Why is Drug Consumption Rising in West Africa?

In late December 2011 a coup plot was uncovered in the tiny state of Guinea Bissau, West Africa. The army found a cache of arms including AK-47s, rocket launchers, machine guns and flame throwers, around 25 army officers were arrested. The alleged ring leader of the coup and currently resident of a downtrodden prison 40 km from the capital is rear admiral José Americo Bubo Na Tchute aka “Bubo”, the naval officer is wanted by the US authorities because of his involvement in the drug trade. Bubo was named as mastermind of the plot by the Guinea Bissau authorities, as one of Africa’s most unstable countries, coup plots and attempts are a way of life but rumours it could be connected with the drugs trade have highlighted the trafficking problem in this part of Africa. Named a drug king pin under “Drug Kingpin Act” by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, financial sanctions have been placed on Bubo and US citizens are forbidden from conducting business with him,

Around 5 or 6 years ago Columbian drug traffickers were looking for a safer route to the lucrative European market. The traditional route through the Caribbean was becoming harder to use because searches and detection rates had shot up dramatically. Instead they turned to West Africa and Guinea Bissau in particular – the place is a useful stop off point on route to Europe from South America and has a long under policed coast line. Not only is there a lack of political will from the country’s leaders, but there is a total lack of equipment and resources to tackle rich smugglers. The police do not have any cars, there is no real prison and there is a single rusting coast guard vessel to protect a lengthy coast line punctuated by islands and river inlets. Since declaring Guinea Bissau the first narco-state, UNODC have put in place various training programs and aid efforts, such as building a police academy along with the Brazilian government, but these are minor compared to what the smugglers have at their disposal.

The smugglers sent drugs by boat, plane and even submarines. Submarines are currently the most effective means of transporting drugs across the Atlantic, their ability to avoid detection by travelling submerged and with just a small crew (usually 2 or 3) makes them ideal for the 4 day Atlantic crossing.  Guinea Bissau has become a safe haven for smugglers, as custom officials, the police and armed forces can be easily paid off to look the other way or even get involved in the trade. In a country where the main export crop is the cashew nut and there are few other opportunities for making money, it is easy to see why local officials turn to the drug trade.

As time went on the easy going atmosphere of Bissau attracted Columbians and other South Americans to the capital on a permanent basis. In one of the world’s poorest countries, ruled by a predatory elite, more and more Spanish villas have sprung up, populated by blacked out 4x4s, pools, glamorous woman and all the other trappings of international drug dealers.

What has gone underreported is that drug consumption has rocketed in Guinea Bissau and West Africa. The UN estimates that one third of the drugs arriving in the region are being consumed locally. For a region without any drug education, rehabilitation or treatment centres the effects can be devastating. When stray bags of cocaine first washed up on the shore of Guinea Bissau, farmers and fisherman would use it to try and feed crops (it doesn’t work well), or to mark out football pitches with the powder. It was only when South American men arrived offering thousands of dollars to buy the packages, did the true value and use of the substances become apparent.

The shift from Africa merely being a stop off point on the way to the west, to a consumer of drugs mirrors the increase in south – south legal trade. Where before Africa and South America were primary producers sending unfinished goods straight to Europe and the US – now trade patterns are changing and connections between developing countries are growing fast. So we can expect to see Guinea Bissau looking more to Lusophone Brazil as a trade and investment partner in years to come.  Brazil is a growing investment partner across Africa as discussed in my post below “Brazil in Africa” The Chinese have almost been inevitably become an investor in Guinea Bissau , financing the Ceba Dam which will help supply electricity to the country. The Macanese casino Tycoon Stanley Ho, is supposedly investing in a casino on Caravela Island. In West Africa legal trade and investment from other developing countries looks set to follow illegal trade.

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