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West Africa: trafficking central station?

West Africa is affected by a number of illicit commercial flows. Some of these originate in the region, such as those involving stolen oil, undocumented migrant labourers, or sex workers. Others are destined for the region, such as toxic waste, firearms, or counterfeit medication. Still others merely transit the region, such as cocaine. In each case, though, these flows leave their imprint on West Africa.

Here Francis Maertens and Amado Philip de Andrés of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) attempt to assess and compare these imprints. Click on a tab below to find out more.

© Reuters/Borja Suarez

The large-scale use of West Africa as a transit route to Europe is a relatively new phenomenon, precipitated by the shift in trafficking flows away from a declining North American market and towards a growing European market.

Most of the cocaine transiting the region appears to cross the Atlantic in large “mother-ships”, specially modified to carry multi-ton consignments of the drug. This cargo is then offloaded to smaller vessels along the West African coast. There have also been several incidents in which small aircraft, specially modified for transatlantic flight, were intercepted with cargos approaching one ton, mostly departing Venezuela.

Based on both maritime and airport seizures, it appears that there are at least two distinct hubs for cocaine trafficking in West Africa. The southern one appears to involve cocaine trafficked into the Bight of Benin and then routed into Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. The northern hub involves the two Guineas (Bissau and Conakry) as entry points, as well as possibly Sierra Leone and Mauritania as air destinations. These drugs could be shipped to Senegal, Mali and the Gambia for air couriering. During the height of the trafficking, Bamako was a key hub for air couriers, despite the fact that it is situated some 1,000 kilometres from the coastal countries that were receiving the cocaine. The reason for this inland detour may have been commercial: cannabis had long been imported from Mali, and the dealers buying it may have got a good “exchange rate” for payment in cocaine.

Today, the bulk shipments appear to be controlled by Latin American traffickers. Colombia produces more than half the world’s cocaine and Colombian traffickers have long been dominant players in the global market for the drug. In 2007, they made up some 40% of the foreign cocaine traffickers arrested in Spain, the primary point of entry to the European market.

But West Africans clearly play an important role in bringing the drug from the region to Europe, and in distributing it once there. It may be that locals facilitating the maritime trafficking are paid in kind rather than cash, and bring it into Europe through a technique West African criminals have perfected globally: delivered by couriers travelling on commercial air flights. Of the 1,400 detected cocaine couriers on flights originating in West Africa and destined for Europe since 2004, most were West African. Once in Europe, the drugs are often distributed by West Africans resident in Europe, especially Nigerians. Switzerland and Portugal are exceptions, where a wider range of West African nationalities are active, but between 10% and 31% of the foreign cocaine traffickers arrested in European destination markets in recent years were Nigerian.

Since 2008, this flow appears to have been in decline, a reduction attributable at least to the increased international attention to the area. There were at least 11 very large seizures of cocaine made in West Africa or off the coast in 2007, but only four in 2008 and none to date in 2009. Despite progress, it appears that at least one billion dollars' worth of cocaine continues to be trafficked through the region, and the West African distribution network in Europe remains intact.

The value of the oil stolen in West Africa is comparable to that of the cocaine flow, but is even more directly linked to instability, since the proceeds go directly to militants and corrupt officials in Nigeria, the economic powerhouse and home to half the population of the region. The conflict in the Niger Delta is rooted in grievances of residents who, despite the wealth beneath their land, remain very poor, and argue that environmental damage related to the industry has undermined traditional livelihoods. But the theft and trafficking of oil (termed “bunkering” in the region) has become a transnational criminal enterprise in its own right, and the violent political struggle provides a convenient smokescreen for those focusing on personal enrichment.

© Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Despite the limited capacity of West African governments to enforce tax obligations, the smuggling of cigarettes to West Africa, and through West Africa to North Africa, is a major money spinner, valued at about three quarters of a billion dollars.

In 2007, Africans smoked an estimated 400 billion cigarettes. If the illicit market comprises 15% of the cigarettes consumed in Africa, this would mean that more than 60 billion cigarettes (30 million packs; 6,000 containers) were consumed illegally in Africa that year. West Africa represented only 17% of African consumption, while comprising 30% of Africa’s population. But demand is much higher in North Africa, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, and West Africa acts as a conduit to these countries. As much as 80% of the cigarette market in some West and North African countries is illicit, meaning that most of the smoking in these countries profits criminals. Standardising the licensing and tax regimes in the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) and taxing all cigarettes on entry at port would address some of this trade, but not all of it.

Counterfeit cigarettes and “cheap whites” are widely produced in China, Vietnam and neighboring countries in the Far East, as well as in Eastern and Southern Europe . Both regions are believed to be important sources for illicit cigarettes in West and North Africa. But these products are generally not imported directly from these regions. Rather, most of the illicit cigarettes entering West Africa are sourced from free trade zones, such as those in the Emirate of Dubai.

