Organised crime and poor policy behind Africa’s looming drugs crisis

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Africa faces a substantial increase in illegal drug use fuelled by organised crime and ineffective policy. In the next 30 years, sub-Saharan Africa will see the world’s biggest surge in illicit drug users with its share of global drug consumption projected to double.

This is according to new research and analysis of Africa’s drug trade, policy and future consumption trends by the ENACT transnational organised crime programme. ENACT is a partnership between the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Interpol and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI), funded by the European Union. The research was released in Addis Ababa last week.

It is anticipated by 2050 there will be an additional 14 million Africans using illegal drugs, with a total of 23 million users in sub-Saharan Africa. The continent dominates the global expansion of non-medical use of pharmaceutical opioids, with 87% of global seizures in 2016.

East Africa will experience the sharpest increase in the proportion of population using illicit drugs and West Africa is set to remain the continent’s largest regional drug market.

West Africa’s role as a global trafficking hub for drugs, particularly cocaine, expands. The region’s drug users will more than double from about 5,7 million in 2018 to 13 million in 2050. An underground economy has developed around production and distribution of methamphetamines, particularly in Nigeria.

Africa’s dangerous drug phenomenon is driven by weak regulation and organised crime operating across national borders. It is assisted by global production of cocaine and heroin to levels the 2018 World Drug Report says are the highest ever.

A growing heroin economy emerged from the international drug smuggling route down the east coast of Africa for shipment to international markets.

Drug use threatens African health and national development, ENACT said. The drug trade, fuelled by organised crime, corrupts democratic institutions and threatens achievement of the sustainable development goals. African consumption of illegal drugs is projected to become a public health emergency but the continent has a dramatic inability to meet demand for treatment. For example, 2017 data revealed 40% of high-risk drug users in Nigeria wanted treatment but were unable to access it.

The African Union (AU) and its regional economic communities need to act urgently to address the drug challenge, said Eric Pelser, ENACT programme head at the ISS. “Illegal drug use poses a formidable law enforcement and public health problem to governments in Africa,” he said.

Use of injected drugs like heroin risks another spike in HIV and other diseases and the growing significance of Africa as a drug transportation hub will further strain law enforcement.

Participation in drug trafficking offers political, security and business leaders windfall profits, says GI’s Mark Shaw, an organised crime expert. “They conduct electoral and security campaigns, feed patronage systems or take a fast track to wealth and power. In turn, politicians and security leaders offer traffickers protection or even assistance.”

African drug markets are becoming more sophisticated and increasingly take advantage of innovations such as blockchain technology, crypto-currencies and trading platforms on the dark web.

Disproportionate harm from poor policy

African drug policy is complex and controversial and previous attempts to respond to drug trade and consumption have done a disproportionate amount of harm with limited results.

Securitised responses had unintended consequences. Drugs became a revenue source for terrorist organisations, national prison populations expanded and generations of young people were disenfranchised by criminal convictions for low-level drug crimes.

Continental drug markets continued to expand as illicit crops were destroyed, drug users imprisoned, illicit labs dismantled and drug shipments seized. There is a growing evidence base for the human and economic costs of the failing war on drugs with health institutions and civil society voices pushing for new directions in drug policy.

Most drugs remain illegal across much of the continent, but there is discrepancy in how they are policed and controlled. The traditional consensus on full prohibition by African governments is breaking down and some states recognise drug legalisation as a more effective approach, with AU and national policy makers tackling Africa’s drug challenge with evidence-based policies including law enforcement, social welfare and public health.

ENACT made policy recommendations. It said effective responses must reduce production and trafficking of drugs, coupled with demand reduction and expanded healthcare for treatment of drug users. Data collection and monitoring of drug use should be expanded and co-ordinated and the stigma removed from drug use and the need for treatment.

All regions on the continent should bolster intelligence-led cross-border law enforcement to curb supply and production of illicit drugs, targeting traffickers rather than users.



INTERPOL supports establishment of analytical units in a number of African countries and developing capacity to address the drugs issue. This approach has proven effective with units producing their own analytical product. Pilot countries have expressed a will to disseminate the culture and method of criminal intelligence analysis, using analysts to provide training at police schools.