Nigerian Navy Agusta A-109LUH

The Geopolitics of Narcotics: The West Africa Corridor

In part two of our new series, “The Geopolitics of Narcotics”, John Scott examines the West African narcotics smuggling routes supplying the European market, the impact of the trade on regional geopolitics, how it converges with corruption, terrorism, and state failure; and what international authorities are doing in order to counteract it.

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Tonight, at parties, offices, and possibly parliaments across Western Europe, hundreds of kilograms of powder cocaine will be consumed. Tracing the origins and pathways of the substance opens up a global trail of chaos and profit that has been partially in the public’s awareness for decades; but perhaps the least covered aspect of the trade is its transport corridor through West Africa. Political attention has traditionally focused on the Americas, and pivoted occasionally to the Afghan and South East Asian markets, but in truth, the beaches and metropolises of countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Guinea Bissau have just as much to tell us about the geopolitics of narcotics.

I. Undeclared Imports

At least 50 tonnes of cocaine are transferred from the Andean countries to West Africa every year, on their eventual way northwards to a market where they generate billions of euros; the streets of European cities. Last year, roughly two thirds of the drugs that originated in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia passed through Cape Verde, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Nigeria on their way to Western Europe. This figure is increasing, and West Africa’s smuggling output has already doubled since 2008.

UNODC map of drug routes through West Africa

Fig 1.0 – Cocaine trafficking routes through West Africa

Competing against their counterparts from the Balkans and the Middle East, drug exporters such as the Sinaloa Cartel launch their cocaine eastwards out of Brazil or the Caribbean, having already profited from its land transport. Normally, the drug is brought on large “motherships” to the Bight of Benin – a portion of the Atlantic Ocean spanning from Ghana to Nigeria – where the traffickers face a choice of how to proceed. Some is dumped in floating packages to be quickly collected by fisherman; some is distributed between smaller skiffs and taken the last few miles to shore, and some is directly passed on to cooperative local authorities. Roughly thirty percent of the tonnage is siphoned off to these intermediaries as payment.

On a map of the West African coast, two lines may be drawn to indicate the stretches of the highest imports: one line links the cities of Dakar, Bissau, and Conakry; the other links Accra and Douala. Once landed, most of the goods are driven north into the desert, bound for Libyan traffickers, or through Western Sahara towards Morocco. Finally, it is re-packaged and sent to the main entrances into the European markets: Gibraltar, Rome, Madrid, Nice, Marseilles, and Lisbon (the latter is particularly preferred by Bissau-Guinean mules, who do not need a visa to enter Portugal). In a matter of days, it can be presented to consumers in London, Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, or pushed even further afield towards Turkey and Pakistan. As those governments struggle to legislate for what they view as a security threat, up to five thousand small organised crime groups deal it out to customers with rapid and competitive efficiency.

Lifetime prevalence of cocaine use among all adults (aged 15 to 64 years old) in nationwide surveys among the general population.

Fig 2.0 – Lifetime prevalence of cocaine use among all adults (aged 15 to 64 years old) in nationwide surveys among the EU population.

While the preponderant driver of the entire trade – European consumption – has gently risen and then fallen over the last decade, the ethnic make up of the traffickers themselves has been more dynamic. This generally reflects global enforcement trends: when one regional bloc cracks down on the trade, others spring up elsewhere. But it also reflects pockets of regional instability where, predictably, illicit markets attract economic activity in the absence of more legitimate opportunities. West Africa is a case in point: in the last five years, traffickers there have found themselves on the doorstep of a massive European market, while on the one hand, foreign interventions and armed insurgencies have stifled the local criminal labour market, and on the other hand, Latin American and Asian competitors have been occupied fighting major countermeasure campaigns by local authorities. The circumstances have nurtured growth not just in the trade of narcotics (as well as firearms, cigarettes and human beings), but also in convergent threats to statehood.

II. Convergent Threats: Corruption, Terror, and State Collapse

“Drug cartels buy more than real estate, banks and businesses. They buy elections, candidates and parties. In a word, they buy power.” – Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of UNODC

Needless to say, the economies and communities that sit on the trafficking route between the Bight of Guinea and the Mediterranean are not left unaffected by the passage of cocaine. As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime director Maria Costa implied in the above comment, the profits that are generated are often pumped into the buying of influence, and an overall erosion of state cohesion.

