Remarks at the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, 20 April 2013.

The first step in mastering a problem is to understand it, and to analyze the interests and logics of those who have ready responses on offer. If Africans do not first define the question of what sort of a problem is organized crime, we will not master that problem. Rather, it will master us.

This is true of the issue of the threats to governance and security in Africa from the increasing operations of trans-national organized criminal networks. These networks, the political and economic conditions that allow them to become established and profitable, and their national and international linkages need to be understood. It is also important to understand why the “international community”—Europe and the U.S.—is defining the problem in a certain way, and pushing for certain responses.

My main concern in this presentation will be the business of recreational narcotic drugs, deemed illegal by most countries in the world. I will suggest a slogan, which is “European solutions for European problems,” and also “American solutions for American problems.

However, let me begin by exploring an issue that has gained profile and generated action in the U.S., action that is not necessarily in Africa’s best interests.

Blood Diamonds and Conflict Minerals

In the 1990s, the phenomenon of “blood diamonds” mined and sold by insurgents in Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, was creating a number of problems.

-       Funding for insurgents;

-       Transnational criminal networks for transporting these diamonds to market, which in turn generated corruption along the way;

-       Reputational issues for legitimate diamond producers, who didn’t want their products to suffer from guilt by association, and lose some of their lustre in the eyes of consumers.

This led a group of countries, notably Botswana and South Africa, to demand a mechanism for certifying the origin of diamonds. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was adopted in 2000 and is widely recognized as a success. Notably, it was a process initiated and directed by African countries.

The Kimberley Process has not been an unqualified success. There are considerable technical problems in the certification and illicit producers and traders can find a way around it if they are sufficiently clever.

The real solution to the “blood diamonds” problem lay in resolving the armed conflicts in Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the remaining difficulties will be resolved when other diamond producers also achieve peace and stability.

The “blood diamonds” campaign had one very attractive element to a new breed of designer activists in Europe and the U.S.—it could appeal to wealthy western consumers and make them think they were doing something important for resolving conflict in Africa.

The “conflict minerals” campaign was, by contrast, initiated by the Enough Project and associated policy lobbies tied in to the Washington DC establishment. They focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo and argued that revenues from cassiteritewolframitecoltan, and gold were fuelling insurgency.

Congolese priorities were different: elections and the extension of good governance to eastern DRC. Congolese feared that banning the production and export of these minerals would have several negative effects:

-       It might deter investors and cut legal production and export, leaving millions unemployed and reducing Congo’s legitimate exports;

-       It would not undermine insurgents’ capacities and force them to surrender or negotiate;

-       Rather, by closing down mines in rebel-held areas it would impel insurgents to find an income by other means, such as taxes at roadblocks and pillaging the local population instead;

-       It would distract attention from the real challenges of DRC, such as free and fair elections, and encourage American legislators and activists to believe that they were solving Congo’s problems by minor changes to their consumer habits.

The U.S. campaigners were not deterred. They pressed ahead despite the weight of evidence and analysis. Section 1502 of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, of July 2010, imposes a very strict certification regime on international companies dealing in these minerals.

Congolese fears about the negative impact of the legislation have sadly proved justified, amply illustrating the perils of accepting foreign definitions of African problems.

There is an alternative. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, established in 2001, has demonstrated success in increasing transparency over payments by companies from the oil and mining industries to governments. Countries and companies join the EITI voluntarily. It is a legitimate inter- governmental initiative that could easily have developed mechanisms to deal with the problem of so-called “conflict minerals” in DRC.

Africa, the International Business in Narcotic Drugs and the War on Drugs

Let me turn now to the bigger issue of Africa and the international business in transporting and selling recreational narcotic drugs. Let us begin by identifying why narcotic drugs are a problem.

Let me identify four elements: production, consumption, trade, and response.

First, production. In some narcotic drug producing countries (the Andean Republics, Afghanistan and the “Golden Triangle” in South-east Asia), insurgent groups have financed themselves through drug production. There is no particular reason why this should not happen in Africa. But it has not yet happened.

Africa does not grow coca or poppies. But there in principle no reason why it should not.

Africa does produce drugs that are either illegal or of uncertain legality, such as marijuana and chat. So far these are not associated with insurgencies.

Next, let us move to the other end of the chain: consumption. There is a drug problem in Africa—or to be precise—a cluster of different drug problems. The use of marijuana, injectable drugs such as heroin, and cocaine and various other narcotics, has been present in Africa and is growing, especially in urban centres. Drug abuse tends to be a problem affecting the middle classes as the poor simply cannot afford to buy these substances. Drug abuse comes with a number of social and medical problems, with which we are all familiar.

Most African countries have followed the advice of their health professionals, and the approaches taken by international experts, and treat drug consumption—or the possession of drugs for personal use—as a social and medical issue, not a criminal one. Approaches such as harm reduction (methadone treatment, needle exchange programmes), and other social, psychological and medical initiatives, show success at an individual level, but African governments face a struggle in scaling these up.

Drug consumption problems become worse in places where drugs are produced and trafficked, because drug traders often pay in kind. So there is a specific social ill that arises from international drug traders using Africa as a transit point.

However, the vast majority of narcotic drugs—especially cocaine—that passes through Africa is destined for Europe. The consumption issue is mostly a non-African issue. Most European countries (not all) are moving de-criminalizing drug consumption. That is, they do not prosecute individuals for the possession of drugs for personal use or their consumption. They recognize that it is impossible to ban the use of narcotic recreational drugs, and to apprehend and prosecute every drug user would be an impossible task for the police. So the trend is towards treating drug use as a social and medical issue.

In the U.S., the prohibitionist lobby is much stronger and progress in this direction is much more limited. And the UNODC tends to fall into line with the U.S. position on this.

