The UN drug control authorities reinforce the ‘received wisdom’ on drugs in Sub Saharan Africa

The proliferation of drug trafficking in West Africa, as measured by drug – and most specifically cocaine – seizure data, has drawn considerable attention from the United Nations drug control bodies, and from West European and North American countries  that are engaged in anti-poverty, state stabilisation and counter terrorism activities in the sub-region. Underscoring concerns as to the rise of West African ‘narco states’ and penetration by South American drug ‘cartels’, drug seizures in the first three quarters of 2007 were 60 times higher than in 2002, with 33 tons of cocaine seized.

In its 2007 report, ‘Cocaine Trafficking in West Africa: The Threat to Stability and Development‘, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlighted the challenges posed to West African peace and security by the transit of an estimated $1.8 billion of cocaine (at wholesale prices) through countries such as Guinea Bissau, where the entire national budget for 2006 was just $304 million. Specific impacts related to increased trafficking volumes detailed in the 2007 report included corruption of poorly remunerated local security sector officials (police, military, customs and judiciaries), politicians and national governments; the distorting impacts of the illicit economy on development prospects and economic stability; rising domestic drug consumption linked to an increase in availability; and drug related violence.

The latest report by the Global Drug Policy Observatory explores how West Africa has become a new ‘front’ in the drug ‘war’ (see GDPO Briefing ‘West Africa: A New Front in a Losing War’).  The report explores how donors and other external actors and institutions stepped up financial support to, and political pressure on, West African countries for strengthened counter narcotics activity.  This has included the training of local security sector officials, robust domestic anti-drugs legislation, judicial reform and demand prevention measures. While this was in part influenced by the negative domestic implications of drug trafficking for the achievement of peace, security and development objectives in West Africa, it was also informed by traditional ‘supply side’ approaches that seek to prevent drugs reaching consumer markets in Europe.

This bias toward the priorities and approaches of wealthy, Western consumer states has led to the formulation and implementation of drug control measures that do not always take into consideration African concerns. Furthermore, policy responses are based on limited and very often poor data, while the use of contestable statistical indicators to legitimise the reorientation of public and donor spending toward counter narcotics activity obscures rigorous assessment of the dimensions and implications of West Africa’s drug ‘problem’.  As an example of the ‘bad practice’ in counter narcotics responses, statistics relating to levels of drug consumption in West Africa are discussed below.

In its Annual Report for 2012, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) highlights cannabis as the ‘most widely abused illicit substance in Africa’,  with a prevalence rate for the entire continent of 7.8% (range: 3.8 – 10.4%). This is considerably higher than the global average, which is estimated at 3.8% (range: 2.8 – 4.5%). West Africa, the INCB adds, is the sub-region with the highest prevalence rate within the continent (12.4 %, range: 5.2 – 13.5%) with Nigeria showing the highest national annual prevalence: 14.3%. These cannabis consumption statistics are extrapolated from the limited data sets of just 6 of West Africa’s 16 states: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo, of which three (Burkina Faso, Liberia and Togo) show prevalence rates slightly below the global average according to the  United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report Statistical Annex.

In the case of cocaine prevalence rates  the INCB estimates that there are1.5 million cocaine users in West and Central Africa, with Nigeria having the highest prevalence rate in the region. However, as with the cannabis consumption statistics, projections of cocaine use are based on data provided by only 2 of the 23 Western and Central African countries Nigeria (0.7%) and Cape Verde (0.23%). Moreover the figures for these two countries are from different years (2008 in the case of Nigeria, 2004 in Cape Verde).

In relation to heroin, the INCB sets out that ‘heroin abuse is perceived [emphasis added] to be increasing and is mainly concentrated in East and West Africa’. This assessment is based on East Africa’s emergence as a transit zone for Afghan heroin and not detailed epidemiological surveys of heroin use in East Africa. The most recent prevalence rates for opioid use in the region are from 2004  with only Senegal and Nigeria updating their statistics  –  in 2006 and 2008 respectively.  Without reliable, robust data on contemporary heroin use, the assertion that there is rising heroin consumption lacks empiricism. It should be further noted that the INCB’s report does not detail the source of evidently influential ‘perceptions’, nor does it provide citations for all data sources within the report.

All aspects of the drug market, including drug use, within West, Central and East Africa are clearly areas worthy of concern. The region undoubtedly has significant drug related problems that merit an energetic response.  However, effective, targeted interventions in the interest of public health and human security require a radical enhancement of the collation and processing of statistical information, and improved support to information gathering by sub Saharan states. Conversely, debates and strategies based on limited and archaic data runs the risk of doing more harm than good, which is to say replicating ineffective and inappropriate policies imported from other parts of the world.