Africa and the War on Drugs: the West African cocaine trade is not just business as usual – By James Cockayne

This piece is part of the Africa and the War on Drugs debate – and series of articles and reviews commissioned to coincide with the launch of the latest book in the African Arguments series:  Africa and the War on Drugs.

Everyone working on drugs in Africa should read Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig’s short but insightful new book, Africa and the War on Drugs. It brings sorely needed nuance, evidence and historical context to a debate from which too often they are conspicuously absent. Carrier and Klantschnig make a strong case that drugs policies and programming in Africa are overly repressive, and need rebalancing towards harm reduction. And they draw much-needed attention to the ways in which international drugs policy currently supports the repressive tendencies of some African states, the legitimacy of many of which remains highly contested.

Given their appreciation of the contested nature of much African governance, it comes as something of a surprise that Carrier and Klantschnig fiercely downplay the impact that cocaine trafficking is having on West African governance. On the basis of just three case studies (Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho and Nigeria) the authors conclude that “˜state complicity’ in the African drug trade is “˜rare’, and the dominant paradigm is “˜repression’. As a result, they radically understate the close involvement of political and military actors in drug trafficking – particularly in West African cocaine trafficking – and overlook the growing power of drug money in African electoral politics, local and traditional governance, and security.

In this comment I explain why the mix of drugs and politics in West Africa – and beyond – is new and dangerous, and offer some thoughts on what we might do about it.

West Africa‘s new cocaine trade: not just business as usual?

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), between 2001 and 2007, annual cocaine seizures in West Africa increased from approximately 273 to roughly 47,000 kilograms.[i] Carrier and Klantchsnig say this is the “˜consequence of greater law enforcement vigilance’, and should not lead us to conclude that African drug trafficking has significantly changed. They treat West Africa’s new “˜bulk’ cocaine trade as a temporary scaling-up of existing traffic, still operating through the traditional commercial airliner “˜mule’ routes used by entrepreneurs like Joe Brown Akubueze, a Nigerian heroin trafficker arrested twenty years ago.

But that is no longer the sole (or most important) story. Traffickers now habitually fly or sail multi-tonne cocaine shipments into West Africa, to be moved overland by armed convoy north through the Sahel to the Maghreb, or east towards Middle Eastern and Asian markets.[ii] This was dramatically demonstrated by the discovery of a Boeing 767 which had crash-landed in eastern Mali in 2009. Arrests and seizures have continued in the Sahel in the years since, frequently showing signs of sponsorship and protection from local political and military authorities.

It may well be this political sponsorship – not the scale of the trade or the nature of the commodities involved, as Carrier and Klantschnig suggest – that keeps violence relatively low: Where that sponsorship is contested, violence results. In January 2011, for example, a major battle was fought between Bérabiche Arabs running drugs to Libya, and Touareg who demanded a fee for passing through their territory. Around the same time, reports suggested that members of Latin American and Iberian drug trafficking organizations battled for control of Bamako’s trafficking routes.

Take the case of Guinea-Bissau. Carrier and Klantschnig argue that Bissau-Guinean intra-elite political rivalries and cocaine trafficking are two distinct phenomena. We should see the country’s political instability as a brake on trafficking, they say, not as its result. Would that were so. Both local and foreign security sources have told me they fear that foreign trafficking organizations are fuelling violence in Guinea-Bissau by funding local military factions and by providing military know-how for political assassinations. Alliances with foreign traffickers offer Bissau-Guinean military factions financial and military power that they can use to resist attempts by civilian reformers whom they see as threatening their traditional power.

There is, of course, a long West African tradition of rule through appropriation of criminal rents. But to argue that West Africa’s cocaine trade is just “˜business as usual’ is to overlook the new-found political significance of drug trafficking, and the comparatively low barriers to entry and high profits associated with the trade, which incentivise the use of violence.

The growing role of cocaine in West African governance

Cocaine trafficking is becoming integral to how West Africa is governed. Political actors are using criminal organisation as an aspect of statecraft, and criminal actors are using political privileges as business assets. Traffickers get access to state immunities, passports and diplomatic bags, airspace and maritime approaches, and even state-owned vessels. National political and military institutions are in turn used to tax the trade.

Carrier and Klantschnig do not address the distorting impacts drug money is having on West Africa’s governance institutions. In Ghana, for example, scandals surrounding the US conviction of ruling party MP Eric Amoateng on heroin trafficking charges, and the later MV Benjamin case, have led to a widespread public perception that drug money is ubiquitous in electoral campaigns. Elsewhere in the region, the names of brothers and sons of ruling figures crop up with alarming frequency in analyses of drug trafficking networks. And drug traffickers are using their wealth to purchase traditional titles in countries from Nigeria to Sierra Leone.

Drug money is also giving non-state actors improved access to violence. AQIM’s increased military and political power in the Sahel corridor has been, in part, the result of a strategy of physical and social protection of bulk cocaine and arms trafficking, and corruption of state officials. Signs that other non-state armed groups, such as the Polisario Front, may be engaged in cocaine trafficking suggest the possibility of increased instability elsewhere in the region.