Now we can turn to the middle link in the chain: transit. This is where Africa comes in.

There are two central issues here: the extremely high profits that drug trading cartels make and the ways in which these traffickers have become associated with violence and insecurity.

Some drugs are perfectly legal: alcohol and tobacco for example. People can grow, trade and sell these drugs, and they gain an income that contributes to development, and governments collect taxes. The same is true for chat. These drugs can cause social and medical problems, but they do not generate hyper-profits or cause problems for security.

The reason why cocaine, heroin and some other drugs generate hyperprofits is not because of the nature of the drugs but because of the nature of the regulatory regime. They are banned. This creates a situation of criminal rentierism: drug cartels use their money in line with a business plan that involves buying more secure transit routes. The most efficient way of doing this is through buying off civil servants in transit countries including high-ranking government officials.

This is Africa’s central problem.

Almost all the evidence that connects drug traffickers to insurgencies or terrorists is insubstantial or fabricated. But the evidence that links drug traffickers to corruption, and the various forms of misgovernment that come from deep and dynamic corruption, is very strong indeed.

This problem is not confined to Africa. In many drug transit countries (Mexico and the Caribbean), drug trafficking has contributed to corruption, to the extent that in Panama from 1983-89 General Manuel Noreiga ran a “narco-state.” Drug-related violence in these countries is usually among criminal gangs contesting for control of territory, and between them and law-enforcement agencies. The same is true for violence in drug consuming countries in north America, Europe and East Asia.

In principle, this problem could be stopped by interdiction of all illegal narcotics before they reach African shores. In practice, this merely pushes the traffickers to open up new routes elsewhere. I might call it a game of cat-and-mouse, but I wouldn’t be sure which is the cat and which is the mouse. For sure, thirty years of interdiction have not solved the problem, at all. Anyone who believes that this is going to work in Africa is dreaming. Or high.

Which leads me to the fourth issue: response. The American satirical magazine The Onion ran a cover story some years ago with the headline: “War on drugs: drugs win.” This makes a serious point: it is foolish to declare war on an economic activity. Seventy five years ago, alcohol prohibition didn’t work and was instrumental in generating organized crime in American cities. That lesson wasn’t learned when Ronald Reagan launched what he called the “war on drugs”—though it is noticeable that of the two million or so Americans in prison, a huge proportion of them are African Americans jailed for drug offenses. Although white Americans consume the same amounts of illegal drugs as African Americans, for some reason it is the African Americans who end up behind bars, especially in states where convicted felons are denied the right to vote.

Many policing experts, argue that it is expensive, wasteful and pointless to try to suppress a popular leisure activity and eliminate a profitable commerce. Many Latin American policymakers see the U.S.-led war on drugs as a bigger problem than the trade in drugs itself. The war on drugs militarizes society, criminalizes a section of the population, and creates a real danger of armed conflict. We have seen this in Mexico in the last couple of years.

The reason why the trade in illegal drugs is associated with violence and insecurity is not because these drugs are intrinsic to violence. The businessmen who run the drugs trade would rather run their activities in a non-violent manner, as it is cheaper and less risky. The violence occurs because the governments of the main consuming countries, the U.S.A. and Europe, use violent methods to police and interdict supplies.

At home, many consuming countries do not use militarized policing operations against drug traders in their own cities. They know that, however much drug consumption creates social problems, a war on drugs in their own streets would cause a different, far more serious security problem. But nonetheless they try this approach in countries that are not their own. In the case of the U.S., in Mexico and Latin America. In the case of Europe, in Africa.

A securitized approach to the international drugs trade has failed and will continue to fail. We can be quite certain about this. It doesn’t matter how much money is spent on this policy, it will fail. It’s tempting for Africans to say, we’re not going to win this argument or change American or European policy so let’s go for plan B and take this money and see if it works. But for sure, the wrong policy, no matter how well funded and implemented, cannot succeed.

The war on drugs also introduces another rent: security rent. In doing so it corrupts the political establishment by channeling disproportionate funding to a single policing activity, and insisting on policies that are defined by another country’s national interest.

Let me summarize.

Addictive narcotic drugs are a bad thing.

The drugs trade as currently constituted is a very bad thing. It’s bad for Africa first because it creates criminal rents that corrupt political systems, and second because the drug enforcement policies of the U.S. and Europe focus on militarized interdiction, and as a result the businessmen who run the drug trade are themselves organizing violent protection and enforcement of their own.

The two issues are entirely different kinds of problem. One is a social problem, the other is a political problem.

The policy solutions lie in the consuming countries, which need to reform their policies. They should be frank that the war on drugs has failed and will continue to fail. Decriminalization is only a first step: it creates an environment in which the health and social issues associated with drug consumption can better be addressed, but it just moves the political and security problems elsewhere.

The solution must be based on legalization of drug production and trade.

At a stroke this would eliminate most criminal rents and the associated corruption, and allow for taxation and regulation of the trade. The traffickers would fly direct to Europe and Africa wouldn’t benefit from the taxation, except those drugs dispatched for African consumption.

Legalization is not encouragement. In fact it helps create a better environment for social efforts to minimize the ills of drug consumption.

Legalization will not eliminate criminal activities in the drug trade. Cigarettes are legal but criminal syndicates profit from smuggling counterfeit and untaxed cigarettes. But the problem of criminal activity in the tobacco business is minor compared to the criminalization of the narcotics drug trade. If the global problem of corruption and insecurity associated with narcotics could be reduced to the same scale as the problem associated with cigarette smuggling, that would be a giant step forward.

My final point: Africa has enough problems without having to suffer the bad effects of European and American social problems, and the bad effects of European and American mistaken policies. Africa needs to identify clearly its interests in the context of the drugs trade and the war on drugs.

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