In Africa and the War on Drugs, Carrier and Klantschnig provide an insightful overview of the history of African drug production, trade, consumption and policy, with a particular focus on khat and cannabis. While less informative on the history of the trade and use of heroin and cocaine, the book provides important insights into recent perceptions and approaches to responding to their trade and use, particularly in West Africa. Their critique of the ‘war on drugs’ is timely, not least in light of recent developments on the drug policy front in other regions and at the international level. The book comes up short, however, in registering some of the winds of change in drug policy blowing through Africa today. If followed through, these shifts can, over time, help foster an alternative to the current drug-related policies of complicity, neglect and repression the authors claim currently reign on the continent, and which are influenced by the ‘global war on drugs.’


On Data Gaps regarding Drug Consumption in Africa

The authors provide an informative overview of the consumption of khat and cannabis, and the socio-cultural dimension of consumption patterns they describe is important from both national and international development policy perspectives. There are increasing reports, including from the regional institutions themselves, of increased consumption of harder drugs, and not only within the upper echelons of society. However, as noted by the writers, there is still a lack of reliable data on drug use (as well as production and Africa’s role in the global drug trade).  They did not, unfortunately, provide a deeper analysis of the constraints that impede the collection and analysis of baseline data in different regions. UNODC has attempted to underpin its regional programs with baseline data to produce more targeted programming. However, for a range of reasons (many of which are out of UNODC’s hands), this first step is often leap-frogged and programs are instead developed on the basis of existing materials and assumptions. NGOs and health officials across Africa lament the absence of baseline data to allow for a better understanding of the scope and scale of drug consumption. Law enforcement officers, too, are increasingly pushing for better data, including those managing or monitoring conditions within corrections systems.

Capturing and regularly up-dating baseline data is an expensive endeavor, one that governments and development actors alike often shun for the sake of expediency. The writers could have explored new approaches for capturing data in other regions or made innovative suggestions for overcoming existing obstacles through public-private partnerships and innovative high-tech-low-cost participatory data collection tools and mechanisms.


On the Impact of the Drug Trade, Production and Use on Development in Africa

The authors provide a number of important insights into the developmental impacts of the trade (both legitimate and illicit) in khat and cannabis, particularly from a livelihoods perspective. The trade in heroin and cocaine has also produced social and economic benefits for some in Africa. For example, the case against former Ghanaian M.P. Eric Amoateng, tried and convicted in a Brooklyn court for trafficking heroin to the United States, describes how under-development in his village in central Ghana allegedly propelled him to engage in drug trafficking.[i]

Prior to its elevation to a district in 2004, Amoateng’s community – a small village called Busunya in the Brong-Ahafo region – had been largely isolated from the central government in Accra, not least in terms of distribution of funds for much needed development projects.[ii] Amoateng used the vacuum left by the government to provide support to the community through philanthropic initiatives such as funding road construction, providing tractors to plough farmlands, sponsoring poor students, supporting young people to register as voters, providing interest-free loans to poor villagers, and giving awards to outstanding students, teachers, and schools in the community.[iii] The social and political capital his support engendered was important.

Despite the state prosecutor’s attempt to argue against the philanthropic nature of Mr. Amoateng’s character, not least because the amount of heroin he was trafficking to the U.S. through a supposed charity foundation could have decimated an entire town, the circuit-judge trying the case proved more lenient toward the defendant when presented with insights into poverty and other development challenges in Ghana.[iv] Back home, Amoateng’s self-professed ‘generosity’ endeared him to constituents, and his image as a generous development-oriented philanthropist remains intact even after his incarceration.[v]  In fact, his arrest in the U.S. provoked major demonstrations in his district, even after it became known that he was trafficking drugs.[vi] In 2011, Amoateng was honoured by the chiefs of his district for contributing to the socio-economic development of the area, and a road was named after him.[vii]  While cases like these can shed light on both the positive and negative developmental dimensions of the heroin trade, they are still few and far between. They do, however, reinforce the fact that communities will seek alternative sources of livelihoods, whether illicit or legitimate, in the absence of the state and basic services.

The authors also claim that drugs are not a major impediment to African development, and that drug policy, rather than the substances that it seeks to control, is often the source of development harms such as increased corruption. In reality, the situation is not so black and white. In some cases, existing corruption networks allow drug trafficking to flourish; in others, drug trafficking itself corrupts. While interdiction policies are part of the problem, so too are the democratic deficits and institutional challenges plaguing many African countries. In addition, the authors only make passing reference to the different contexts in which production, trade and the use of drugs emerge. For example, the West Africa sub-region, where drug-trafficking and consumption are said to be increasing, includes countries emerging from long periods of conflict, others witnessing political upheaval and instability, and a number making significant progress in deepening democracy and economic development.  In each of these contexts, the impact of drug use, production and trade can be significantly different; generally, the more inter-linked with conflict and elite interests, the harsher the impact on longer-term development. Hence, more targeted and context sensitive research is important to shed light on these differences and the different policy responses required.


