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Drug Policy Reform in West Africa

The call for drug policy reform globally has been on the increase in recent times. Same can also be said of in West Africa where there is growing movement of both state and non-state actors demanding for review of drug policies within the region[1]

This is coming against the backdrop of some visible impact of drug trafficking on security, governance, health and human development in West Africa. Drug trafficking through the region contributes substantially to the global illicit drug trade, especially with cocaine being transshipped from Latin America to consuming markets in Europe and North America. The United Nations estimated the annual worth of cocaine that goes through the region to be $1.2 billion dollars[2]

This huge amount of money is far more than the budget of many West African states for national security put together. It also has a whole lot of implication on the fragile economies in the region, especially now that many governments are faced with the challenge of dwindling revenues. 

It is thus becoming obvious, coupled with other demanding developmental needs of the region, that member states will need to reform their drug laws to prioritize investment where greater results can be achieved in the drug control response rather than continuous embracement of the popular ‘war on drugs’ approach which it’s many years of  implementation has not yielded substantial result.

The choice of West Africa as a transit route is based on many factors. There has been a reinforcement of security along the traditional drug trafficking route through the Latin America and North America borders and this has forced the cartels to seek locations of less resistance[3] such as West Africa, which seems to be logistically ideal for their activities. 

Other known factors include porous borders, well-established local drug trafficking syndicates, weak governance system, corruption and geographic landscape that makes detection and security checks difficult[4]

While it is difficult for West Africa to change its geographical landscape in order to stop its exploitation by traffickers, the vast and growing network of local collaborators is such that it poses huge challenges to deal with. Beside cocaine trafficking, there are also reported cases of Afghan heroin being trafficked from Asia countries through West Africa to other choice locations outside the region[5]

West Africa in recent times has also witnessed the emergence of   some illicit drugs  being manufactured within the region and trafficked to other parts of the world.  Besides cannabis which is traditionally grown almost everywhere in the region there are now several clandestine laboratories where methamphetamines are produced.  Between 2011 and 2015, about 10 large methamphetamine laboratories have been discovered in Nigeria. 

It is also reported that West Africa produces up to 1.5 tonnes of the drug yearly[6].This amount may be small compared to the amount of methamphetamines that is globally trafficked[7] but it means a lot for a region that grew from zero production to that amount in less than five years

What has been the Impact of drug trafficking in West Africa?

Associated with drug trafficking are myriad of challenges. Although it is difficult to ascertain its real threat in West Africa, however, there are evidences of its impact on governance, security, health, human rights and development. However, this analysis will focus only on impact on governance and health 


Poor economic growth in Africa is strongly linked to poor governance which manifests through corruption, political instability, subversion of rule of law and weak institutions[8].  In West Africa, drug trafficking gangs have taken advantage of the weak governance system and have further weakened it through corrupt practices.  

Drug criminal networks with huge resources at their disposal easily buy over state officials including the police, judiciary and elected  officials to perpetrate their nefarious agenda and sometimes co-opt these state officials into their illicit business. 

There has been cases of state officials getting involved in the trafficking. For instance,  In 2010, the Air force chief of staff , Ibraima Papa Camara and Navy Chief, Rear Admiral Jose America Bubo Na Tchuto  both of Guinea Bissau were placed on the  US drug kingpin list with the latter subsequently  arrested  in 2013 and extradited to the US[9]

The   coup of 2013 in Guinea Bissau which has been described as  ‘Cocaine politics’ –   Was also linked to the attempts by  Military top hierarchy fighting for the soul of the drug trade in the country[10].

In January 2015, a Ghanaian socialite was also jailed for the smuggling of 12Kg of cocaine into Britain.   Earlier  report had it that she was trafficking the drugs on behalf of high ranking government officials who  facilitated her use of the VIP lounge reserved for high profile State officials at the Kotoka International Airport before boarding a  British airways flight to Heathrow[11].

In the same vein, the economic crisis that began in West Africa in early 1980s, as identified by analyst, which resulted in governments taking diverse austerity measures that further narrowed socio-economic opportunities and impacted negatively on citizens’ livelihood, facilitated the entry of drug cartels and mobilization of local collaborators[12].  

Fast tracked to 2016, not so much has changed in terms of socio-economic status of most West African States. According to the UN classification report of 2015, 12 out of 16 West African countries are among the least developed nations of the world[13]. So the socio-economic factors that are required to sustain drug trafficking are still very much present in the region. 

The involvement of West African politicians in drug trafficking underscores a lot of issues: the profitability of the venture, corruption, infiltration of government by criminal networks and their desire for control of power, all these.  have the possibility of undermining the nascent democracies in West African states.  

