Africa and the War on Drugs by Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig is a welcome addition to the literature on this dangerous menace that is threatening Africa’s security, governance and developmental processes. The approach taken by the authors will no doubt be received as controversial and will certainly generate debate in Africa and elsewhere and especially among those who are concerned about the multifaceted impact of drugs on African states.

But what is the background to producing yet another piece on Africa, drugs and the so-called ‘war’ being waged against this menace? While the book offers an interesting provocation on the nature of the response to drug trafficking in Africa, and I would add West Africa in particular, it is selective in history and therefore misses deeper trends within at least West African societies that demand elucidation in order to understand the present predicament. The book should be situated in its proper context: the political duality of West African states.


The extent of the problem

In Africa, drugs have such an extensive and pervasive impact in different African states to the extent that the security, both domestic and regional, of the whole continent is now threatened by the reshaping of relational dynamics between and among different groups.

For West African states, one of the most serious challenges to state survival at the beginning of the twenty-first century are the multiple but differentiated impacts of drugs-related activities on public, private sector and community institutions. As a result, the money accruing from such activities and the emerging culture of the quick and easy acquisition of money has become an accepted and defining character in several African societies. This kind of money has bought drug cartels friends in high places in Africa, and penetration of the highest levels of public service institutions. In this respect drugs are, by far the most attractive quick money spoiler. But real danger with drug money is that it coexists and comingles with licit money from genuine businesses. These flows have become so pervasive in West Africa that the coastal fringes of this region, that through the years has shifted from slavery, to pepper transportation to the West is now popularly referred to as the ‘coke coast’. The scale of the problem is so massive that the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2009 stated that, ‘the crisis of drug trafficking in West Africa … is a serious security threat’.

This is the background and context within which ‘Africa and the war on drugs’ should be a located; a book that uses historical and other approaches to produce a fascinating narrative that seeks to dispel what the authors argue are hegemonic conceptualisations and discourses that ‘allow little room in corridors of power for alternative approaches to tackling drugs’ (p.7).

Very early on in the book, the authors clearly demonstrate a certain bias for their arguments by positing that ‘…the debate about policy alternatives has almost been non-existent across Africa’ (p.8). For such a well-researched book, this shows clear oversights about some of the efforts being undertaken on the continent, albeit not always successfully. For example, taking states aside, both the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have since the early 1990s shown an understanding for and appreciation of the extent of the drugs problem and the need for policy alternatives. This oversight on the part of the authors in examining what Africa’s flagship organisations are doing in terms of drugs is unfortunate.

The section on ‘Drug barons, traffickers and mules: Africa as entreport’ is particularly fascinating and well-written though a bit more empirical research would have shown that their ‘case’, Joe Brown Akubueze, is not just one of the entrepreneurs who ‘have helped to create the image of Africa as global drug entreport’, but that in reality he represents a new type of drug actor whose tentacles reach into different aspects of commerce, politics, law enforcement, the judiciary and traditional institutions. Unlike the presentation that Akubueze is unique, in reality a lot is known about such people. In Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, Kenya, Ghana among other countries, there is an emerging body of literature that is beginning to strip bare the presence and nefarious activities and the unintended impact of the activities of such individuals and groups on society. Between 2006 and 2011, West Africa saw several cases in Ghana, Liberia, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, that showed the pervasive nature of the activities of such actors. More importantly, several large scale hauls have been noted in several coastal states. Since 2009, at least in some West African states some of the members of the violent groups now operating in Northern Mali were known to have bought cocaine in particular, in large commercial quantities for onward transport from the coast, across the desert to Europe.

Unfortunately, the book only presents such reports as feeding into a pre-existing discourse that sought to portray Africa as a ‘coke coast’. Between these years, West Africa, at least deserved such descriptions. A careful read of this chapter creates a certain nagging feeling of selective historicity, of choosing and presenting facts to buttress an argument that drugs are not really Africa’s problem. It also misses key realities of West African governance, political duality, that help contextualize and explain certain elements of the drug trade.


The political duality of the West African state

To attempt to understand the extent of the drugs trafficking problematic in West Africa, it is imperative to put it in the context of family, cultural, and historical elements. All of these touch on what might be called a ‘cultural ethos’ that needs further exploration for it has an important bearing on why such activities continue, in some cases even with the knowledge and tacit support of the local community and lack of strong intervention by law enforcement agencies.