In terms of corruption, no arm of the state is immune. Party political operators, legislators, border regulators, financiers, members of the security forces, judges and religious leaders are routinely found to be in league with traffickers, and this is no surprise for states where public sector poverty and ethnic polarisation are entrenched. In Nigeria, for example, even divisions that stemmed from the Biafra War fifty years ago still exacerbate political isolation, and enlarge the gaps into which trafficking profits can be directed. Trafficking is made far easier either by the buying of the state apparatus itself, or by the encouragement of its political opposition. In both scenarios, the buying and selling of cocaine becomes fundamentally politicised.

The financing of terrorism is another major by-product of trafficking in West Africa. The two most prolific Jihadi organisations in the region are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram, both of which profit from playing roles in the protection of drug roads through the continental heartland. Besides anything else, for them, this enterprise is entirely hypocritical: in March this year, Boko Haram militants released a video showing an execution of purported drug dealers, decrying their trade as immoral. Meanwhile, seizures of Tramadol (in places like Fokotol and the Lake Chad Basin) have multiplied tenfold in five years according to the UNODC, in part to suppress the stress and anxiety in suicide bombers-to-be.

Perhaps the state hardest-hit by narcotics in West Africa has been Guinea Bissau, a diverse nation of 1.8 million people and a GDP one tenth of the U.S. state of Vermont’s, where there have been nine military coups since 1974. It has been convenient, in light of the pathology of drug-fuelled corruption, for analysts and policymakers to deem the country a ‘narco-state’, but that term is problematic precisely because of its complex economic circumstances. It has been argued that, while cocaine trafficking is undeniably an issue, the country’s stagnation is more to do with cronyism, its decline in domestic natural resources, and its geographical exploitation by criminal groups in the Western Hemisphere. Regardless, it has to be said that the term is a potent one and quite recognisably sweeping. Its simplicity is its strength, and at the very least has been significant in raising awareness of the issue.

According to General Thomas D. Waldhauser, of the U.S. military’s AFRICOM, “parts of Africa remain a battleground between ideologies, interests, and values… The strategic environment includes instability that allows violent extremist organisations to grow and recruit disenfranchised populations.” It is little wonder that trafficking cartels and terrorist groups overlap in their spheres of influence. Both parties attract the young, the disenfranchised, the poor, and the bored. What separates them is that the former is governed by a marketplace, by products and demand. But, evidently, this makes it no easier to combat as far as the international community is willing to concede.

III. The Governance Gap

West Africa, and the Sub-Saharan region more generally, is undergoing an extensive period of change. Political, climatic, social, and economic shifts, not least those that stem from globalisation, are increasingly reciprocal with organised crime. To tackle the transnational nature of the problem, UN-led counter-narcotics operations in West Africa have been transnational in scope, but like any task force that is unrepresentative of the people it aims to assist, it can only achieve so much.

Washington’s Department of Justice has also sent senior legal advisors to Ghana and Sierra Leone to assist with judicial adaptation, however the predominant approach to drug trafficking in the region so far has been based on the Cold War-era international narcotics control regime. This March, for example, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in Dakar deployed Mobile Training Units (MTUs) to local intelligence bodies, and in 2010, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency increased their security personnel spending in West Africa sixfold. Counter-narcotics is certainly a job for law enforcement in some capacity, but limited focus has been placed on the health and developmental aspects of the situation. In general, it falls well behind evidence-based research in every other area. Addiction and psychiatric treatment are invariably under-resourced or non-existent across West Africa and beyond, and welfare institutions are rarely prepared to accommodate long-term dependency.

In closing, two questions can be posed regarding the state of narcotics in West Africa. Firstly, can the region actually become as consumed by a drug related quagmire as Central and South America? In one sense, maybe, because it remains principally a transit region rather than a consumption or production region, making it a more competitive environment for trafficking middle-men. On the other hand, however, this is counter-balanced by the fact that, currently, national authorities lack the resources to respond aggressively or even militarily – a policy which has already exacerbated violence in states like Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil.

Secondly, as the cocaine traffic continues to grow, what does the future hold for regional counter-narcotics? The cause will inevitably become more of a focus for legislators in Europe – it certainly deserves to be – and it has already sullied the immigration debate for every recipient country there. Considering the fact that European consumption trends hold a significant amount of sway over incoming goods, one would think that this would feature more heavily in any kind of holistic antidote.

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic, and currently focuses on organised crime analytics for Intelligence Fusion.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Cover image – Kenneth Iwelumo // West Africa trafficking route map – UNODC // Cocaine use map – Té y kriptonita


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