This is not unconnected to  why high -level drug traffickers in the region are rarely arrested or prosecuted. Rather, attention is usually focused on low-level offenders and drug users. In 2011, the Nigeria Drug Law Enforcement Agency arrested a political aspirant from Edo sate at the Murtala Mohammed airport, Lagos with over 2kg of cocaine while attempting to board a Lufthansa airline to Frankfurt who later confessed to planning to use the proceed of the trade to fund his election campaign.[14]

There is also the case of a serving Nigeria law maker who was indicted for heroin trafficking in the United States but was believed to be shielded from being extradited to the US by the immediate past administration because he was considered to be a strong political party chieftain[15].  

Drug trafficking and terrorism.

The wave of insurgency across West Africa has in a way influenced narratives surrounding drug trafficking.  Some have described it as narcoterrorism which is the ‘use of drug trafficking to advance the objectives of a terrorist organization’[16]

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Action Group Against Money Laundering (GIABA) published a report on ‘Terrorist Financing in West Africa’ and equally made a reference to  terrorist organizations such as Al-qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and Boko haram getting  financed through the drug trade[17].  

In July, 2014, the International Business Times reported that both the US and UK government are waging a “covert war on the “narco-terrorism” route in West Africa , which is suspected of helping to finance  al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) reported to be responsible for Mali’s insurgency and other terrorist organization such as  Hezbollah and Boko Haram[18].

However, there have been other reports demystifying the narco-terrorism nexus in West Africa and encouraging policy makers to apply caution in using the term to describe the drug trafficking situation in the region. This was succinctly put by Wolfram Lacher in a background paper produced for the West African Commission on Drugs, that reducing drug trafficking in West Africa to narco-terrorism is misleading and counterproductive. 

He emphasized that the talk of narco-terror nexus diverts attention from the central issues that allows drug trafficking to thrive in the region which is the complicity and involvement of state agents and influential players[19]

Meaning,  there is yet to be clear evidence of these terrorist groups being actively involved in drug trafficking but rather what evidence has shown is that of individuals or close associates who profit from the groups presence to aid or ensure safe passage of drugs through the region[20]

The Global Drug Policy Observatory of Swansea University also in a published policy brief 2015 cautioned against over simplifying the drug trafficking challenge in West Africa by reducing it to an issue of terrorist organization but rather viewed as a complex challenge where the state and other criminal networks are actively involved[21].  

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in a 2013 paper rightly noted that the term ‘narcoterrorism’ ‘does not accurately describe a reality: terrorists are usually not the same as drugs traffickers. But they are useful to each other for political and social power, access to resources and for personal connections’[22].


Another area where drug trafficking has greatly impacted is health. Drug trafficking in West Africa has led to increase in availability of illicit drugs and subsequently consumption. In 2012, the UN office on Drugs and Crime gave an estimate of about 1.6 million people in West and Central Africa who use cocaine[23]

In the 2015 report, the population of cannabis users in West and Central Africa is three times higher than that of the global estimate[24].

Indeed, West Africa is characterized by an overwhelming use of cannabis when compared to other substances. Drug use comes with series of health challenges which put a lot of pressure on the public health system. The public health systems in many West African countries are very weak and the few available infrastructures are over stretched due to high demands by the populace.

The recent Ebola outbreak in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Conakry among others, further exposed the weak public health systems in the region and it took the support of international collaborators to curb the epidemic. It is also a public knowledge of how it is still difficult for the system to cope with epidemic burdens of HIV/AIDS. 

Now drug use presents another burden that needs to be properly addressed. We now have growing evidence of injecting drug practices in West Africa[25]

Injecting drug use is a practice where an individual or groups of people use illicit drugs intravenously though the use of needles and syringes. This practice, especially the sharing of contaminated needles and syringes, has been established to facilitate transmission of HIV, hepatitis and other blood borne infections . 

For instance, a national behavioral surveillance survey conducted in Nigeria in 2010 reported HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs in the country to be 4.2 % and as high as 9.3% in the federal capital territory[26].

This creates additional burden to the HIV/AIDS challenge in the country. In the same vein, problematic drug use- a situation where an individual cannot function without taking illicit drug- is increasingly being reported across the region. And when such situation is not properly addressed it can lead to many other social problems such as violence, crime, family disintegration, loss of job and so on.  