In the realm of narcotics control, as in all political concerns, there exists a pronounced dualism in West Africa.  On the one hand there is a parliamentary and judicial/legal (modern) system together with all its accoutrements and relevant institutions including a police force, which have been inherited from the former colonial masters.  This is the “official” (modern) system that appears on the surface of things and increasingly perceived by the populace as alien and corrupt.  But on the other hand there is the “unofficial” (traditional/cultural) system that operates beneath the surface.  Throughout West Africa there are traditional systems of governance together with their traditional laws, often in the form of taboos, having various sanctions and systems of institutional support.  West Africans are used to shifting from one system to another whenever it is felt to be appropriate.

Legally, only the first exists; the second is barely acknowledged. But realistically the first is embedded within the second. The way the first is interpreted in any given situation depends on its understanding vis-à-vis the traditional system. The power of the second system, of course, arises from the fact that it is embedded in the traditional values and ethical concerns of the people, and its ultimate sanction lies in the unseen dimensions especially with the ancestors.  One may be ‘forced’ to observe the first, but one is morally obliged to observe the second.  When it comes to harnessing the active involvement of the local community for complying with law enforcement we are without a doubt in the realm of the latter.

However, we need to examine some of the ramifications of such a legal duality: first, is the issue of ‘criminalization’.  If what is called ‘criminal’ by the first system is not supported by the moral groundings of the second, it will not be regarded as ‘really’ criminal and people will not respond to it as such.  If drugs are criminalized by West Africa’s political elites, this does not necessarily reflect the interests of all the peoples occupying what is now West Africa.[i]

Is it any wonder that local police, especially in rural areas, and especially if they are from that ethnic group, often side with or protect drug barons?  They may be breaking the law but it is a Western law (borofo, borofo amamre) and is therefore not really regarded as something that works against the common good of Ghanaians.  From the perspective of the local communities they bring in much needed money and they perform a valuable service to the community of which they are upstanding members.  In whatever way the community is organized it must have as its base the moral codes and values of the second institutional framework (the traditional one) and not the first.  Stephen Ellis also points to certain historical factors as partially explaining such gross disrespect for the (modern) law, including the enactment of certain laws during the colonial period that reclassified old practices between different ethnic groups as ‘criminal.’ As a result, when newly independent states re-enacted these laws, the overall populace who believed there was no moral or legitimate justification to obey the law largely ignored these.


What is the extent of institutionalisation

A useful starting point for understanding the survivability and growth of the narcotics trade across West Africa is by examining the networks of social capital that underpin this industry and which fosters a sense of community closeness and acceptance among traffickers and a protective mechanism for the communities within which they are located. The apparent success of this industry in terms of its capacity to grow while concurrently outwitting the law can be explained by a strong sense of social capital that represents the norms of mutual engagement that ensures reciprocity, although not necessarily institutionalized forms of reciprocal expectations. This sense of social capital and reciprocity, forms a major reason why this trade has survived and is protected by the communities within which they are located. Basically, the reality of the public discourse on drugs trafficking in all ECOWAS member states  is that, while one group see this as a threat, another sees it as an important part of their means of livelihood and achieving societal status. Conceptually the point is how to resolve competing/clashing perceptual agendas

A second major argument is that because a degree of social capital exists in all the communities where such narcotics trafficking occur, entering the ‘closed’ world of traffickers is not only difficult but can be dangerous to outsiders. In this particular business, there tends to be some amount of mutual trust that in turn promotes cooperation between local communities and societal economic actors in the process of shared knowledge, growth and economic spin-offs. Thus, the levels of cooperation among different stakeholders that have been experienced throughout West Africa, it has been argued, is also aided by the frequency of social capital, which are ‘features of social organization such as networks, norms, and trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation’(Putnam, 1993).

How and why have narcotics traffickers in Ghana and the wider ECOWAS sub-region managed to survive the onslaught of successive governmental agencies that have consistently seen them as a threat to state and societal security? Available evidence suggests that social capital plays an important role in the process of supply, sale and profits accruing from the sale of drugs. Stocks of social capital in the form of associational activity, social networks, trust and behavioural norms can be linked to improved output and better performance in terms of growth, investment and productivity at the individual and group enterprise levels.

