West Africa’s Emergence as Drug Transshipment Points: The Geopolitical and Strategic Implications
By Brigadier-General (Rtd.) Julius Maada Bio
Delivered at the Forum Dedicated to Intelligence and Security: Strategic Risks organized by the 18th Edition of the International Economic Forum of the Americas, Conference of Montreal
Wednesday, 13 June 2012
First, I want to thank the organizers of this Conference for the opportunity given to me to address you.
Yesterday, I made a case at the Global Realities Roundtable that because of its oil reserves, and their quality and cost advantages over Middle Eastern oil, West Africa will increasingly become a geopolitically strategic region to especially the West. I stated, however, that Sub-Saharan Africa’s reputation for political instability and civil unrest could negate this prediction. Highlighting bad governance and poverty as the catalysts for the region’s political instability, I offered some recommendations that should mitigate them and thereby enhance the attractiveness of West African crude to Western investors.
Today, I am going to talk about another issue that could both cause political instability in West Africa and pose a security threat to Europe and the Americas. It is the emergence of West Africa as a major transshipment point for narcotics bound for European and American markets, which is partially due to the fact that the cost of transporting drugs into the US market through the usual channels have increased significantly because of the United States’ relentless interdiction efforts along its coasts. Simultaneously, the demand for drugs has fallen significantly in the US and risen in Europe, thus making the European market relatively more attractive to the drug cartels. Finally, the destitution in West Africa creates a “reserve army” of people ready to cooperate with the cartels for a bribe. As such, Latin American drug cartels now see West Africa as a less risky, low-cost route for drugs destined for Europe and beyond.
Drugs and Political Instability: The Egg and Chicken Question
On the question of which has caused the other in West Africa, I want to propose here that political instability is a consequence, not the cause, of West Africa’s increasing use as drug transshipment points by the Latin American cartels. Simply put, I am suggesting that even stable but impoverished West African governments can be easily destabilized by drug money—which can be used to bribe key people in government and the security forces to either actively protect the trade or just look the other way. Also, as it has become apparent in Guinea-Bissau, government leaders of stable governments who might want to resist the drug cartels could find themselves out of power through violence (since the drug cartels can equip and unleash lethal rebel groups more easily than cash-strapped West African governments can equip their militaries). Additionally, it would be quite easy for the drug cartels to use their wealth to manipulate elections in the region in favor of puppet candidates who would protect their trade.
There are those who argue the opposite view that political instability and corruption are the factors that create the environment for drug cartels and other criminal organizations to take root in the region. I disagree for the following reasons.
It is an open secret that the Guinea-Bissau’s military and law enforcement agencies are the key drivers of its drug trade. As such, the country has become West Africa’s foremost transshipment point for South American drugs that are bound for Europe because drug-traffickers are allowed to conduct their affairs with the protection of high state officials. Many believe that Guinea-Bissau’s many coups d’état have been catalyzed by the military’s resistance to attempts by the civilian leadership to curb the drug trade, although the architects of its most recent coup claim that the ousted Prime Minister aided the drug traffickers.
In Guinea (Conakry) also, state TV showed the son of its former President, Lansana Conté, confessing to being “mixed up in the drug business”, although he denied being its ring leader. This was followed by another TV confession by the former President’s brother-in-law. Thus, in spite of the fact that Guinea (Conakry) had a strong central government during President Conté’s tenure, the drug trade took hold because key members of his family and his government were lured by the protection monies they received from the cartels, not because of political instability.
In Sierra Leone also, cocaine trafficking reared its ugly head after political stability had been returned to the country - not when its political, administrative, and law-enforcement institutions had been incapacitated by the war. The first reported incident involved the landing of a plane loaded with 600 kilograms of cocaine (which had a street value of US$54 million) at the Freetown International Airport on July 13, 2008. In the police investigations that ensued, it was learned that the then Minister of Transport and Aviation, Kemoh Sesay, who, together with his cousin (Ahmed Sesay), had been strong financiers of President Ernest Koroma’s 2007 election campaign, had personally authorized the plane’s landing permit. Although leaks from the police investigation predicted an imminent arrest of Kemoh Sesay, he was neither arrested nor charged to court.
Why Kemoh Sesay had not been indicted and prosecuted, as expected, became a matter of public debate. The then Assistant Inspector General of Police, Francis Munu, who led the investigation, told the public that the Police had found no evidence to make an arrest and/or indictment of Kemoh Sesay necessary. However, the trial judge, Justice Nicholas Browne-Marke, debunked the reasons proffered by the police for Sesay’s non-indictment in the following very telling excerpt from his 100-page judgment:
“I must express my strong disapproval of the prosecution's failure to charge [Kemoh] Sesay since, apart from withholding vital evidence, this meant that the judge had to acquit two accused who would otherwise have been convicted. In my view, the prosecution was holding back vital evidence and was prepared to jeopardise their case in order to save perhaps one person from perdition.”
