What impact is rising cocaine trafficking having in Africa? What can be learnt from Latin America and the Caribbean? This report warns that cocaine traffic contributes to higher levels of violence and instability. West Africa today has many of the conditions that enabled narcotics-related violence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The damaging influence of narcotics trafficking in Africa threatens to become institutionally entrenched and poses severe security challenges. African governments urgently need to raise transaction costs and protect the integrity of their counternarcotics institutions to tackle this threat.
The dollar value of cocaine trafficked through West Africa has risen rapidly and surpassed all other illicit commodities smuggled in the subregion. While West Africa is the focus, the continent as a whole is an ideal transhipment centre: poor, with limited oversight and weak policing. Since Africa is not a producer or major consumer of cocaine, some assume that domestic effects will be minor. But evidence of cocaine’s destabilising impact is already emerging. The sheer value of the trade poses not only security threats, but also risks distorting the region’s economy, investment flows, development and democracy.
Cocaine transhipment in Africa is new, but Latin American and Caribbean countries have over 30 years of experience with narcotics and their destabilising effects. This experience provides valuable insights for Africa.
- In the Caribbean, narcotics traffic has been a major factor in expanding and deepening corruption. Jamaica has long struggled against endemic corruption, clientelist politics and lack of checks and balances within government.
- Narcotics trafficking has also penetrated government and undermined governance elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean. As cocaine transhipment grows, West Africa’s fragile governance institutions may be further weakened.
- Evidence from Latin America and the Caribbean shows that where cocaine traffic moves, so too do homicide rates and conflict. Traffickers may resort to violence to resist attempts to curtail drug flows and to maintain loyalty and discipline. In such environments, violence can spiral.
- West Africa has many insurgencies and terrorist groups which may view cocaine traffic as an opportunity to access financial resources.
- West Africa’s traffickers in small arms, cigarettes and humans may diversify into cocaine. In Latin America, these problems quickly turned into national security challenges.
Quick and robust responses are necessary. The threats posed by cocaine trafficking will be harder to reverse if left unchecked. Since cocaine traffic in West Africa is still maturing, there is an opportunity to prevent its expansion.
- West African political and civic leaders should press responsible government agencies to accelerate their counternarcotics efforts. Recently devised strategies remain unused and poorly distributed.
- It is important to safeguard the integrity of counternarcotics institutions. Training, equipment and other capacity enhancements will have a limited effect if institutions and officials remain corruptible.
- Leaders should also target corruption among law enforcement and judicial personnel and strengthen oversight mechanisms. In addition, credible politicians and elections are vital to integrity.
- Trafficking through West Africa is comparatively cheap. Arrests, prosecution and other counternarcotics operations are vital to stemming traffic. Efforts that hinder the business of moving cocaine through West Africa make it more arduous, expensive and unappealing.