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The Coke Coast: Cocaine and Failed States in Africa

Joseph Kirschke, October 7, 2008

Stepped up U.S. drug enforcement and interdiction in Latin America, coupled with a falling dollar and a surging demand for cocaine on the streets of Europe, is leading to political and economic chaos across West Africa, where international narco-traffickers have established their most recent, and lucrative, staging grounds. In fact, the drug trade is fast turning large parts of the region into areas that are all but ungovernable -- with major implications for international security. "The former Gold Coast is turning into the Coke Coast," said a 2008 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "The problem is so severe that it is threatening to bring about the collapse of some West African states where weak and corrupt governments are vulnerable to the corrosive influence of drug money."

Though hardly alone in West Africa, Guinea-Bissau, the world's fifth poorest country, with a population of 1.5 million, has for all intents and purposes become the textbook example of the African "narco-state." Due to its relative proximity to South America, its hundreds of miles of unpatrolled coastline, islands and islets, along with the fact that Portuguese is its lingua franca, Guinea-Bissau has been increasingly targeted by South American drug lords as a preferred traffic hub for European-bound cocaine, according to the UNODC. What's more, as citizens of a former Portuguese colony, Guineans do not need visas to enter that EU country, further facilitating the movement of drugs.

Authorities there can do precious little about it. "Guinea-Bissau has lost control of its territory and cannot administer justice," declared Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC executive director, in a statement before the U.N. Security Council in December. "There is a permeability of judicial systems and a corruptibility of institutions in West Africa," he added. "Guinea-Bissau is under siege. Literally under siege."

Part of the problem, as Costa explained, is that the value of the drug trade entering the country, where about 6 grams of cocaine is roughly equal to the average annual salary, is far higher than its entire national income. One drug bust last year in Guinea-Bissau -- 600 kilograms of cocaine found in the boot of a carĀ  -- had a street value equivalent to approximately 10 percent of the country's entire GDP of $340 million. Another raid netted 635 kg of cocaine, although the smugglers were believed to have escaped with more than two tons.

But Guinea-Bissau enjoys plenty of company among its neighbors: To varying degrees, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Guinea-Conakry, Togo, Benin, Senegal, South Africa, and other West African and sub-Saharan states (including already-challenged states like Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and Liberia) are all beginning to feel the long reach of cocaine smuggling.

Though cocaine has been smuggled through West Africa for most of the last decade, the trade has increased sharply in recent years, says Yahia Affinih, a sociologist and professor of African American studies at John Jay College in New York. The two main reasons, says Affinih, are that "unemployment is very high, and law enforcement is weak."

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Despite growing international awareness of the problem, serious efforts to combat it remain embryonic. As a result, authorities have been unable to paint a complete picture of what is actually happening on the ground. Nevertheless, they worry that drug smugglers are actively probing countries in the region for weaknesses, of which there are many. U.N. officials are far from optimistic. According to Costa, "a string of nations along the African coast are rapidly becoming narco-states."

Even countries in East Africa are being affected, albeit to a far lesser degree, with some law enforcement officials estimating that as much as $100 million worth of cocaine could be transiting through Kenya on an annual basis. In fact, according to Kenya's Sunday Nation newspaper, by 2005 saturation of supply combined with a low demand had combined to lower the value of cocaine there by as much as 300 percent. In Uganda, meanwhile, reports are emerging of systematic efforts by local drug rings to entice foreigners -- more than a few of whom have been caught -- into bringing cocaine into Europe from that nation.

But for now, West Africa remains the destination of choice for international narco-traffickers. "In countries that have such weak institutions, it's going to be a mess," Costa noted. Worse still is a phenomenon that drug enforcement officials have yet to encounter in West Africa, but that Costa considers inevitable: "I have no doubt we're going to see production."

Joseph Beduako Asare, of Ghana's International Narcotics Control Board, says this is already happening. Officials in Ghana, he told the U.K.-based publication Africa Report, have identified an escalating trade in devices needed to refine cocaine between gangs in Ghana and South Africa. As a result, he added, cocaine production is now underway in Ghana.

Many experts fear that, along with security issues, the drug trade in West Africa is threatening basic development and economic progress in the region, where countries are emerging from civil war, resettling refugees, or just struggling to cope with the ravaging spread of HIV/AIDS. "The money from the drug trade is competing with the institution-building," Emmanuelle Bernard, West Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group told Reuters, "which is what these countries need to be doing now."

High Demand, High Volume


The cocaine trade is believed to be worth between $56 and $70 billion globally and, according to the UNODC, annual global production has increased to nearly 700 tons in recent years. There is no question that America continues to consume, by far, more cocaine than any other nation in the world. A July report by the World Health Organization underscored this point, reporting that 16 percent of all Americans had used or tried cocaine at some point in their lifetimes, compared to 4.3 percent for the next highest country rated, New Zealand. Nonetheless, the consumption of cocaine in the U.S. has remained more or less stagnant since 1995, say U.S. law enforcement and drug policy experts. Meanwhile, on the streets of European cities, its use continues to soar to unprecedented levels.

Specifically, the UNODC estimates that of the 14 million people who use cocaine annually, more than 4 million live in Europe alone -- more than triple the number 10 years ago. What's more, 20 percent of all Europeans have tried cocaine at least once in their lifetimes. And with the euro trading at $1.45 against the U.S. dollar as of early September, profit margins for cocaine sales in Europe (ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 percent) have skyrocketed.