On the Threats posed by the Drug Trade in Africa

Carrier and Klantschnig usefully criticize the claim that increased drug use and trade will lead to rising levels of violence in Africa, mirroring the experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. While there is indeed limited evidence linking drugs and violence in Africa, it is equally important to acknowledge that drug trafficking, like other forms of organized criminal activity, generally only draws attention when connected to overt violence. Important structural relationships to elites and the state are often overlooked. Peter Gastrow notes, for example, that organized criminal groups and networks in Kenya (including those involved in drug trafficking) constitute a real threat to the state “not through open confrontation but by penetrating state institutions through bribery and corruption and by subverting or undermining them from within.” He notes that, “[g]overnments that lack the capacity to counter such penetration, or that acquiesce in it, run the risk of becoming criminalized or “captured” states over time. The existence of internal and external checks and balances; a strong culture of freedom of information; asset disclosure among elected officials and political parties; independent anti-corruption bodies; legislative drafting capacity and processes (particularly regarding resource extraction, trafficking in illicit substances); and citizen perceptions of organized crime or specific illicit activities serve as important indicators for determining a country’s exposure to the risk of organized crime penetration. In addition, focusing on the complex political and elite dynamics should help external actors in particular avoid interpreting government failures to respond to drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime as mere black and white assessments of ‘lack of political will’.[viii]


On Drug Policy in Africa

The book’s most significant problem is its failure to discuss recent developments in drug policy on the continent. The authors outline three ideal types of state policy towards drugs — complicity, neglect and repression — and argue that current policy discussions about Africa’s growing role in the drug trade have “already been determined by the rhetoric of the ‘global war on drugs’ and by the laws and institutions set up over the last few years.”[ix] However it is unclear why the writers did not include an ‘ideal type’ for countries like Tanzania (which they discuss only in passing) undergoing a major shift in national policy.

Indeed, while Tanzania still has draconian drugs laws in place today, the country boasts one of the most extensive methadone programmes on the continent. The national cross-sector Drug Control Commission, which brings together health professionals, police and justice officials and NGOs, has reached common ground on the “idea that persons living with opiate addiction who commit minor infractions should have the chance to receive effective treatment rather than enter the cycle of arrest and detention that never seems to end.”[x] Police officers are openly supporting the methadone programme by helping to steer drug users in its direction.[xi] And while some within the system are still intent on applying the existing harsh laws, the fact that the Drug Control Commission has expanded its membership coupled with the reality that law enforcement officials seem to be publicly willing to test a new approach, are strong signals that a policy shift is taking place. Reforming the existing legislative framework will take some time, but progress in that direction will be another strong indicator of change and is hence worth monitoring.

Carrier and Klantschnig also fail to discuss the difficulties that progressive law enforcement officers themselves face in trying to promote a shift in operational and tactical approaches in implementing drug policy, particularly when existing legislation dictates otherwise. For example, in Brazil, the military policy has introduced new approaches that place citizen welfare rather than all out interdiction at the center of policies aimed at responding to drug-related challenges in the favelas. However, the military police often faces a law enforcement battle on two fronts: the ‘old guard’ within the relevant Ministry which is reluctant to change and agree to more progressive approaches to drug-related challenges; and the drug traffickers who are reluctant to relinquish their territory.[xii]


Regional and Sub-Regional Policy Developments

Of importance also, and what the writers seemed to have missed in their critique of the lack of space for discussion on drug policy in the region, is the fact that the African Union has spent the last twelve months revisiting its Action Plan on Drug Control. While the book had already been published by the time the draft Action Plan was produced, interviews with policy makers and NGOs on the ground could have helped the writers anticipate such developments. Indeed, this problem of failing to speak to core stakeholders regarding their own challenges is one that permeates much of the literature on drugs in Africa and beyond.

Notwithstanding, as a result of the review process, the AU Conference of Ministers of Drug Control met in October 2012 and adopted a new five-year Plan of Action on Drug Control (2013-2017). The action plan promises to expand beyond a policing agenda to strengthen measures in the social and health fields to combat drug abuse issues. Among other objectives, it suggests member states seek “alternatives to arrest and detention for minor drug offenses.”[xiii]

At the meeting, AU Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology Jean-Pierre Ezin, one of the highest-level AU officials at the meeting, set a new tone for drug debates on the continent when he noted that some African countries “have been quietly implementing evidence-based programs that deal with the harms of drug use and of drug prohibition.”[xiv] He enjoined AU member states to “separate drug use from organized crime and trafficking” and focus law enforcement efforts on the latter and health and social support on the former. Meanwhile, member states renewed their call for African Union assistance and leadership in establishing centers of excellence for training professionals in addiction medicine. The AU also passed a solid guideline to help its members improve their ability to estimate the quantity of opiates and other controlled substances needed for pain management and other medical and scientific uses. The Action Plan will be tabled for approval at the AU Summit in January 2013.