Lomé, Cotonou, and Tema container ports are the main entry points for illicit cigarettes into West Africa, while most of illicit cigarettes present in the North African market also make their landfall here. The imported cigarettes are declared “for transit”, with final destinations depicted as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, thus avoiding scrutiny and taxes on entry. In fact, most are destined for North Africa, particularly Libya.

Summing individual figures, it can be estimated that cigarettes worth at least US$638 million at retail prices (or little less than 60% of the North African market) have been trafficked through West Africa. If roughly half of this is available to illicit importers and smugglers based in West Africa, this would amount to US$319 million. Adding this to the money generated in illicit sales in West Africa (US$455 million) gives the flow a value of US$774 million annually.

The trafficking of inert or substandard medication into West Africa is not generally reckoned as a major organised crime activity, but its ramifications are grave and extend beyond the region. While no systematic regional study has been carried out on the share of medications that are substandard, a number of smaller samplings have supported figures of the order of 50%. Looking just at anti-malarial medication, a possible 83 million cases are treated in the private sector in the region.

Furthermore, a study of how legislation in certain market sectors affects crime concluded that “Several organised crime groups have shifted their attention from smuggling of narcotics and weapons to counterfeiting medicines. INTERPOL has found emerging evidence that counterfeiting was linked to organised crime and terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda.

© Reuters/STR New

In 2006, a total of 570 West African victims were detected in 11 European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom). The recruiter provides a loan of some US$40,000 to US$55,000 to the victim to cover the costs of the illegal immigration, and creates a contract to repay in a specified period of time. Victims are accompanied by a male handler during their travel, known as the “trolley”. At the destination, the victim is handed over to the local branch of the same organisation (recruiters and exploiters are often from the same family). The victims are forced into prostitution until the debt is repaid.

If one in 30 human trafficking cases were detected, this suggests a pool of some 17,000 victims at any one time in Europe, with a turnover rate of 5,700 victims per year. Multiplying this by the average debt they are expected to repay results in a market worth just under US$300 million.

© Reuters/STR New

The single form of contraband most associated with destabilisation is arms. Political violence would be unthinkable without them, as would most forms of organised crime. It is known that militants in the Niger Delta use bunkering revenues to purchase trafficked arms and the many insurgent groups active in the region may be engaged in a similar activity. The only problem with this analysis is that there are already many weapons in circulation in the region (an estimated 7 to 10 million) and, unlike drugs and oil, smuggled firearms have some longevity. Between 1998 and 2004, more than 200,000 small arms were seized or collected in the region, at least 70,000 of which were subsequently destroyed. There is widespread evidence that both criminals and rebels may purchase or rent their weaponry from security forces, and, for the low end of the market, there exists a booming trade in “craft weapons”, which are manufactured locally, particularly in Ghana.

What are the policy options?

Economic monoculture can also feed bad governance, a problem often described as “the resource curse”. Paul Collier and other analysts have noted that dependence on primary commodity exports increases the risk of civil war.

On the other hand, West Africa has become afflicted with organised crime because its immunity is low, but the pathogens themselves are mostly foreign in origin. The region is caught up in illicit commercial flows facilitated by locally-based criminals. In each case, at least one component of the supply chain lies outside West Africa. The problems are transnational challenges, and this means there are at least two broad ways of coming up with solutions in the form of policy options.

The problems are transnational challenges, and this means there are at least two broad ways of coming up with solutions in the form of policy options.

The first is to address those aspects of the problem that lie outside the region. In many cases, this is the easier path, since law enforcement capacity in West Africa is among the lowest in the world. Curbing the demand for stolen oil, limiting the supply of substandard medication, curtailing the processing of illicit goods in free trade zones, regulating the global second-hand electronics market, regularising the status of migrant labour, enhancing transparency in financial transfers: bringing order to these global commercial flows would go a long way toward relieving West Africa’s pain.

The second is the long-term project of improving West Africa’s immunity through building the rule of law, which is what UNODC has been doing in the last five years, together with key partners such as ECOWAS, the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), INTERPOL, the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA), etc. This is not necessarily as daunting as it might sound. Removing the profitability of intraregional cigarette smuggling can be accomplished through the harmonisation of licensing and taxation regimes, for example. The regulation of waste and medical supplies is essentially a technocratic issue. The building of healthy states is the final goal, although there are numerous incremental steps along the way that could pay immediate dividends in reducing the environment of lawlessness.

In both approaches – transnational and local – the involvement of the international community is the quintessence to sustainable success. Unilateral remedial action by any West African state will surely be undermined by less progressive practices in its neighbours, particularly given the weakness of borders in the region.

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