Unfortunately, substance use disorders are still poorly managed in the region and treatment facilities and infrastructures grossly inadequate[27]

All these are happening because our policies are law enforcement oriented. The common first line of response to those who use drugs has been to arrest or punish the individual. Harm reduction programs are not in place except for country like Senegal. The consequence of drug use may become too much for the region to bear if a public health oriented policy is not urgently adopted for drug control.

What Has been the Response So Far

It is important to state here that the challenge of drug trafficking in West Africa has not been without a response. The effectiveness of the response is that which need to be questioned. There have been national, regional and international efforts. 

Most West African states are signatory to the three UN drug conventions (1961 UN Single convention on Narcotics Drugs, 1971 UN convention of Psychotropic substances, and 1988 UN Drug convention) and also have basic laws some of which dates as far back as 1930s focusing mostly on cannabis use and cultivation [28]

Many of these laws have been reviewed in the past decades to include other illicit substances. However, these laws are best described as punitive or favoring use of repression to address the drug problem. 

ECOWAS, as a regional body has developed several initiatives and made resolutions to address drug trafficking in the region. Some of these include the establishment of Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering in WEST Africa (GIABA) in 1999, an initiative that focuses on building capacity of member states against money laundering activities.

In 1998 heads of ECOWAS issued a declaration titled “Community Flame Ceremony: The Fight Against Drugs” and in same year a regional fund  for financing drug control activities in West Africa was set up[29]

In 1997, a resolution relating to drug abuse was adopted and eleven years later,  there was ECOWAS ministerial conference on drug trafficking and control in Praia, Cape Verde with a political declaration tagged ‘Praia Plan of Action’  which directed the establishment of drug control and crime prevention division within the ECOWAS[30]

Subsequently there have been developments of regional plans of action for drug control by ECOWAS. There was the 2008-2014 plan of action which was not implemented accordingly due to lack of funding commitment by member states. The plan has now been integrated into the 2016-2020 plan of action which is being funded by the European Union[31]

However, till date one cannot say that the regional body has made tremendous progress in leading the drug control response in West Africa. There seems to be a lot of fatigue among member states and ECOWAS being at the center  will need to do more to mobilize member states to take required action.

The international community has also played major roles in the regional drug response. It can be said that the influence of  international organizations in the region have so much shaped policy direction in many of the West Africa countries.  Western countries have used the opportunity to export aspect of their own drug policy especially the ‘War on drugs’ which favors repression and criminal justice system to address the illicit drug challenge in the region[32].

 Activities under this theme are usually well funded with a subtle intention of preventing illicit drugs from crossing the border into their own territory. This approach neglects or pays little attention to the other needed response such as prevention, public health care and socio-economic development as it relates to drug control Financial and technical supports have been received from organizations such as the European Union, Interpol, UNODC among others and countries like the United States have also been very active with direct supports to member countries.   

What are the gaps in the Responses so Far?

Crafting a common approach on drug policy in West Africa should be a principal focus for member states of ECOWAS, through the relevant law enforcement agencies. This includes the use of the criminal justice system to address both drug trafficking, production and consumption. 

The Nigeria drug law, for example, stipulates that ‘anyone who sells, buys, exposes or offers for sale or otherwise deals in or with the drugs popularly known as cocaine, LSD, heroin, or any similar drugs, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction with a life imprisonment’ and for anyone who uses the illicit drugs shall be sentenced for an imprisonment term of not less than 15 years and not exceeding 25 years [33] . This law is the same across the region, although with varying degree of sentencing.

The formulation of these laws has been based on a common assumption that harsher punishments will deter people from getting involved in either drug use or trade.  Conversely, from all available evidence, the use of repression has not really succeeded in reducing drug availability and consumption in the region. Consumption and domestic trade in drugs remains  ‘alarming’[34].  

In many West African prisons, the high numbers of drug offenders are populated by mere drug users and not the traffickers. Drug users are arbitrarily arrested, tortured or locked up for months without access to justice[35].

In the same light, law enforcement agencies have used the law as instrument to perpetrate human right violations and corruption.  The US department of State in its 2010 human right report on Ghana highlighted how law enforcement officers use the threat of arrest to extort money from people who are falsely accused of dealing in drugs[36]

This case is not peculiar to Ghana but can be witnessed across the region. Law enforcement still has a major role to play in addressing the drug problem in the region.

Secondly, over-reliance on foreign donors has shaped policy direction and priority interventions in the region. Most of the foreign aid received in West Africa from international donors focuses more on interdiction efforts and criminal justice system[37]

This has subtly been reinforcing in West Africa the failed ‘war on drugs’ policy approach being implemented in other regions of the world. It is now becoming more glaring that the utmost aim of these foreign interventions is basically prevent drugs from crossing into Europe or North America.

