Side event – Drug Trafficking and Consumption in West Africa

The session was chaired by Alan Doss from the Kofi Annan Foundation, and attracted more than 90 participants from Member States, civil society and UNODC.

In 2013, Kofi Annan convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs – a group of distinguished West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, entertainment, health, security and the judiciary. With the support of leading experts, the Commission has analysed the problems of drug trafficking and drug dependency in the region, and will deliver its report later in 2014.


Yuri Fedotov, the UNODC Executive Director, spoke of the vulnerability of West Africa to drug trafficking and trade – including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. There are issues of public health and safety, with a corresponding rise in HIV attributed to injecting drug use in the region. There is therefore a need to enhance regional cooperation and coordination – including through the Africa Union and ECOWAS. UNODC developed a regional programme from 2010 to 2014, which is the main framework for their technical assistance in the region – assistance including WACI, airport interdiction programmes, container control, and judicial programmes. The on-going support of the donor community is important for this work, and a donor conference was held last year alongside ECOWAS and Cote D’Ivoire.

Much more support is required – to go after proceeds of crime, and to support voluntary treatment and integration for people who use drugs. The response to drugs and crime in the region must be part of wider efforts addressing poverty, youth, unemployment and corruption. He ended by reminding participants that “UNODC is always ready to work with partners. You may count on us.”

Olusegun Obasanjo (the former President of Nigeria and Chair of the West Africa Commission on Drugs) then gave his presentation. He introduced the work of the Commission and the need to address the local consumption of drugs and the serious threats to peace and stability in West Africa. The Commission is a body that can speak with expertise, impartiality and directness on this issue. Its principal aims are to mobilise public awareness and commitment, to develop evidence based policy recommendations, and to build capacity to deal with drug trafficking, production and use. The Commission has undertaken visits to individual countries to meet with governments, civil society partners and people who use drugs. They are also working with ECOWAS to ensure government buy-in for policy change, and with UNODC on the political, social, health and economic aspects of drugs.

In West Africa, the approaches to date have not stopped flow of drugs. At best, they have only been able to stop it temporarily and displace it elsewhere in the region. There is deep concern that traffickers and drug money are infiltrating politics and criminal justice systems, while interdiction efforts are hampered by capacity constraints and corruption. Militarising the drug response and conflating the duel wars on terror and drugs is not the answer – the arrests made are mostly small-time drug dealers, drug couriers and people who use drugs.

President Obasanjo then spoke of his personal experience as a political prisoner in Nigeria, where most of the other inmates were small-time drug offenders. By the time they left prison, they had become hardened. In the context of widespread poverty and high unemployment, young people in West Africa are inevitably viewing the drug trade as an income opportunity. President Obasanjo also met with group of drug offenders in Nigeria – one of them told him “When you were in government I had a job and two degrees, a wife and two children. Now I have lost my job and have to look after my wife and children. Now I do a job [in the drug trade] that has no impact on you, I carry something from one place to another. Now you say I have offended. You don’t want me to live – to look after my family?” President Obasanjo did not know what to say, and wished he had a job to give him.

About one-third of the drugs that come through the region are consumed locally, with an estimated 1.5 million people who use drugs and consumption on the rise (especially amongst young people). Prevention and treatment services that comply with internationally recognised minimum standards are practically non-existent in West Africa, and investments in treatment and harm reduction are needed. It is important to act now. Any policy applied to West Africa must not be isolated from the rest of the world, but must be aligned with international intelligence and efforts for interdiction, and humane treatment and prevention.

President Obasanjo finished by declaring that problematic drug use is first and foremost a health problem, and that the criminalisation of drug use simply does not work.

Dr Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is also a member of the West Africa Commission on Drugs, and reaffirmed the associated problems of drugs, disrupted criminal justice system, the hampering of security services, and escalating violence that is destabilising countries. We therefore need an integrated process for addressing these problems, involving the international community and civil society.

The questions from participants covered:
·         Access to essential medicines: President Obusanjo said there is lack of resources to deal with this, and is featured in the forthcoming report and its recommendations. Mr Fedotov agreed, and expressed UNODC’s full support for access to essential medicines. He acknowledged that there is much work to do in West Africa, and UNODC have launched a global programme to tackle this important issue. He also noted that West Africa also has serious issues with counterfeit medicines.
·         Cannabis policy: Dr Mohammed agreed that there is a need to focus on this issue, looking at the justice and security systems to have a comprehensive outlook and promote versatile responses. The Commission is trying to tackle the complex problems of drug transit, consumption and production in the region.
·         A representative from Ireland also drew attention to the European Union’s ambitious “Sahel Strategy”.

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