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The International Drug Trade and West Africa: An Enforcement Quandary

“In the past decade, there has been significant growth in the illicit trafficking of drugs, people, firearms, and natural resources. Trafficking in these and other commodities is generally characterized by high levels of organization and the presence of strong criminal groups and networks. While such activities existed in the past, both the scale and the geographic scope of the current challenge are unprecedented. In 2009, the value of illicit trade around the globe was estimated at US$1.3 trillion and is increasing.” –The United Nations General Assembly on Drugs and Crime as a Threat to Development

Ten years ago, drug trafficking in Africa was virtually nonexistent. Drug consumption in the region had an even more negligible presence. Since 2006, however, Africa has become a major stepping stone in the international drug trade between South America and Europe. The trade has surpassed entire GDPs of many West African countries. In 2010, the UN estimated the volume of cocaine shipped through West Africa at up to 60 tons. The issue, however, is less cut and dry than drug problems in developed nations. In West Africa, the issue is a complex interaction of influencing players and factors. There, the drug trade threatens physical and cultural institutions that have been established in the west for centuries but are still struggles to find a sure foothold in Africa. In recent decades, West African countries have made great strides towards eradicating poverty, improving quality of life, and steadying political institutions. The international drug trade, however, threatens to reverse the gains by destroying the social dynamic necessary for maintaining a just political state. And, as legitimate institutions lose ground, wealthy traffickers are happy to snatch political territory for themselves.

The Trade:

Virtually all of the world’s cocaine comes from South and Central America. It’s largest consumer bases are North America and Europe, each comprising just under half of the world’s cocaine intake. The UN estimates that drug trafficking produces 322 billion USD a year. After three decades of the international trafficking of cocaine, the market has matured and big businesses in the game have emerged, the seemingly omnipresent cartels and well-armed drug gangs. Traffic to Europe, however, has become more difficult over the years after massive coordinated efforts to stem the tide of drugs from the Americas into the UK, France, Spain, and Germany.

In the past decade, that has meant that the drug cartels have turned their millions and even billions of dollars towards alternate routes to Europe by way of West Africa. West Africa is a perfect throughway for drug traffickers in almost every way. It is strategically located between Africa and Europe. The coast and the interior is massive and poorly patrolled. And, where there are governments attempting to enforce trafficking laws, officials are easily bribed. The 2008 UN World Drug Report states that the majority of the drugs trafficked to Europe by plane came from Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal with Guinea comprising the single largest national total in the region. Other common routes are over land through North Africa by armed convoy or by boat. With plenty of money to spend on transportation, trafficking methods are widely diversified. Organizations use every method available to smuggle tons upon tons of illicit substances into Europe.

Trafficking: Side Effects of the Bad Trip through Africa

The massive scale of substance trafficking through Western Europe has many harmful effects on the region. Among the harmful effects are the drug habits spread to the regions through which the drugs are trafficked and, more dangerously, the funding of terrorist organizations. The massive profits of the drug trade go to highly organized international crime syndicates, organizations that are rarely friendly with the US, other developed countries, or their host country. Even more harmful, however, is the detrimental effect that organized and well paid organizations have upon the social, economic, and political institutions within West Africa. Since the 90s, these legitimate institutions have made slow gains in poverty eradication, quality of life, and democracy. The effects of the drug trade threaten to reverse these positive gains.

Drugs and Terrorism

Already trafficking illegal products, drug cartels care little about to whom they sell their product or by whom it is carried as long as the supply line is steady and the profit margins are wide. This generally means that the traffickers partner with area gangs and crime rings. In West and North Africa, the gangs that are already the best organized are often the Islamist militant groups throughout the region and to the North. Ideologically, Islamist groups are more than willing to help send harmful and addictive substances to Europe. They are even more willing to use the trade to finance their activities. In 2010, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) declassified a case in which they placed an informant who gave them the full details of a Liberia bound 6,000 kilogram cocaine deal between a Columbian, a Russian, and three West Africans, all facilitated by the head of the Liberian security forces, the son of the Liberian President. The West Africans were, in turn, working with the terrorist group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A more recent case disrupted a deal between the Columbian FARC terrorist organization and AQIM, preventing AQIM from a 3 million USD pay day. Similar cases abound as drug seizures of thousands upon thousands of kilograms run well into the hundreds. However, as the drugs continue to move by air or land from Western Africa to Europe, organized crime, generally Islamist groups, make financial gains while simultaneously improving their organization, efficiency, networks, and firepower. As law enforcement begins to catch up with the traffickers, the traffickers adapt and the market matures, becoming more and more established.  The end result is that the international drug trade in West Africa funds Islamist terrorist organizations.

West African Drug Consumption

The second problem and by-product of the drug trade in West Africa is drug consumption in the region itself. Dealers are often paid in product instead of cash. This can be more lucrative than cash as it enables carriers to sell the product for a great profit higher up the chain. Simultaneously, however, the drug itself slips insidiously into the regional networks of the traders. In 2009, an estimated 13 tons of cocaine were stored or consumed in West Africa. Another estimate claims that a full one third of the drugs destined for Europe are consumed locally. The value of drugs consumed in the region is over 800 million USD. The gross national income of Guinea-Bissau, one of the hottest countries for drug traffickers for its island-dotted coastline and poor government, is only 400 million USD. The problems from this discrepancy alone are many.

