Illegal drugs in Africa

We outline why fighting illegal drug supply in Africa is so challenging. Dr. Peter Ndege gives his insight on illegal drugs and drug trafficking in Africa here.

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Illegal drug trafficking in Africa

Illegal drugs are a worldwide problem. And addiction touches every nation-state in the world. Here, Dr. Peter Ndege speakS about the major challenges of fighting illegal drug supply in Kenya, East Africa from an “on-the-ground” perspective. He reviews why/how illegal drug cartels exist in Africa, the social context for tolerating drug use and the political systems which allow it. If you’re looking for an explanation of illegal drug use in Africa, you’ve found it.

CORRUPTION & LACK OF TRANSPARENCY: Corruption makes it easier, especially for government officials, to be ‘bought’ by drug peddlers or for arrested criminals to get away scot free.

EXTRA-JUDICIAL EXECUTIONS: Extra-judicial executions of witnesses and law enforcement officers handling drug trafficking related cases spread fear among citizens and prevents them from providing key information on who the culprits are. It also makes it difficult for law enforcement officers to apprehend traffickers for fear of execution.

GENERAL PUBLIC UNAWARENESS: Even among the educated, knowledge of drug supply into the country is limited. Even worse is knowledge on money laundering and the fronts or masks used by drug traffickers to clean their ill-gotten money. This makes it easier for the traffickers to flourish in the unsuspecting public eye or rather, without public scrutiny.

HARSH ECONOMIC TIMES: Lack of natural resources, human capital, corrupt governments and poverty all create very harsh economic conditions that form a very strong/stable foundation for drug trafficking. Economic empowerment is a good and viable ammunition against drug trafficking.

HARSH CLIMATIC CONDITIONS: The harsh climates across much of Africa create perfect conditions for mass poverty since ours is an agriculture dependent or driven economy and most citizens depend on rain for farming. As stated above, poverty is a perfect recipe for drug trafficking.

HIGH LEVELS OF UNEMPLOYMENT: Unemployment makes it easier for citizens, and especially the youth, to be recruited in drug trafficking or peddling networks. It also makes it easier for traffickers to set up business as fronts for money laundering in the pretext of providing employment. Favorite false businesses we’ve seen in Kenya include shopping malls, electronic shops, entertainment facilities, low cost community based schools and motor vehicle import.

ILLITERACY: Illiteracy levels in Kenya alone are in the range of 50-60%, meaning that most people can’t read or write. Creating awareness about illegal drug distribution is therefore a major challenge. Most citizens have no idea what ‘hard drugs’ such as heroin and cocaine are which means that these drugs can be trafficked within communities without detection.

LACK OF POLITICAL WILL: This translates to minimal support for the war on drugs in terms of policy development and implementation and also law enforcement.

LOW NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL FUNDING FOR ILLICIT DRUG TRAFFICKING PREVENTION PROGRAMS: Most governments and especially those of low income/poor nations such as Kenya operate on extremely tight budgets and provision of food, education, health and basic security to the citizenry is the major priority. Drug abuse prevention is certainly not the most urgent issue to tackle, meaning that we are left with a scanty and ill-prepared law enforcement unit that cannot adequately engage the drug traffickers.

NATURAL DISASTERS: In an already impoverished continent like Africa, even minor natural disasters such as floods, wild fires and low magnitude earthquakes lead to destruction of whatever little infrastructure is available and crops causing famine and poverty culminating in a change of national priorities and therefore, a low budget to fight illicit drug supply.

PERSONAL/INDIVIDUAL GREED: The desire to get rich quickly especially among the youth makes it easier for the traffickers to entice them in this illegal business.

POOR INFORMATION, COMMUNICATION & TECHNOLOGY (ICT) INFRASTRUCTURE: Until recently, most government offices/departments lacked basic ICT equipment such as computers, which means that records are either non-existent, scanty or easily destroyed or that criminals are difficult to trace i.e. vital information lost over time. Even where the facilities are available, most officers are not computer literate, making the entry and storage of confidential information difficult since a third party has to be engaged to do the data entry.

POROUS BORDERS WITH NEIGHBOURING NATIONS: Inadequate border security/patrol makes it easier for traffickers to ship drugs in and out of countries without detection.

POVERTY: Poverty makes it easier for citizens to blinded by the short term hand outs and/or provision of basic social services by traffickers. These go unnoticed since since citizen focus on day to day survival rather than long term development. Parents are also away from their children most of the time in search of employment or food, hence it is easy for these youth to be recruited into the trafficking networks by friends, relatives, neighbours and drug gangs. It also makes it much easier for electoral crimes such as election rigging to be committed by traffickers hence weakening or even replacing democratic governments with autocratic governments.

UNAVAILABILITY OF BASIC PUBLIC SOCIAL SERVICES & INFRASTRUCTURE/AMENITIES: Schools, water, electricity, all weather roads, housing, hospitals, transportation, etc. are all public service which can serve to launder money. Hence drug traffickers use via these avenues to clean up their trails.

THE ON-GOING HIV/AIDS EPIDEMIC: AIDS has created a huge population of orphans without any social support system making them an easy target for drug suppliers/traffickers recruitment. The epidemic has also killed or rendered moribund the young who are the drivers of the economy in various sectors leading to escalating levels of poverty and the attendant vulnerability to drug trafficking.

WARS-NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL: Wars lead to the influx of refugees who come with illegal firearms which lead to a breakdown of law and order as violent crimes increase inducing fear among citizens hence easier to traffic drugs.

WEAK AND/OR ILL EQUIPPED CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: Inadequate staffing, poor ICT infrastructure, poor remuneration and political interference are just but a few challenges that make it very difficult for the criminal justice system to deal with drug trafficking networks adequately.

WESTERN INFLUENCE: Western influence, especially through television which exposes youth to the affluent lifestyles of the west and a Hollywood culture that seems to glorify drug use / trafficking gives African youth a poor model. This creates pressure on these youngsters to ‘succeed’ or rather become wealthy quickly and they are at high risk of being recruited into drug gangs or supply networks.

Learn more about drug use in Africa

To contact Dr. Peter Ndege about his work, please leave him a message below, or email us at: admin[at]addictionblog[dot]org

About the author
Dr. Ndege is a former Hubert H. Humphrey scholar doing work in Kenya, East Africa on opiate substitution therapy and harm reduction measures, particularly among intravenous drug users, prisoners, and commercial sex workers. He lectures at Kenya Methodist University in the Department of Health Systems Management.
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