2) The forces of globalization and its causes and effects have been well documented and are largely accepted as having facilitated the expansion of licit as well as illicit markets to regions that otherwise would not have enjoyed significant economic activity. (3)

Africa is the exemplar, whose geographic proximity between the source zone and final markets for many illicit goods has contributed to its exploitation by DTOs. (4) In the last decade, the emergence of West Africa as a major transit point for Latin American cocaine en route to Europe has taken the international community by surprise. Europe and the United States, in particular, are concerned for many reasons. (5) From Europe's perspective, it is now experiencing increasing levels of cocaine entering its borders from West Africa, at least partly as a result of highly effective counternarcotics strategies that have concentrated law-enforcement resources on interdicting drugs on commercial air flights from the Caribbean to Europe (primarily the Netherlands Antilles to Amsterdam and Jamaica to London). (6) This strategy has been so effective at disrupting major trafficking routes and deterring couriers that traffickers have been forced to identify new routes to enter Europe where law enforcement is less likely to detect their shipments. (7) From its experience as both a transit zone and a final market for heroin, Europe is all too familiar with the public health and safety issues associated with addiction, crime, prostitution, and violence that typically accompany drug trade. From the United States' perspective, it fears the existence of several anti-American terrorist groups operating in Africa coupled with drug revenues that could cultivate a crime-terrorist nexus, thus threatening its interests in yet another region. (8) Furthermore, since the DTOs operating in West Africa are the same ones that traffic drugs into the United States, Americans view the proceeds of these Africa-based operations as bolstering the strength of those DTOs operating on its southern border with Mexico. (9) All parties are concerned with the destabilizing impacts of the drug trade, including its potential to finance local insurgencies, expand into new illicit markets (such as arms), and its undermining effect on programs that improve governance, anticorruption, accountability, and raise public trust in government institutions. (10)

Today these concerns are more relevant than ever, with new drugs, higher quantities, and an ever-increasing number of transit states now characterizing Africa's drug trade. Despite regional and international counternarcotics programs designed to interdict drugs travelling the African route and build the capacity of local law enforcement institutions to detect trafficking activity and prosecute the offenders, the continent appears to be growing in importance to DTOs. Whereas Africa's involvement in the global drug trade before the mid-2000s was generally limited to West African heroin distribution networks, the last several years has witnessed an unrelenting expansion of the drug trade throughout the continent. Cocaine, synthetics, and increasing amounts of heroin are now transiting Africa where some portion of it stays to satisfy the local market, while the remainder is moved to final destinations in Europe and North America. Regrettably, the growth of transnational organized crime in Africa is not limited to the drug trade. Trafficking in humans, cigarettes, arms, natural resources (most notably diamond, timber, and minerals), oil, hazardous waste, and most recently, the manufacture and sale of fake pharmaceuticals, are all illicit trades that continue to thrive in Africa. (11) Before examining the fronts on which the drug trade is expanding across Africa, it is first worth describing the historical, geographic, structural, and cultural factors that have placed Africa at the center of the drug trade in recent years.


Historically speaking, there were three factors that facilitated African involvement initially in the heroin trade: the existing smuggling routes in a resource-rich continent, global economic downturns that left many Africans impoverished and jobless, and the massive African (namely Nigerian) diaspora with a presence in eighty countries around the world. (12) In the last decade, several additional factors have facilitated the use of Africa as a transit hub, first for cocaine and more recently, for increasing levels of heroin and Amphetamine-Type Stimulant (ATS). (13) Simple geography makes Africa an obvious transit point as it lies between points of production (Latin America in the case of cocaine and Southwest Asia in the case of heroin) and the final markets (United States and Europe). The changing nature of the cocaine market, which has experienced a decline in demand in the United States and an increase in demand in Europe, has forced traffickers to test new routes. But thanks to improved maritime security on both sides of the Atlantic--due largely to initiatives pursued by Mexico's President Calderon--and along European coastal waters, cocaine traffickers have been deterred from moving their product directly to U.S. or European markets via sea-going vessels. (14) Rather, they have redirected their attention to West Africa, whose weak law enforcement institutions offer little resistance to drug trafficking. This low-risk environment is also a low-cost one, where the cost of bribing local officials and authorities is relatively cheap due to extreme poverty, unemployment, and perpetual salary arrears, rendering almost everyone vulnerable to corruption. (15) In addition, the global economy has impacted trafficking patterns, since cocaine now fetches far more revenue in Europe, given the low value of the dollar. (16) Finally, the realities that exist in Africa--such as its porous borders; lack of legitimate opportunities for economic advancement; abundant supply of unemployed, impoverished, and willing couriers; and their existing diaspora networks in Europe--all facilitate the drug trade through West Africa. Even the direct air flights between many large African cities and the capitals of their former colonial powers facilitate this illicit trade, making West Africa a true traffickers' paradise. Africa is, by all accounts, the cheapest path of least resistance.

Structural factors aside, the willingness of so many Africans to participate in the drug trade either as hands-on organizers or occasional couriers, despite the illegality of the activity, has been another line of inquiry in some academic research. Some attribute it to the "societal values placed on the acquisition of wealth irrespective of the source." (17) In many cases, Africans do not consider drug trafficking to be a serious crime. Rather, they view it as a way to provide for their families, friends, and other members of...

To continue reading