Africa and the War on Drugs: Review Round Up – By Mario Patiño
The World Peace Foundation’s blog, Reinventing Peace, invited a number of scholars and practitioners to share their reflections on Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig’s recent contribution to the African Arguments series, “˜Africa and the War on Drugs’. These reviews, conducted by renowned scholars Kwesi Aning and Lansana Gberie, and prominent analysts Camino Kavanagh and Ivan Briscoe reflect on the shape and scope of the drug trade in Africa, and the efficacy of current policies seeking to stem the trade. Klantschnig and Carrier’s book offers a sobering critique of the drug-control paradigm as applied to Africa, and what they perceive to be a growing militarization of drug control policies within the continent and failure to consider harm reduction approaches.
Kavanagh and Gberie take issue with the authors’ characterization of drug-control policy as static, externally driven and primarily prohibitionist in scope. They highlight ongoing regional and sub-regional debates around drug-trafficking and organized crime that incorporate discussions on harm reduction and decriminalization, most notably the recent African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control and Crime Prevention (2012). At the national level, both the authors and several of the reviewers highlight Tanzania’s methadone program as an interesting example of harm reduction in practice, albeit at tension with zero-tolerance discourses. These initiatives, they argue, reflect a more nuanced and evolving picture of drug policy on the continent. Nonetheless, the book’s authors are less hopeful that this heralds a policy shift, given donors’ singular focus on strengthening interdiction capacity, and the growing securitization of counter-narcotics policy in “weak and failing states”.
One of the challenges highlighted in the book is the absence of reliable data on production and trafficking estimates, as well as current trends in domestic consumption on a country-by-country level. Carrier and Klantschnig suggest that the lack of a strong evidence base has led to sweeping generalizations and a reliance on models and experiences from other regions. Kavanagh’s review highlights some of these data collection constraints, particularly the need to establish baselines from which to measure progress, as interdiction figures may offer an unreliable proxy for total trafficking flows. As she further argues, a key challenge for policy makers and analysts alike is that drug-trafficking only attracts attention when linked to more overt forms violence.
At a more micro-level, Kwesi Aning offers an interesting take on the political duality of the West African state, one that posits a growing distance between formal political institutions and legal norms, and informal structures predicated on moral and ethical obligations. According to Aning, “Legally, only the first exists; the second is barely acknowledged. But realistically the first is embedded in the second.” A clear implication for drug control policies may be that attempts to criminalize production and trafficking are out of step with public mores regarding the drug trade, and general distrust of the state. Francisco Thoumi makes a similar argument about the reinforcing relationship between weak state legitimacy and permissive public attitudes towards the drug trade in Colombia. As such policy makers may fail to consider the social capital drug traffickers have come to enjoy in the absence of “˜formal market-supporting institutions’. Kavanagh illustrates this point brilliantly by citing the case of former Ghanaian MP Eric Amoateng, convicted of trafficking heroin to the United States, yet widely praised as a benefactor and civic leader in his constituency.
Perhaps one of the most illuminating aspects of the book is the discussion around the developmental potential of illicit substances and the role economic turmoil has played in the expansion of drug production and trafficking on the continent. Klantschnig and Carrier illustrate the importance of cannabis production in Lesotho and khat in Ethiopia and Northern Kenya as viable cash crops, which have come to constitute legitimate livelihood options. Growth in khat and cannabis production can be attributed to the general decline of structural, economic and environmental conditions and declining terms of trade for subsistence farmers. The authors are keen to highlight the net positive effect of these illicit crops on household income and food security in drought prone areas, in the absence of, or in spite of the state. A key concern is that their profitability relative to other cash crops is in part tied to its illegality, even if the state opts for a policy of benign neglect. Herein, a more disaggregated picture of the effects of the drug trade on production versus trafficking zones, and regional variation could have addressed some of the aforementioned criticisms.
A uniting thread throughout the reviews is that the authors seem to understate the deleterious effects of the drug trade on African societies, including growing domestic consumption, its potential for crowding out private economic activity, its effects on the rule of law, and the pervasiveness of drug money within African political systems. Gberie warns of the threat posed by the influx of drugs for post-conflict states, where traffickers maintain a competitive advantage over poorly trained and paid police, customs agents and judiciaries. Briscoe suggests that the Klantschnig and Carrier conflate cause and effect, attributing these challenges to supply-side drug control policies, rather than the weak institutions that provide ideal “business conditions” for drug entrepreneurs. Drug trafficking does not itself make weak or failed states; instead, criminal networks are able to embed themselves where state legitimacy and capacity are weak. As Kavanagh suggests, “In some cases, existing corruption networks allow drug trafficking to flourish; in others, drug trafficking itself corrupts.” What is clear is that Klantschnig and Carrier provide an important and timely contribution to the emerging literature on the effects of drug trafficking on African states, and drug policy on the continent.
Mario Patino is a research assistant at the World Peace Foundation.
 Thoumi, Francisco. “Illegal Drugs in Colombia: From Illegal Economic Boom to Social Crisis,” In The Political Economy of the Drug Industry: Latin America and the International System, ed. Menno Vellinga, (Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 2004): 80-81.
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