Africa and the War on Drugs – a review by Stephen Ellis

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.

Islamic terrorists with interests in the cocaine trade have taken over northern Mali.  Fuelled by narco-dollars, they are threatening further mayhem.  Perhaps these same people are also the brains behind human trafficking through the Sahara to Europe, another source of misery.

Something along these lines is probably the most widely diffused message concerning the drug trade in Africa today.

It is the sort of image that Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig seek to rectify by supplying us with a short, tightly organised and well informed book that provides a dispassionate view of Africa’s long relationship with psychoactive substances.  Their account provides historical depth and, above all, it strives to understand the matter from an African standpoint.

The two authors, both academics with extensive experience researching the drug trade in East and West Africa respectively, discuss a wide range of relevant matters from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa in just 138 pages of text.  As befits the African Arguments series, their book, while fair in its approach, is polemical in intent.  Its declared target is the war on drugs that began when President Richard Nixon declared “total war” on America’s “public enemy number one” in 1972.

The war on drugs waged by successive US governments for 40 years has failed to eliminate drug consumption in the USA.  It is probably the main reason for the country’s grotesque level of imprisonment, which now stands at over two million people behind bars, more than the number held in Stalin’s gulag at its height.  Many professionals involved in the fight against drugs, whether law-enforcement officers or public health professionals, believe that the campaign was lost long ago.

Destroying drug production in one area simply pushes up the price of drugs in consumer markets, thereby creating higher profits for dealers.  Disrupting a supply route induces traders to find a new one.  Most damaging of all, the war on drugs has caused ruling elites in some states to develop close connections with professional criminals, notably in Latin America.

The ultimate nightmare for US policy-makers is of drug traders making common cause with political militants.  Hence the fevered images of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the official designation adopted by a militant group of Algerian origin that currently enjoys influence in northern Mali and adjacent regions of the Sahara.

People who follow world affairs quite closely, but who are not professional Africanists, probably first became aware of Africa’s role in the international drug trade when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) produced a string of reports and statements in the late 2000s pinpointing a surge in exports of cocaine from South America to West Africa, and most notably to Guinea-Bissau, which soon gained a reputation as a “narco-state”.

The UNODC, as its name tells us, is dedicated to the study of the relationship between the drugs business and its criminal aspects.  Although UNODC reports are written in a restrained bureaucratic style and make careful use of statistics, their law-and-order approach inevitably trails in its path other documents and newspaper articles that make extravagant use of a familiar vocabulary concerning “scourges”, “menaces” and “drug barons”.  Close your eyes and you may think of Al Pacino in the film Scarface, transposed to Africa.

While trade in cocaine and heroin receives the most international attention, Carrier and Klantschnig take care to provide extensive information on the historical use, trade and cultivation of other drugs including notably cannabis and khat as well as the internationally legitimated stimulants alcohol and caffeine.  They tell us that probably the main pharmaceutical threat to the health of African societies comes from pirated or fake prescription drugs, although this is not a subject they pursue at any length.

Their general thrust is to contest the widespread view that the trade in cocaine and heroin is in itself a deadly threat to Africa.  Concentration on this trade obscures the question of local addiction to dangerous drugs, which appears to be quite high in South Africa and parts of East Africa.  The policy of suppression adopted at American behest in Nigeria, for example, is ineffective in suppressing the trade and draws attention away from debates on local consumption and other domestic aspects of drug use and abuse.

Many Africanists, generally sympathetic to African societies and sceptical of both the moral justification  and the effects of America’s insistence that other countries follow its lead in the war on drugs, will probably agree with the sentiments expressed by Carrier and Klantschnig in this book, the best general introduction to its subject by some way.  Nevertheless, in the opinion of this reviewer the two authors rather underestimate the degree of political involvement in drug trading by African governments.

The one case they examine in detail is that of Guinea-Bissau, whose politics was marked by violent competition between rival factions long before large cargoes of cocaine started arriving in the country from South America.   So it was, but few observers doubt that the wish to maintain pole position in the cocaine trade has now added to the problem by providing a massive incentive to new struggles.  In South Africa, a chief of police has been convicted of having passed confidential information to a leading drug dealer whom he had befriended.

The drug trade perhaps risks becoming a source of sometimes violent political competition in Africa to a degree the two authors seem rather reluctant to conceive. Still, thanks to this book future debates can now assume a breadth and depth that has been lacking to date.

Stephen Ellis is Professor in the African Studies Centre, University of Leiden.

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