Social, Economic, and Institutional Regress

“In several drug production and transit regions, criminal groups undermine state authority and the rule of law by fuelling corruption, compromising elections, and hurting the legitimate economy. In all cases, criminal influence and money are having a significant impact on the livelihoods and quality of life of citizens, most particularly the poor, women and children.”  -The UN on the Effect of Drugs on Development

Perhaps the most sinister problem at the root of the drug trafficking issue in Western Africa is the catch-22 it presents to governments in the region. Since the late 90s, most West African governments have made steady developmental gains towards free government and the accompanying social and economic benefits. These gains, however, are delicate. Transitions of power are still rarely peaceful, corruption is still common, and citizens are still learning how to interact with their governments appropriately. It is here that the drug trade strikes its deadliest yet most surreptitious blow.

The financial size of the drug trade is formidable when compared to the economies of West African nations. This gives huge economic and social leverage to both foreign and domestic traffickers. As vast portions of West African economies turn over to illegal activity, the countries movements towards development are hurt in three ways. Firstly, the strength of the legitimate economy suffers as the high profits of the illicit trade incentivize illegal activity. Secondly, as trafficking organizations increase in power, their contact with government increases. Inevitably, politicians and police forces become additional well-paid cogs in the drug supply chain. Thirdly, as governments crack down on traffickers, they exercise the sort of violent police power that was common in the authoritarian governments of the region’s recent history. The simple act of enforcing drug laws and fighting the drug traffickers reverses many West African countries’ progress towards free government. Thus, at the very time that West African citizens need to see a de-militarized and free government, they are seeing police and military task forces cracking down on civilian traffickers. Even though these task forces act out of necessity, the damage they do to the citizens perception of their own role in the government is immeasurable and unfortunate. Furthermore, as governments become more comfortable with using police and military power to resolve trafficking issues, they may be more likely to use it in less appropriate circumstances.

An Unexpected Stability

While generalizations across the entire region of West Africa lack nuance, there are trends. In regions where there is an established trafficking ring and little government intervention. There is comparative stability. Three things, however, can quickly replace the eerie stability of drug-gang ruled lands. These are government vs. drug-gang wars, different drug gangs fighting over territory, and ideological motivations of the drug gangs that are external to trafficking. The first issue of government vs. drug gangs harkens back to the problem recently discussed. If the government leaves the traffickers to themselves, there is relative peace. The cost, however, is the creeping effects of the drug trade namely, addiction, economic regress, and social movements away from democracy. The second problem is unique to every region. Some drug trafficking circles are built around ethnicities that have historic rivalries with their neighbors. Other trafficking rings just want to expand. The third and final motivator for trafficking instability is the makeup of the trafficking group itself. The explicit goal of Boko Haram, for example, is to overthrow the government of the Nigeria and establish an Islamist state. The profits that Boko Haram claims from the drug trade go directly towards destabilizing Nigeria. The objectives of AQIM are similar. Trafficking, therefore, has a curious relationship with stability and instability that defies generalization. Some trafficking areas are stable while others are highly unstable. Overall, however, trafficking tends to destabilize the areas through which it occurs.


INTERPOL and other anti-trafficking organizations are working hard to stem the international flow of illicit materials. The more that stable and free governments do to stop trafficking the less that unstable governments have to work against it, an action that, as discussed earlier, may harm the unstable country itself. As most of the materials pushed through West Africa come through South and Central America, winning the drug war there will have a ripple effect in West Africa. Fewer tons smuggled means fewer paychecks for all traffickers and carriers which, in turn, decreases their ability to traffic and buy political influence. Drug profits are too high to let them fall into the hands of terrorist organizations. In general, fighting trafficking after the goods are already in Africa is an uphill battle. The area is too vast and the governments too ill-equipped and mismanaged to stop traffickers. Drug trafficking must be stopped at its source. Intelligence in the West African area, however, is of the highest necessity. The US needs to know and understand the funding schemes and income of international terrorist organizations. International drug smuggling as a means of terrorist fundraising must be uncovered and prevented by INTERPOL. In this way, international trafficking through West African can be diminished while simultaneously ensuring that West African governments do not over-familiarize themselves with strong police powers, powers that have lent themselves towards repression in the past.


As African countries continue to develop their institutions, both political and social, the drug trade threatens to slow and even halt the gains of the past two decades. As governments respond to the drug trade, however, they exercise dangerous police powers that may prove harmful towards democratic, non-violent, and free government. As policing efforts by international anti-trafficking efforts mature, the pressure for West African governments to use strong police force will fade. So, even though the international drug trade through West Africa has skyrocketed over a mere decade, its successful future is not guaranteed. The outlook for the US, Europe, and Africa is still, in many ways, hopeful.






Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OSINT researcher and OODA Analyst and with a background in international development and security across Central Africa and the Middle East. Currently based in Berlin, Germany, he holds a BA in International Policy from Patrick Henry College and a Masters in International Security from the University of St. Andrews.