Mali/Flickr Creative Commons

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats 

Over the past decade, there has been a growing concern among policymakers, international institutions and the media about West Africa’s role as a transit hub for drug trafficking; added to this are fears that terrorist groups are becoming involved in the drug trade. These issues complicate the already tense interplay between enforcing security and stability on the one hand, and delivering effective aid to promote development on the other.

The IISS Transnational Threats and Political Risk programme held a private round-table earlier this month, in collaboration with the Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea University, to discuss these issues and debate possible solutions with government practitioners and researchers.

The West African region includes, among others, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Some, for example Guinea-Bissau, have been labelled ´narco-states´, and are gaining a reputation as safe havens for organised criminal groups. The extent of the links between these groups and terrorist organisations, such as local al-Qaeda affiliates, are naturally a cause for concern and will have implications for the stability and development of the region – but at present there is little reliable information on this issue.  

In West Africa there exists a tension between security and development, and attempts to stop the drug trade seem to sharpen it. During the discussion, it was agreed that instability prevents aid donors from effectively delivering development projects, but it was also argued that the punitive approach to the drug trade – framed primarily in security and law-enforcement terms – leaves little room for other forms of intervention, such as health initiatives and education of civil populations.

An issue that cropped up frequently during the discussion was the problem of ‘metrics’. Too often, narcotics seizures and drug-related arrests are used as the sole indicators of the size of drug markets and the success of counter-narcotics operations. Not enough is known about patterns of trafficking or the composition and nature of criminal organisations.

The issue of foreign aid is also complicated by the limited legitimacy of African governments, along with endemic corruption and the high-level involvement of politicians and security officials in the drugs trade in West African countries.

Furthermore, there are often diverging perceptions between what aid donors feel should be done and what local governments think should to be prioritised. A similar dissonance is demonstrated by the fact that as part of assistance packages, local police forces receive deliveries of computers and sophisticated equipment, when most officers don’t know how to use a computer and would benefit much more from training on information-gathering and conducting investigations, starting with notebooks.

It was also pointed out that emphasising the ‘drug problem’ despite the lack of reliable data makes it easier for African governments to attract funds and foreign support. A similar point was made with the – often overstated – connection between drug trafficking and terrorism. The crisis in Mali highlighted that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), to mention the best-known cases, were involved in the cocaine trade.

However, hard data on the connection between terrorist groups and the illicit drug trade is outweighed by anecdotal evidence. For now it seems that other forms of criminal activities, such as kidnaps-for-ransom, are a more common source of financing for extremist groups. The tendency to inflate the threat was attributed to regional political issues, corrupt local elites trying to shift the blame for criminal activities to non-state groups and foreigners and the media’s penchant for sensationalist headlines.

The discussion concluded that many policy challenges remained unsolved: how to reconcile counter-narcotics with counter-terrorism efforts; how to stop illicit flows of drugs, counterfeit cigarettes, weapons and human beings while allowing the informal flows of food and other essentials to continue; how to pursue criminals without ostracising certain ethnic groups; and what Western donors, keen to create  ‘strong states’ but not in agreement on what these states should look like, can do to help that actually fits local realities. 

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