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Drugs and Crime in West Africa Demand a Global Solution

A new threat assessment for West Africa shows that drugs and crime continue to cause instability. If these threats are to be overcome, the international community needs to fund initiatives that create connectivity with global activities against drugs and crime.  While Mali slips out of the international news headlines and attention on the region drifts elsewhere, West Africa’s drug and crime problems remain.

A new report by my office, Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa: A Threat Assessment, shows that cocaine, the emergence of methamphetamine production, increasing signs of heroin trafficking, migrant and arms smuggling, fraudulent medicines, and maritime piracy are creating instability in West Africa.  Taking just one these activities from the overall kaleidoscope of criminality, cocaine trafficking for instance, we can gain an insight into how these criminal markets cast such a long shadow over West Africa.

Based on our assessment, the amount of cocaine trafficked through the region has declined from a high of 47 tons in 2007 to 18 tons in 2011. But, before congratulations are offered for a job well done, it is worth understanding a little of the drug trafficking history, as well as the tremendous impact of drugs in areas such as  development, good governance and health.

Global trends in cocaine trafficking have undergone considerable changes. Cocaine use in the United States has declined, while cocaine demand in Europe has doubled. Estimated to be US$33 billion in 2009, Europe’s cocaine market is almost equal to that of the United States market valued at US$37 billion.

From 2005 onwards, Europe’s law enforcement agencies have worked hard to make direct smuggling more difficult; this has led cocaine traffickers from South America to use West Africa as their staging area for delivering cocaine into Europe.  

UNODC estimates that the wholesale value of the 18 tons of cocaine shipped from West Africa to Europe in 2011 was worth US$1.25 billion, an amount greater than the security budgets of many of the countries in the region. These drugs have provided West African drug traffickers with huge amounts of disposable cash.

Contrary to popular belief dirty money does not bring the benefits of its licit  counterpart. While border communities profit from the flow of drugs and other contraband, legitimate commerce can find it difficult to compete. The result is that illicit money “crowds out” licit money in places that desperately need thriving local economies.

Profits used for bribery can also destabilize governments as officials from different factions compete with each other for a share of the spoils. Guinea-Bissau is perhaps the best example of how drug money can affect good governance.

Although West Africa is largely viewed as a transit route, the region is now confronting increased rates of cocaine consumption. Based on UNODC’s previous estimations there could be as many as 2 million cocaine users in West and Central Africa. Once a question of security, cocaine is now an issue of public health and public safety. It is a problem that these fragile countries and their communities can ill afford.

Unless all of the crimes in UNODC’s assessment are addressed in an integrated manner, the region faces continued instability and lawlessness. While tailored responses are needed, an essential first step is to strengthen the rule of law and the ability of states to respond to these challenges.

States in the region and the international community also need better information. The more we understand the threat, the better we can deliver a targeted response. Law enforcement agencies, both regionally and worldwide, also need to share information and conduct joint operations. 

We also need to track the financial proceeds of drugs. Criminals cannot function if we sever their sources of funding and prevent them from laundering money. To confront illicit drugs as a health issue, we also need to promote high quality drug treatment and rehabilitation services and to reduce demand and HIV transmission among drug users and in prisons.

Above all else, the international community needs to keep in mind that the problem of cocaine trafficking is not just local and regional, it is global and international. We all have a shared responsibility to assist this region through approaches that build connectivity among the different regions, law enforcement and health agencies, as well as the international community.

One important initiative is the West Africa Coast Initiative—WACI, an initiative of several UN and non-UN bodies, including DPKO and Interpol, focusing on technical assistance and establishing a network of transnational crime units in the region. In Sierra Leone, the crime unit has investigated a series of crimes leading to a number of convictions.   

By focusing on information exchange and law enforcement cooperation, WACI has an opportunity to be a strong partner to the EU’s already existing partnership with ECOWAS states. However, to make an impact the initiative needs proper funding.

West Africa has been battered and bruised by illicit drugs and crime, its future rests in the hands of its people, communities and governments. To assist, we must continue to work downstream to prevent drugs from leaving South America. Further Upstream, in European countries, we need to seize the drugs on arrival and make every effort to curb demand.

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – This opinion piece originally appeared in the European Voice on 26 February under the title: Crime is Destabilising West Africa. It is reprinted with their kind permission.

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