Drug smuggling and its profits help significantly to fuel Africa’s wars as criminal enterprises.
Terrorists frequently build drug-driven hybrid organizations to finance their operations and to reap illicit rents. In Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo,
and Somalia, conflict is strongly tied to drug trafficking by syndicates allied to al-Qaeda–associated insurgents. The Boko Haram war in Nigeria has its narcotics component, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) partly finances its operations in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger (and perhaps in Tunisia) by trafficking drugs across the Sahara
(and thence to Europe).
In Somalia, al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab funds itself in part by
moving drugs into and out of East Africa. Séléka, the insurgent group that fractured the Central African Republic, has made money by transshipping drugs. Hezbollah, operating
among the Lebanese diaspora in West Africa, also profits from facilitating narcotics smuggling.
The route to Europe
In the past decade, lucrative illegal drugs including cocaine from South America, heroin from South Asia, methamphetamines and its precursors from Asia, and marijuana and hashish from Africa and Pakistan increasingly have been smuggled through Africa to
Europe. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime,
about 30 tons, or $2 billion worth, of cocaine from Latin America passes through West Africa to Europe every year, twice as much as in 2010.
Most of the Europe-bound cocaine originates in Peru and Colombia and is flown in from Venezuela. The main African airports where corruption and criminals facilitate transshipments from South America to Europe are in Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; and Dakar, Senegal. Large amounts of cocaine are also smuggled into weakly governed Guinea-Bissau by private aircraft from Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. Guinea-Bissau, reputedly the continent’s first “narco state,” recently experienced several military coups motivated by vicious competition for control of the drug trade.
From Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal (and more recently, Mali), illicit drugs eventually cross the Sahara in convoys guarded by AQIM, and then are shipped from Algeria and Morocco to Spain. There are reports that Colombian drug smugglers have
established themselves in nearly all West African countries. The main African airports where corruption and criminals facilitate
transshipments from South America to Europe are in Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; and Dakar, Senegal.
Heroin arrives in Africa en route to Europe from the east. Although Afghanistan and Burma grow the poppies, opiate refining often is done in India, Pakistan, and Thailand; then the narcotics are usually transshipped to Europe through airports in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya. The seaports of Dar es Salaam, Djibouti, and Mombasa serve the dhows and larger ships that help smuggle the cargo from
India en route to Europe. Some heroin is also forwarded to the United States and Canada from Kenya via Nigeria.
The Nigerian connection
Nigerian gangs are believed to control much of the heroin smuggled across Africa, and are assumed to be behind the spread of heroin to Mozambique and Malawi from South Africa. In 2012 alone, authorities seized 200 kilograms of heroin in Nigeria, five times the amount confiscated in 2011. Nigerians also control much intra-African trade in marijuana, which they also ship to Europe
in quantity. Nigerians also transship qat (khat), the Somali mild-narcotic of choice, to Somali communities and others in Europe and North America.
Nigeria is a major producer of methamphetamines (meths). One clandestine laboratory shut down in 2011 was capable of turning out 440 pounds of meths per week. In Malaysia,
1 kilogram of meths is worth at least $40,000; in Japan and South Korea, it fetches as much as $200,000.
Methamphetamine manufacturing requires ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which mostly are shipped to North America (especially Mexico) from Asia through Africa. During a six-month operation in 2010, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized thirty-five shipments of these chemicals in Kenya en route to Nigeria, a total of 53 metric tons, worth approximately $80 million.
Many more shipments of both the precursor chemicals
doubtless reached Nigeria first, and then, together with manufactured meths, Mexican laboratories. From Mexico, the final product was smuggled to the United States and Canada.
Suppressing African drug trafficking requires better policing and better security controls. But improved law enforcement depends on strengthened rule of law, curbs on corruption,
and more transparency—in other words, better governance—which in Africa is difficult to achieve. Only responsible and tough-minded leadership, as in Botswana, can provide incentives for honest policing and successful combating of corruption. Even Ghana, the
best-run and most prosperous West African state, has not managed to control its drug running.
• Drug trafficking across Africa will continue until its emerging middle class demands responsible governance, leading to improved law enforcement.
• Legalizing and thus potentially decriminalizing the use of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in Europe and Africa, recommended by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others, would lower the price of these drugs, make them
taxable, and reduce incentives for smuggling. No African ruling elites, however, as yet favor legalization.
• The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which collaborates with foreign governments through investigative work, training, institution building, and intelligence sharing, can continue to help Africans strengthen their investigative capacities and
sea and air defenses against narcotics trafficking. The DEA can also work with its counterparts in Brazil to prevent narcotics flights from that country. Flights from Venezuela need to be intercepted off Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. Such steps may require the U.S. Congress to raise the DEA’s budget. The U.S. Department of Defense and State Department, too, through their longstanding maritime safety and security programs in Africa, can contribute to African counternarcotics activities.
• In order to pressure African governments to do more, U.S. authorities should threaten to remove American landing rights to all airlines operating out of airports that serve as
persistent drug-smuggling hubs.
This post, a Wilson Brief, first appeared under the same title on Dec. 16, 2015