Narco-States: Africa's Next Menace

Since emerging as Africa’s first narco-state in the mid 2000s, Guinea Bissau’s slide toward instability has been swift and precipitous. The homicide rate has spiked by 25 percent and is now nearly three times the global average. Meanwhile, poverty levels have remained near the very bottom of world rankings. Over the last five years its score on the well known “Failed States Index” has plunged more than any other country.

Cocaine traffickers, mostly from South America, first visited this sleepy West African country almost a decade ago. Guinea Bissau offered a backdoor route into the booming European cocaine market and was virtually risk free on account of its weak, easily corruptible government agencies. Co-optation, after all, is the preferred method of South America’s drug cartels.

Narco-corruption quickly penetrated the highest levels of power, including the office of former President João Bernardo Vieira, who was assassinated in March 2009. Leading military officers have since been designated “drug kingpins” by the U.S. government. As a result of such corruption, the narcotics trade flourished and may now surpass the entire value of the national economy.

Were Guinea Bissau an isolated case, these events would be sad but strategically insignificant. Unfortunately, the country may be but Africa’s first narco-state.

In recent years, traffic in heroin, amphetamines and cocaine has expanded dramatically across Africa, growing into a roughly $6 billion to $7 billion illicit industry on the continent, according to conservative estimates. As in Guinea Bissau, these drug profits are filtering to the upper echelons of power in Africa, even in some of the continent’s so-called “anchor states” such as Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. Members of Parliament, police officials and government ministers have been implicated in drug smuggling over the past year.

This raises a host of concerns. Narco-corruption imperils the continent’s recent unprecedented economic boom, which averaged 5 percent annually over the last decade and is projected to outstrip all other regions in the next five years. Likewise, roughly 60 percent of African countries are now on a democratic path, a trend that could easily be reversed with the instability brought on by drug networks. Trafficking also threatens to destabilize an increasingly vital supplier to global oil and gas markets, including a fifth of U.S. oil imports.

Ominously, Africa’s growing drug trade is also amplifying a range of international security threats. Hezbollah and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have become involved in narco-trafficking. They earn millions from Africa’s cocaine trade. Much of this money may go to purchasing the sophisticated weaponry that has flooded Africa’s black markets following the fall of the Qaddafi regime, including Semtex explosives popular with terrorist groups that were recently seized by Nigerian security units following a battle with Qaeda militants.

The African trafficking corridor to Europe also provides South American groups a low-risk alternative to the increasingly cut-throat cocaine transit routes in the Americas. In Pakistan, where the heroin trade continues to fuel instability and violence, Africans account for roughly half of all annual drug trafficking arrests.

Most worrying is the persistence of these challenges. The prolonged drug violence that continues to claim thousands of lives in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere is tragically clear evidence of such intractability. Narco-trafficking is by definition a transnational challenge. Therefore, this shouldn’t simply be viewed as an African problem.

Modest efforts have been made against Africa’s accelerating narco-trafficking networks. The United States has frozen assets and imposed sanctions against a few alleged African drug traffickers, including Mozambique’s richest citizen and a major donor to the ruling political party as well as an assistant trade minister in Kenya.

If more frequently used and reinforced by similar pressure from European and other governments, these tools could deliver even better results. Were the African Union to impose restrictions and embargoes, as it did during a recent political crisis in Guinea, breakthroughs in deterrence and cooperation toward a more comprehensive counternarcotics agenda could be achieved.

In Africa’s drug trafficking hubs such as Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya and South Africa, a primary aim must be to stem traffickers’ infiltration of critical state institutions. Africa’s anti-corruption commissions and offices of inspectors general should be strengthened with expanded authorities, resources and autonomy. Political party systems must also become more transparent and accountable to prevent drug profits from buying Africa’s elections, which are becoming more frequent and expensive.

Now is the best chance to head off the creation of more narco-states in Africa and prevent a new scourge from sinking roots in this long-suffering continent. The job will be much harder once the kingpins are running the show.

By Davin O’Regan, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington who specializes on transnational organized crime issues in Africa.

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