West African drug trafficking is having a “very significant” impact on the region’s economies but local responses have been contradictory as the flow of money is seen as “better than nothing” by some, the United Nations said.
The world body estimates that $1 billion worth of cocaine, destined to Europe from Latin America, passed through West Africa in 2008. The figure is higher than or comparable to the gross domestic product of a handful of nations in the region.
The trade has spooked European nations trying to stem drugs flowing onto their markets.
But concerns are also rising over the impact a drugs trade of this value is having in West Africa as analysts say it is leading to a spike in money laundering, crime and corruption in a region in need of stability and investment.
“There is a contradictory message coming from these countries,” Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN’s Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said late on Monday.
“On the one hand you cannot build the societies using illegal money. On the other hand, these are countries not greatly appreciated by foreign investors, with mass unemployment, mass poverty. Therefore these resources coming in are better than nothing,” he added.
Costa was speaking on the sidelines of a meeting of seven nations seeking to map out a response to the drug trade, which is increasingly seen as having a direct impact on, rather than just passing through, a patchwork of poor and unstable nations.
Real estate, tourism and casinos in the region are being used to launder vast sums of money, experts say.
Few figures are available, though a boom in construction in Senegal and a sudden jump in the number of banks in Gambia are cited as evidence.
Over the weekend, experts warned that West Africans are consuming more of the drugs flowing through their countries, raising the spectre of rising crime and health problems in already unstable states.
Instability in Guinea-Bissau and Guinea over the last year has also been linked, in parts, to the trade.
Regional body ECOWAS warned that money from the drugs trade was undermining efforts to improve governance in the region.
Host Senegal also sounded a warning.
“The economic and financial systems of our region, which was so badly hit by the economic crisis, are now threatened by money laundering and the impact of the drug economy,” Prime Minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye said, without making any reference to his own country.
The nations signed off on the “Dakar Initiative”, the latest in a string of agreements to tackle a trade that the UN said was ignored for two years, between 2004 and 2006, before several hundred kilo cocaine seizures grabbed world headlines.
The Dakar Initiative’s plans to tackle trafficking include strengthening judicial systems, boosting the security forces, reducing demand and improving international cooperation.
European donors also promised €15 million in aid.
The trade is still primarily run by Latin American cartels but the UN fears an increase in the numbers of “unwilling but vulnerable soldiers of cartels” in the region.
And Costa warned that any approach to cut them out in West Africa must, like in drug-producing Colombia or Afghanistan, offer viable economic alternatives in order to succeed.
“When the illicit money has macro-economic dimensions, we risk macro-economic consequences,” he said.
“When people start earning an income, being part of a criminal activity that income has to be removed but hopefully it has to be replaced by legal opportunities otherwise this is not sustainable.”