Nor do Carrier and Klantschnig seem concerned by the macroeconomic impacts of drug-led development. Focusing on drug production’s positive local impacts, they overlook the “˜junky economies’ produced through over-reliance on illicit trafficking. For example, the skewing of the capital and labour markets away from productive sectors; creation of asset bubbles through money-laundering (like the real estate bubbles in Dakar and Nairobi); or the distortion of balance of payments and foreign exchange rates. Nor do they consider the political power generated from drug-led development – how it rewards those who control criminal trades, and who can protect communities engaged in them from the intrusion of state law enforcement. This is the basis for mafia power, and it is as evident in Africa as anywhere else.

Over time, development based on criminal markets simply removes incentives for state-making. It encourages political elites to find revenue and power in alliance with off-shore traffickers, not through alliance with local producers or communities. The state loses incentives to create broad-based social protection systems – such as courts, accountable policing, or welfare systems – in return for the public’s allegiance and labour. Instead, as William Reno has explained, it informalises rule.[iii] And as Ken Menkhaus has pointed out, it creates incentives for rulers to rule marginal communities through non-state proxies, feeding off informal and criminal revenues.

Over time this pushes states deeper into conflict and underdevelopment traps – quickly they lose their popular legitimacy and resilience. The deep popular malaise over the corruption of Malian state agents, and those agents’ complicity in violence in northern Mali, is essential to understanding the rapid breakdown of that country’s governance in recent years. It offers a window into this unhappy developmental trajectory.

What to do? Targeting political sponsors and mobilizing social resistance

Carrier and Klantschnig have little to say about how to tackle the links between politics and drugs, focusing instead on how to reduce the negative links between politics and counter-drug policy. Their call for a move towards harm reduction strategies – needle exchanges, methadone programmes, decriminalisation – and for promoting public research and debate should be heeded. Such moves will strengthen both the legitimacy and effectiveness of counter-narcotics programming in Africa.

But we should be more ambitious. We should not consider the criminalization of Africa’s politics inevitable. This is not simply a West African problem, after all, though it may be most advanced there. There are signs of drug money in the highest ranks of the South African police, and in politics in Kenya. Tackling the trend means altering how African elites perceive the incentives associated with the drug trade.

Three key measures

First, through mobilising social resistance. Africa’s political leaders need to know there are local electoral and political rewards to be gained from fighting the drug trade, and not just foreign approval. In Italy and Hong Kong civil society-led efforts have changed cultural norms and facilitated a severing of the links between politics and crime. In Africa, this will require promoting public debate, supporting – and physically protecting – investigative journalists, and encouraging civil society groups (churches, mosques, women’s groups, Chambers of Commerce, Nollywood) to speak out against the politics-drugs cocktail.

Second, through supporting campaign finance reform and anti-corruption institutions. Without improved checks, campaign finance and public procurement processes will continue to offer easy access for drug money into Africa’s governance institutions. Why would civil society speak out against the trade and its negative long-term effects if it cannot see anything changing in public institutions?

Third, through tackling the impunity of the political sponsors of drug trafficking. Carrier and Klantschnig are absolutely right to draw attention to the harms caused throughout Africa by over-reliance on state repression under the rubric of the “˜War on Drugs’. But one reason for this – which they do not discuss – is the way that ruling elites have used counter-narcotics forces to control the drug trade so that they themselves benefit from it, as cases in Sierra Leone and Ghana have both suggested. It is the impunity of these elites that we should now target.


Foreign individualized travel and financial sanctions on the political sponsors of drug trafficking, like those the US has begun to use, are a key tool. But they are also highly political. Sanctions and punishment will be more legitimate – and more effective – if they result from judicial processes, carried out if possible within the region. The ICC might have a role (if drug trafficking caused harms amounting to a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population). But the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) offers a better model for how the international community could work with local states to build an effective investigative and prosecutorial system to break the dangerous links between elite politics and drug money.

None of this will be easy. None if it will be possible through the actions of individual political leaders, acting alone. As Stephen Ellis notes, “Many officials throughout the region are deeply concerned by the effects of the drug trade, but are often confronted by people and networks more powerful than they, with other priorities.” Africa’s leaders need support from their publics, from within the region, and from abroad, if they are going to tackle these people and networks. Proceeding as if nothing has changed in Africa’s drug markets – and Africa’s governance – will only make their struggle harder.

James Cockayne is the former Co-Director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation in New York. He previously served as a Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

[i] UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Cocaine Trafficking in West Africa: The Threat to Stability and Development (With Special Reference to Guinea-Bissau), December 2007, pp. 3–7; UNODC, Drug Trafficking as a Security Threat in West Africa, October 2008, p. 3,; UNODC, World Drug Report 2009, June 2009.

[ii] Author’s interviews with West African state security officials, 2010-2011; see alsoUNODC, Cocaine Trafficking in West Africa, p. 20.

[iii] William Reno, “Mafiya Troubles, Warlord Crises”, in Mark R. Beissinger and Crawford Young, eds., Beyond State Crisis?: Postcolonial Africa and Post-Soviet Eurasia in Comparative Perspective (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002), p. 108.

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One thought on “Africa and the War on Drugs: the West African cocaine trade is not just business as usual – By James Cockayne

  1. Pingback: Africa and the War on Drugs–review round-up | Reinventing Peace

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