It is high time West African countries reconsider negotiating a more holistic response to drug control with international partners to specially request investment in health and development issues.Thirdly, existing drug policies are not development oriented. 

Current efforts seem not to take into cognizance the socio-economic factors that are driving the drug trade and consumption in the region.  A case in point is that of cannabis farmers whom the law enforcement agencies want them to give up their livelihood activities without providing sustainable alternatives. It is important for policy makers to recalibrate the metrics for measuring our drug control effort along human development indices. 

With this, our approach will be people-centered and produce better results than wasting scarce resources to achieve an unachievable goal of a drug-free region. Instead we can have a region where drugs, even though, available but do not constitute any problem to worry about. 

Conclusion and Recommendations

The need to review drug policies across West African countries is very important. This is based on the fact that current approach has failed in reducing trafficking and availability of drugs for consumption in the region. 

In view of this I will like to make the following recommendations:

Treat drug use as a public health issue and not an issue for the criminal justice system. The local demand for drugs in the region should be of primary concern and this will require a public-health approach and not continuous criminalization of drug users. 

The arrest and imprisonment of drug users will continue to overburden the already overcrowded prison systems and this approach have also not shown to be effective in reforming the individuals. No country can arrest its way out of drug use ,instead investment should be prioritize in evidence-based public education, treatment and rehabilitation of those dependent on drugs and implementation of harm reduction programs so as to prevent infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

 Also important is integration and implementation of socioeconomic development program into drug control strategy as an effective tool to prevent problematic drug use. The right time to act is now as possible inaction can lead to another epidemic of drug and health crisis which may be too costly to bear by the West African states, especially among the youth population. 

West African should be quick to learn from the resultants of neglect and lack of drug policy reform in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that led to dual epidemic of drug use and HIV within a single decade[38].

Strengthening and promotion of good governance in West Africa countries

It is laudable that West African countries are now under democratic rule but this success can be eroded if governance structures are not strengthened to work effectively. Drug cartels have infiltrated the system and there is need to address governance challenges that allow corruption within the judiciary, law enforcement and security agencies, and the government as a whole. 

This should begin with critical examination of how political parties and elections are funded. According to Antonio Costa, former executive director of United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, “Drug cartels in West Africa buy more than real estate, banks and businesses. They buy elections, candidates and parties. In a word, they buy power”[39]

There is also a need to build systems where political and public office holders can be made to account for their actions or inactions.  A situation whereby a drug trafficker is arrested today and tomorrow he or she is walking freely after money has exchanged hands undermines good governance and is such a threat to the entire society. West Africa cannot afford leaders who are sponsored into government by drug cartels; such will definitely lead to failed states.

It will not be wrong to assume that the current economic crisis may increase the vulnerability of some political figures to want to partake in the drug trade. There is need for ECOWAS and other relevant stakeholders in the region need to do more in improving good governance and strengthen public institutions in West Africa.

It will also be important to have a regional court; this could be facilitated by ECOWAS where high profile drug-related cases are prosecuted. This will limit the interference by interested state parties.Developing new metrics to measure drug control response

Finally, West African countries need to develop new metrics for measuring their drug control response. It is now more evident that drug trafficking impacts many spheres of the society. Limiting drug control success to seizures and arrests of drugs or /and traffickers do not put the issue in the right frame. This has put enormous pressure on drug control agencies to enforce arrests of drug users and small scale peddlers just in order to make up the arrest quota and prove their activity[40]

It is high time we decided to measure our drug control response with more robust indicators that includes public healthcare response and relevant human development indices. In conclusion, the challenges of drug trafficking in West Africa is enormous and such that impact on governance, security, public health, and development. 

The vulnerability of the region to drug trafficking is exacerbated by a host of factors that include its geographical location, porous borders, poor governance, poverty and a growing vast network of West African drug traffickers. The involvement of state officials in this highly lucrative business makes the issue more complex to address.

 Another reality is that West Africa is also not just a transit route anymore but also a drug producing and consuming region. Unfortunately, the drug policy approach over the years focuses mainly on the use of repression and ignores the wider impact of the challenge on critical sectors of the society such as health, governance and socio-economic development. 

Law enforcement efforts have over-focused on drug users and the small scale peddlers whereas the ‘big’ traffickers are rarely prosecuted. It is therefore important for countries in the region to reform their drug policies in line with current day realities and be courageous to try out new policy directions that have been proven to work effectively in other similar regions to West Africa.

By Ogunrombi Adeolu, Regional Coordinator of the West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN)

Originally published by West Africa INSIGHT

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