The role of social capital in the processes of narcotics trafficking in Ghana and West Africa is impressive. While different definitions of social capital exist, in this paper, the term primarily means social relations based on trust and the development of norms and values that support and are supported by such social relations. Thus, in this paper, social capital is defined in terms of the number, diversity and strength of the social relations maintained by those involved in the complex processes of narcotics trafficking. In its more general sense as applied by Putnam, it means the pervasiveness of particular norms of reciprocity, the assurance of principles and rules of practice.

In a practical sense, therefore, traffickers with better-performing networks traffic more drugs than is presently known, as the information provided so far is only indicative of the general trends in Ghana and the sub-region. These networks should be understood as a substitute for formal market-supporting institutions.


What sort of state emerges?

There are different types of states that can emerge from the impact of such activities spanning two extreme polarities. At one end of this polarity is a superficially functional state that has all the trappings of superficially well-functioning and responsible public and private sectors. In such case, the judiciary, police, customs, banks, parliaments will be in place and supposedly providing a veneer of effectiveness and international acceptability. What happens is that this type of state basically facilitates both the transit of drugs and the transfer of illegitimate wealth by using its relatively functioning institutions to facilitate such criminal activities. A classic case is Mali—a state that is democratic, with the supporting institutions and the veneer of functionality and an acceptance from the international community that its democratic institutions are well-functioning.

A second state type is the usual fragile states that are easily identifiable by the lack of institutional capacity to deliver any public goods. The worst case scenario state or type 3 state is Guinea Bissau where the impact of narcotics contributes to the wayward behaviour of public officers and underscores the level of fragility that enables drug barons, with the allure of huge profits from drugs trafficking to control the levers of state authority. Subsequently, officials at all levels of government get involved in drugs and the profits that accrue thereof.


Mali, Sahel & Africa’s war on terror

The crisis in Mali is having greater implications and ramifications than just a fight to resist the interdependent relationship among drug traffickers on one hand and extremists and radical groups. It is now a struggle against terrorism fuelled by narcotics; basically an African-centred version of the global war on terror fought by Africa’s former colonial masters and Mali’s neighbouring states shocked out of their lethargy and slumber by a rather late realisation that continued delay might threaten their states. Suddenly, the George Bush administration’s top priority to combat terrorism, has come home to roost in Africa, albeit in a different form. Bush’s words to justify his war resonate with France’s justification of its unilateral intervention in Mali, namely that: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Now, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Boko Haram, Ansar Dine, the Islamic Movement for Azawad and the other myriad groups in West Africa are now legitimate targets.

Even though terrorist groups besides al-Qaeda exist in many parts of the world, the critical distinction is that AQIM and its affiliates now poses a threat not only to Africa, but to international peace and security and to the interests of the US, France, UK, Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Niger in particular. Against this backdrop, the AQIM network, its sponsors and collaborators, have now become targets. Such resolve has culminated in expressions of concern from the UN. Since the launch of its unilateral intervention, the war on terror in Northern Mali and Algeria has become a lynchpin in French and British security calculations and an indispensable foreign policy determinant in Africa.

The war in Northern Mali has been characterized by a mix of conventional and asymmetric warfare. Conventional warfare entails direct engagement on land, sea, and/or air of two or more military forces, the present struggle as we see in Northern Mali presents a combination of military operations and guerrilla and urban-style warfare, conducted by the proponents of the intervention against terrorist groups and other non-state actors. Terrorists, who are the main targets in the war, are scattered around the whole of the West African region without definitive geographical and territorial boundaries making it practically difficult for strategic or even tactical fixing, targeting and engagement.


The terminology of waging a “war” against terrorism was earlier on discounted and saw terrorism as a challenge to be managed, not solved by war and subject to the metaphor of waging a war against terrorism. This approach came from the view that “it is a war that cannot be won” and “unlike most wars, it has neither a fixed set of enemies nor the prospect of coming to closure.”  Mali represents a confluence of drugs, war and terrorism.

[i] . See for example Baker, Bruce. 2010. ‘Nonstate policing: expanding the scope for tackling Africa’s urban violence’, Africa Security Brief, No. 7, September, p. 4

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One Response to Review: African and the War on Drugs

  1. Lydia Amedzrator says:

    This article is very insightful.

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