It was later revealed in a leaked American diplomatic cable that the Police had been ordered by the Executive to not arrest Kemoh Sesay. The President’s actions in this case seem to substantiate the claims of both Justice Browne-Marke and the American diplomats for the following reasons:
- Although the press was awash with police leaks that Kemoh Sesay had personally authorized the landing permit for the cocaine plane, and wondered about keeping him at his post, where he could influence the investigations, it took the President several more weeks before removing Sesay from the Cabinet. This was in spite of the fact that the press had urged his immediate removal so that he could not use his position to interfere with the investigations.
- Subsequent to the trial, the President removed the substantive Inspector-General of Police (Brima Acha-Kamara) and replaced him with Francis Munu, the police officer who had overseen the cocaine investigation, effectively catapulting him above more senior officers. Many Sierra Leoneans interpreted this unprecedented promotion as Munu’s reward for protecting Kemoh Sesay during the cocaine investigations.
- The ex-Minister was appointed to a senior presidential advisory position at State House, which lent credence to the allegation that Sesay had been similarly paid off to keep quiet about whatever he might have known about the cocaine case.
The three-country examples I have given here suggest that a country need not be a failed state before it can become a safe haven for the Latin American drug cartels. Only a few influential people in the country (especially those close to the seat of power) are needed. This shows that, in West Africa, the drug cartels rely more on the use of existing state mechanisms to facilitate their activities in the region.
Impact on Europe and the Americas
Europeans and Americans should be worried about West Africa’s increasing transformation into a drug transshipment point for the following reasons:
- The consequent social and political instability this will bring to West Africa would have boomerang effects on Europe and the Americas through increased migration and its consequent social ramifications.
- As West Africa becomes destabilized by the drug trade, it would become fertile ground for terrorists to base their activities, from where they could easily attack the West.
- Even if the destabilized West African states do not become safe havens for terrorists, the cartels could use their wealth to fund terrorist organizations operating worldwide.
What to do
West Africa’s poverty, high youth unemployment, and lack of adequate opportunities for economic empowerment through legitimate means are key factors that are turning West Africa into a transshipment haven for the Latin American drug cartels. And because the consequences of this advance are likely to affect the West as much as (if not more than) it will affect West Africa, ensuring that the drug cartels have no safe haven in the region will serve the security and strategic interests of both regions. Accordingly, their cooperation on this vital issue is of utmost importance. The following are some of the areas I see for fruitful cooperation:
- West African Governments should allow increased European and American air and naval monitoring of the West African coast and airspace (much as the US Navy does in the Gulf of Mexico) in order to make it difficult for the drugs to get to West Africa in the first place.
- More military cooperation between European and American militaries and their counterparts in West Africa in order to enhance the capability of West African militaries to resist any attempts by the drug cartels and their local agents to destabilize governments in the region.
- Jointly to confer jurisdiction on international courts like the ICC to prosecute and to hold to account military and political leaders who aid and abet drug cartels to take root in their countries and to impose life imprisonment as the only penalty for that offence.
- Jointly to agree on mechanisms that expedite and facilitate the extradition of terrorists and drug barons to foreign jurisdictions outside West Africa for trial.
- The West should support genuine political reforms and democratization within the region so that West Africans would see elections as the only legitimate way to gain and maintain oneself in power. This should discipline governments in the region to view good economic outcomes as being in their political interests because voters are expected to return politicians to power only if their (voters’) economic circumstances improve, not otherwise.
- Cooperation on policies that could provide legitimate opportunities to West Africans to gain economic and social mobility by legitimate means. These policies must include:
- Improved access to quality education and healthcare for all citizens;
- Enhancing the public-health infrastructure so that infant mortality rates and maternal morbidity rates are significantly reduced. This should eventually lower the fertility rate and the rate of population growth.
- Ernest efforts at reducing corruption in the region as a way of reducing the supply of public officials that the drug cartels could recruit.
If such cooperation as is advocated here between the West and West Africa is not already in progress, I suggest that appropriate steps be taken in that direction without further delay; on the other hand, if such cooperation is already in motion then it needs to be strengthened further, especially in ways that impact directly and immediately upon the welfare of the ordinary citizen in West Africa through appropriate public and private sector mechanisms. These would provide citizens legitimate avenues as alternative to yielding to the alluring enticement of illicit money from the drug cartels.
Lastly, strengthening regional cooperation among West African countries is just as important. This should be done in ways that expedite communications and improve openness and transparency between governments and between their national anti-narcotic agencies in order to reduce the destabilizing effect of the narcotic trade.