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Global Drug Trafficking: Africa's Expanding Role

Antonio Mazzitelli, United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Representative for Central and West Africa;Bruce Bagley, Professor of International Studies, University of Miami; Michael Braun, former head of Operations, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Peter Burgess,Counter-narcotics project Officer for US Africa Command (AFRICOM); Candace Ross,US Africa Command Narcotics Office (AFRICOM); Victor Cole-Showers, Nigerian Drug and Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Commander at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos

Date & Time

May. 28, 2009
9:00am – 12:30pm ET


Increases in globalization, technology, telecommunications and travel have, in part, led to a commensurate increase in all brands of trafficking: weapons, drugs and even humans. Drugs and drug trafficking from the Middle East and Afghanistan have been a growing problem in East and Southern Africa, particularly with Johannesburg as a transit point since 1994; meanwhile, West Africa has emerged as a key player in the traffic of drugs from Latin American to Europe. Latin American drug cartels take advantage of poor countries like Guinea Bissau with weak central governments, and corrupt and inept law enforcement agencies that are unable to control their coasts and ports. Serious consequences in human and economic terms for Africa are already being seen. Both East and West African countries are facing security threats of drug traffickers infiltrating the ports in order to bring their product - largely cocaine, heroin, and opium - into the country and move it to Europe, the Gulf States or even within the continent itself. International and domestic response to drug trafficking has been varied, but several players are involved, from the UN to the United States, European countries and organizations from several different African countries. On May 28, 2009, the Africa Program brought together a series of experts and policymakers for a two panel conference on international drug trafficking and the ways it affects and is effected by Africa. The overarching agreement in both panels was Africa's central location as a key factor in its use as a transit continent for the moving of drugs, and that we are only beginning to see its effects on African states.

Security and Economic Implications
The risks for African countries in terms of security and economy are already being seen in trafficking states. Antonio Mazzitelli, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Representative for Central and West Africa noted that drug flows through Africa have existed for the last twenty years but have increased over the last several years. This is due in part to Africa's strategic location but most importantly, to the lack of control over a major part of the trade routes used, regardless of transportation mode (i.e. water, air, and land). He listed piracy, terrorism funding, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, prostitution, counterfeit products, human trafficking, and prostitution inter alia as illicit activities resulting as direct effects of the nascent drug trade. Contributing factors to the spread of the trade on the continent include a permissive working environment where corruption is the rule rather than the exception, a weak judiciary, and the presence of large quantities of money that remain disintegrated from the legitimate economy. He defined "the cycle of failed states" as organized crimes and illicit trafficking, which then produces corruption, in turn making a country vulnerable to political terrorism, but also to other transnational organized criminal activities. He noted that drug states are especially prone to conflict because the money generated from illicit sources becomes "a prevalent interest for the different stakeholders…in order to monopolize [political processes]".

Emphasizing challenges regarding rule of law, and the existence of criminal states as problematic to fighting drug trafficking, Doug Farah, Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, stressed that there is a difference between failed states and criminal states. The former functions as a criminal enterprise and is not exactly failed, but does not benefit its own population. He also pointed out that commodity wars have driven violence in West African nations for a long time and that cocaine is becoming another commodity that raises the value considerably. He cited the example of the diamond trade. Diamonds were worth between twenty-two and twenty-seven million a year to Charles Taylor and the RUF in West Africa; cocaine could easily top those profits and drive wars to new levels.

Victor Cole Showers, Commander of Operations at the MMIA Airport in Lagos discussed how the drug trade undermines the developmental objectives of African nations and leads to an increase in violent crime and organized criminal activities. Money laundered from drugs creates a false sense of prosperity since the money is not used for the development of a country's economy and its infrastructure. Among some the trade's negative effects are the increase in violent crimes, arms trafficking, and the ability for rebel groups to fund themselves. Insecurity stemming from the drug trade negatively affects foreign investment, leading to the exacerbation of economic constraints, and then to political destabilization. He listed corruption as one of the contributing factors to the trade, and proposed the strengthening of law enforcement capacity, as well as adequate wages which would reduce the incidence of officer bribery. He emphatically stated that along with tackling poverty, African leaders must put drug related issues on their priority list before effective change can be made to fight drug trafficking on the African continent.