At the sub-regional level, a range of challenges, including lack of regional ownership of drug-related policies that have been implemented to date continue to give rise to much concern. A meeting in Dakar in April this year, which included representatives from ECOWAS, the AU, INTERPOL, UNODC and other UN bodies as well as law enforcement officials, health professionals, academics and NGO representatives from across the region agreed that while initiatives aimed at strengthening law enforcement capacities across the sub-region are certainly needed, alternatives to current drug control policy need to be sought. The meeting led to the establishment, under the auspices of the Kofi Annan Foundation, of a West Africa Commission on the Impact of Drug Trafficking on Development, Governance and Security, which will commence work in January 2013.[xv]

Finally, while drug laws across the continent are bound to remain harsh for the foreseeable future, and while it remains unclear whether the new Action Plan referred to above will be approved in its entirety, it is as one expert has pointed out, nonetheless significant that “the AU has at least put on paper and achieved some level of consensus around the idea that just scaling up policing is not an adequate response to a growing and complex drug problem on the continent.”[xvi] As in the Americas, where the Latin America Commission on Drugs and Democracy has shed light on the challenges posed by the ‘war on drugs,’ and where a recent OAS summit agreed that a major review of drug policy on the continent be conducted, it does appear that Africa too, is open to introducing alternative approaches to imported policies that to date, have borne limited results.

Camino Kavanagh is a fellow at the NYU Center on International Cooperation

[i] The following paragraphs build on a forthcoming NYU-CIC publication – Responding to the Impact of Organized Crime on Governance in Developing Countries. The Ghana study which includes a focus on the Amoateng case, was penned by Sam Boaheng Kwarkye with Kwesi Aning and John Pokoo.

[ii] The creation of districts is a way to elevate and provide more development funds to communities. 5 percent of Ghana’s national budget goes into a Common Fund, from which development funds are allocated to districts based on a certain formula.

[iii] Interview with law enforcement officials and school teacher, Nkoranza South District, April 2012.. The research team was shown examples of development projects funded by Amoateng, including a road that was named after him subsequent to his arrest.

[iv] In an attempt to plead for a lenient sentence when on trial in the U.S., Amoateng stated in court, ‘[y]our honor, (…) I come from a very impoverished community in Ghana, where a lot of children drop out of school, in the middle of their schooling. There are no hospitals, no clinics, nothing to live on. In fact, I have tried my best to work hard on my farms, to get money to service these people to enter into schools and then to keep my community coming up.’[iv] In the same vein, his counsel stated “[t]he man is like a one-man peace corps for this area of Africa. He did more things for his people than probably his government did.” Ibid

[v] Interview with law enforcement officials Nkoranza South District, April 2012. The officials noted that Amoateng’s popularity among his constituents is such that he would easily win back his MP seat should he run.

[vi] See Modern Ghana, Brong Ahafo Citizens Stunned, November 23, 2005. Available at  Significantly, the Chief of Nkoranza Traditional Area said “Akan names are identical. Maybe someone sharing a similar name with Eric Amoateng might have been mistaken for the MP…”

[vii] Interviews with villagers and law enforcement officials, Nkoranza South District, op cit.; Nkoranza Honours Amoateng, September 14, 2011. Available at See also, GhanaWeb, Street Named After Amoateng, April 10, 2007. Available at

[viii] Forthcoming NYU-CIC publication – Responding to the Impact of Organized Crime on Governance in Developing Countries,

[ix] Carrier and Klantschnig, Africa and the War on Drugs, (p. 133)

[x] Csete, Joanne (Oct. 2012), African Union: A New Frontier for Challenging Prohibition? Voices, Open Society Foundation

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Interviews with members of Rio’s policia militar, Brazil, June 2012

[xiii] The AU Plan of Action on Drug Control for 2007-2012 had three priority areas aimed at harm reduction: Regional and National capacity building and training to enhance prevention and care of substance abuse and related HIV and AIDS; Enhance understanding of the dynamics of drugs and crime for policy making purposes; and, Broad based responsibility for the promotion of sport and culture in the service of social development to combat drugs and crime.  The follow-on 2013 Plan of Action has a strong focus on health and social harm reduction strategies, elevating them to a second key priority, which is “Evidence-based services scaled up to address the health and social impact of drug use in Member States.” AU Plan of Action 2013-2018

[xiv] Csete, Joanne (Oct. 2012), African Union: A New Frontier for Challenging Prohibition? Voices, Open Society Foundation

[xv] The work of the Commission will focus on accompanying existing efforts in the region and will be centered on mobilizing public awareness and political commitment; developing evidence based policy recommendations and fostering capacity and ownership of the drug-related challenges the sub-region is facing.

[xvi] Csete, Joanne (Oct. 2012), African Union: A New Frontier for Challenging Prohibition? Voices, Open Society Foundation.

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