According to U.N. figures, two pounds of uncut cocaine can now fetch as much as $45,000 on the streets of Europe, as opposed to less than half that price ($22,000) in the U.S. Not surprisingly, many drug traffickers are now actively shunning the dollar for the euro, as evidenced by the confiscation of vast amounts of Euros from cocaine traffickers by drug enforcement agents across the Americas. Should profits continue to surge, some have voiced concerns that European cities could witness the kind of all-out gang warfare that is now ravaging Mexico, and that has plagued Colombia in years past. For the time being, it is a scenario that has yet to play out.

The majority of European cocaine makes initial landfall in either Spain or Portugal where, by all accounts, officials are seeing an increase in confiscation. In 2007, for example, Spanish police netted some 1,358 kilos of cocaine at Madrid's Barajas International Airport, more than double the 570 kilos seized in 2006. Last year, officials arrested 426 people on drug charges at the airport, also twice the number detained in 2006. This makes Spain, according to officials in Madrid, the leading point of entry for the world's cocaine as it makes its way to Europe.

It is all but impossible to know the true amount of cocaine that is smuggled through West Africa at any given time. A 2006 report by the European police agency, Europol, asserted that 250 tons of cocaine enters the EU by sea or air every year and, in the two years leading up to 2007, according to UNDOC statistics, more than 30 tons of cocaine was seized en route from Africa to Europe. But according to U.N. officials, these intercepts represented a mere "tip of the iceberg." Equally telling may be the fact that seizures to or from West Africa jumped from just 273 kg in 2001 to more than 14.6 tons in 2006.

While exact numbers remain elusive, the UNODC estimates that the total amount of cocaine smuggled from Africa is worth at least $1.8 billion at wholesale prices, and far more when distributed at street level after hitting European cities.

This vast network is, at best, difficult for U.S. and European governments to monitor, combat or control. Most Western embassies had closed shop in Bissau during its last civil war, preferring to work from neighboring Senegal for practical and safety reasons. Only since July of 2007 has an American diplomatic presence returned, in large part due to concerns stemming from the cocaine trade.

There has been some progress, however. Last year, for example, seven European nations formed the Maritime Analysis and Operations Center-Narcotics (MAOC-N), an international agency headquartered in Lisbon and dedicated to stopping drug trafficking across the Atlantic. In October, it successfully alerted Spanish officials to a Panamanian-registered ship with three tons of cocaine bound for Senegal. And in January, a tipoff from the MAOC-N allowed a French navy ship to stop another vessel with 2.5 tons of cocaine. Altogether, in 2007, intelligence from the MAOC-N led to the seizure of more than 26 tons of cocaine from Africa bound for Europe -- a dramatic increase from the total of 33 tons netted during the two previous years.

The UNODC and Guinea-Bissau's government, meanwhile, have drawn up a $19 million operational plan that, with international assistance, will provide surveillance equipment and police training to monitor that country's porous borders, destroy confiscated narcotics and arrest traffickers. In December of 2007, a donor conference in Lisbon produced pledges of $6.5 million towards the initiative.

Officials from the U.S. State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement are also working to identify gaps in the region's judicial sector on a country-by-country basis. Senegal and Ghana, in particular, are being examined more closely by U.S. officials, as Washington has a bigger diplomatic presence in those two countries. The most important element of this outreach effort consists of a team of judicial and law enforcement specialists who possess expertise relating to all aspects of civilian sectors in the targeted countries. This group includes a U.S. Attorney, who serves as a resident legal adviser, and experts from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In addition, the team includes a corrections expert with management experience at state-run prisons in the U.S., and who has served in an advisory role with American-run prisons in Iraq, where he developed assessment protocols for the facilities, training guidelines for guards and tracking systems for inmates.

On the ground in Guinea-Bissau, international drug enforcement and U.N. officials have also identified an old military landing strip 300 miles south of Bissau, the capital, as a new point of entry. The UNODC office in Dakar, Senegal, monitors the flow of drugs into the country and Interpol has established a special center in Bissau to further investigate the problem on the ground.

The Pentagon is getting into the act, too, increasing and expanding its counter-narcotics programs in the region. In June, after his nomination hearing to become the first assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs, Joseph A. Benkert voiced his concern over the issue in a written answer to a Senate Armed Services questionnaire. At the same hearing, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was instructed to prepare, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a "region-wide, counter-drug plan for Africa, with a special emphasis on West Africa and the Maghreb."

Beyond providing support through equipment for Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, the House Armed Services Committee is seeking to extend for one year Department of Defense financial support for anti-narcotics efforts by governments in the region, while increasing funding for these programs to $65 million from $60 million.

Further diplomatic initiatives will be discussed this year when representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United States Office in West Africa (UNOWA) meet with UNODC officials at a conference on narcotics trafficking and related crimes in West Africa on Oct. 28-29 in Cape Verde.

Other bilateral efforts include Operation Westbridge in Ghana by U.K. officials seeking to replicate previous successes in Jamaica. Under this initiative, British customs agents armed with special scanning equipment have been posted at Accra's Kotoka International Airport to assist Ghanian officials in making arrests. Interpol has also begun developing Cocaine Africa (COCAF), a team consisting of European and African law enforcement specialists that studies traffickers' methods.

But officials in Washington, Europe and elsewhere say that more still needs to be done to combat local corruption and, to a lesser extent, mixed degrees of international cooperation in the region. In one notable instance, despite support from U.S. FBI and DEA officials, police officials in Guinea-Bissau were physically barred by army soldiers from searching a suspect plane in June. It was only after the aircraft had been completely emptied, according to Reuters, that drug-sniffing dogs were able to come aboard -- and confirm that cocaine had been present. More broadly, European and American authorities have also grown frustrated by the persistent refusal of any West African nation to join the seven European members as signatories of the MAOC-N.

Joseph Kirschke is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers international affairs and is a visiting fellow at the Fund for Peace, a research and educational nonprofit organization.

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