According to Candace Ross, member of U.S. Africa Command Counter Narcotics Office, traffickers are increasingly using Africa as a transshipment point for numerous types of drugs due to its "porous borders, instability, corruption and lack of law enforcement resources". Even when interdiction forces make the necessary efforts to counter certain directional patterns, traffickers develop more complicated and varied transport methods, making the task at hand an increasingly difficult one. She cited the shortage of resources, limited dedicated counter drug forces, and a lack of consistent and adequate pay as leading security forces to accept bribes or to facilitate drug shipments for trafficking, a point also stressed by Cole Showers. Further exacerbating the problem is the spillover effect and the intentional creation of "crack" cocaine users within local populations, as this derivative is more affordable than the pure form of the drug. This has created a public health issue that the social sector is ill-equipped and under funded to deal with. "Of note, an eroding society, especially in an area with a large population of young people, has the potential to create an environment favorable to the development of dissidents malleable to terrorist ideology and creates safe havens for terrorist organizations." Ross also warned that instability and rampant criminality can lead to a humanitarian crisis with refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, putting a burden on already economically strained governments, and that this should be of concern. She concluded by remarking that "bluntly, the value of cocaine is often greater than the money that almost any African country spends on its counter drug forces or on its entire police forces."

Michael Braun, former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Chief of Operations discussing the nexus between drugs and terrorism, noted that what is being observed in Africa today in terms of the drug trade is unfortunately only the "tip of the iceberg", and represents roughly only about 5 percent of the entire African drug trade. He explained the symbiotic relationship between the drug trade and terrorism; both have the same goals and, when carried out effectively, those involved reap the same benefits. Not only do they both "thrive in the same ungoverned spaces" and work "hard to create and maintain permissive environments", but when one or the other succeeds in destabilizing a government, the benefits are mutual. The bottom line is that the drug trade has a profound impact on a region's stability. He explained that when two or more well-armed and trained threats are compressed into the same time and space, they either build alliances or resort to conflict, "both of which undermine peace, security and stability". Illustrating this fact is a Stanford University study of 128 civil wars and insurgencies spanning from 1945 to 2000, where seventeen of the 128 revealed heavy reliance on ‘contraband revenue' by the insurgents.

International and Domestic Responses
Peter Burgess, counter-narcotics project officer for US Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, spoke about the counter narcotics strategies and operational realities of combating drug trafficking. Burgess illustrated both statistically and graphically the challenges to fighting drug trafficking on the maritime front. A lack of funding for interdiction and interception operations is one of the main problems to countering the drug trade. Whereas the number of illicit narcotics vessels and illicit aircraft sorties - one hundred and sixty respectively - and the 2800 nm of coast line from Nigeria to Cape Verde would normally demand intensive surveillance and monitoring of these zone, there is limited radar coverage and maritime assets in this area of the Atlantic. The combined total annual budgets of roughly a dozen West African countries would not even amount to the $200 million Burgess estimates are needed to equip the coastline with an adequate marine fleet for such an operation. He maintained that resources, capabilities, and capacities will remain limited unless a multinational interagency effort is implemented both politically and economically.

Bruce Bagley, professor of International Studies and Chair of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami in Florida, examined reasons for the heightened levels of drug trafficking in Africa. He cited the increase in demand in the European Union from a user population of 3.5 million to 4.5 million over just one year as one example. Along with an intensified demand market and the geographical practicality of the trade, he also noted the "state problem". Bagley distinguished between four types of states: failed or collapsed states, pariah states, courtesan states and liberal or democratic states. Drug trafficking is present within every single one of these states-albeit with varying degrees of state sponsorship; transformation, then, to a "democratic" state will not solve the issue but present a new set of problems. He proposed border control and the administration of justice and the establishment of rule of law as fundamental steps to be taken, remarking that the changes will not happen over night, but rather over generations. In this regard, civil society's role is a critical factor in obtaining intelligence information, although in many countries civil population cooperation with the police is a "double-edged sword". Along with civilian participation, and an effective press, electronic advances are needed in order to ensure a clampdown on money laundering, a problem largely facilitated by African states' cash-based economy. Finally, a severe lack in regional cooperation, international coordination, and multilateral operations must be overcome to ensure that combating drug trafficking is effective and sustainable in the long term.


Welcome, Steve McDonald, Consulting Program Manager, Africa Program and Opening remarks, Antonio Mazzitelli, UNODC Special Representative for West and Central Africa


Victor Cole Showers, Nigerian National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Commander at the MMIA Airport, Lagos; Antonio Mazzitelli, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Special Representative for West and Central Africa; Candace Ross, AFRICOM


Bruce Bagley, Professor, International Studies, University of Miami; Michael Braun, Former head of Operations US Drug Enforcement Agency; Peter Burgess, AFRICOM


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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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