narcotics trafficking through West Africa
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This article is written by Sahil Aggarwal, currently pursuing B.A.LLB. (Hons) from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. This article explores the threat of drug trafficking in West African regions and also provides an account of legal instruments and organizations working to contain the menace of drugs.


West Africa is one of the most underdeveloped, impoverished, and instability prone regions of the world. In this situation, the menace of drug trafficking places a daunting challenge towards the African nations as well as the international community. In this context, the drug issue is not limited to the trafficking, production, etc. but also includes the threat it forms for the security of the nation-states. In this context, this article explores the domain of drug trafficking in West Africa and locates the legal instrument and regional as well as international organizations in place constantly working towards curbing this challenge. 

West Africa and the rise of drug trafficking

Globalization has entailed the integration of national economies, societies, cultures, and has been celebrated as one of the most significant developments of the 20th century. More specifically, it has allowed opportunities for the weak, poor, and oppressed to participate in the global market to some extent. However, on its dark side, it has also opened the gaps and afforded opportunities to the criminals and non-state actors to abuse the global markets through trade in multiple illicit goods. As a consequence, the initial years of the 21st century saw the emergence of West Africa as a major transit point for Latin American drugs to get to the European markets. This has taken the international communities and law enforcers by surprise. The intensity and amplitude of the illicit and destructive trade have reached unprecedented and extremely daunting levels.

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According to the World Drug Report, 2013, approximately 40 to 50 tons of cocaine get into transit each year. The profits of such activities get as high as 1.8 billion dollars, and even more. This massive scale of trade in illicit drugs has not only affected African countries but also the destination countries. Cocaine, among other drugs, forms the largest share of this illegal market. It is estimated that 27% or thereabout of the 146 tons of the cocaine which entered Europe arrives through Africa. The research shows that the net profit margin of these drug dealers is around 25%, which makes them an income of 450 million per year, which is in fact, greater than the Gross Domestic Product of many African countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Cape Verde, and Sierra Leone. Moreover, it has been suggested that actual quantum may be more disturbing, as the UNODC report represents only the tip of the iceberg. The problem is of such a magnitude and has far-reaching implications that the authorities like police and policy-makers are highly concerned about it. 

Reasons for the rise of drugs menace in West Africa

Many factors explain why West Africa became a convenient transit spot for the Latin American drug dealers. The primary reasons include the market forces and an increase in the effective rate of cocaine use and trafficking on the African continent. Firstly, the U.S. market became less attractive for these South American producers and exporters because of many reasons including the decreasing rate of cocaine consumption in the USA and the strict enforcement controls placed by the U.S. drug enforcement officials. Moreover, Europe saw a growth in the number of drug consumers from 3.5 million in 2006 to 6 million in 2011

Secondly, the geographical factor of the continent facilitates the transmission of drugs to Europe and Asia. The drug dealers being deterred by the authorities on routes through the Atlantic ocean were forced to turn their attention to Western Africa. Moreover, the physical make-up of the continent, consisting of a large number of islands, makes it complex to control the coastline and sea routes. Moreover, the massive African diaspora with the presence in more than eighty countries in the world makes it convenient to some extent to transit and secure the consignments.

Thirdly, and perhaps, most importantly, the lack of security controls and political instability forms the inherent weakness of the majority of African countries. The fragile and corrupt legal systems make it significantly convenient to commute drugs from western Africa. The absence of sea control through radar coverage or airways means further complications in overseeing movements. The main reason for such instability is mass poverty, unemployment, and corruption that haunts the countries in Western Africa. It has also been argued that African states also have weak or sometimes even completely dysfunctional judiciary systems, that facilitate the convictions rates of drug dealers.

Implications of drug trafficking on the West African nations

Drug trafficking in the West African state threatens the fabric of national security as well as finds a convenient environment that encourages the development of organized crime, terrorist factions, and rebel groups. Organized crimes tend to reinforce or even grow in the facilitating environment. It emerges in the insecure communities under-served by the States, devoid of basic rights and amenities. It then grows on to challenge the official government structures, either by violence or by means of corrupt officials, and it seeks to protect its operations from outside interference, thus increasing its control in the area. Moreover, the high-profit potential attracts various criminal organizations to come together in the region of operation, for instance, terrorist groups may provide logistical and security related support to the drug traffickers. 

Drug trafficking also becomes instrumental in social instability. Due to the lack of employment opportunities, many people find illegal activities such as these an easy way out of poverty. Moreover, as suggested earlier, the increased rate of drug use among civilians further fuels crime and poverty. The socio-economic disparity widens since the profits accrued do not get used in the development of the country’s economy, rather increases the concentration in the hands of well-established criminals. The normative legitimate business activities also bear the brunt, since drug trafficking attracts the civilians through its seemingly easy and huge influx of money. 

Another major implication of drug trafficking in the regions of Western Africa is the potential impact of drugs on human security. The passage of cocaine, heroin, and ATS through West Africa is leading to increased use, especially among younger generations. While major policies against the drug traffickers in West Africa are focused primarily on punitive measures, like tough sentencing for the first time-users and other convicts. Limited steps are taken to treat users in prison, and rehabilitate the convicts upon release. 

Legal responses to West Africa’s drug crises

Regional responses

A broad range of policy and operational responses have been adopted to better respond to drug trafficking in West Africa. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) formed through the ECOWAS treaty, is the main sub-regional body responsible for setting policy guidance and delivering responses to drug trafficking. It has made multiple strides in developing a coherent formulation, most remarkably in 2008, in the form of the Political Declaration on the Prevention of Drug Abuse, Illicit Drug Trafficking, and Organised Crime in West Africa – the Abuja Declaration. However, the drug policies across the member states of ECOWAS vary significantly. As suggested earlier, the laws and regulations are majorly located in prohibitionist and punitive measures. These laws are majorly inspired as the prohibitionist interpretations of pre-existing international drug conventions and have gone unquestioned until recently. However, the emergence of international debate to progress, although slowly, towards more proportionate, evidence-based, and humane policies, the regional governments in West Africa have also been showing increasing interest in reviewing their laws. 

In 2014, the West Africa Commission on Drugs issued their report entitled Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa which emphasized the fact of West Africa’s emergence as a hub for the global drugs trade, along with the increased consumption and production of drugs locally. There are presently 15 member states making up ECOWAS which have their own drug legislation to curb the illegal trade. For our purposes, we will briefly discuss the penalty provisions provided by the states of Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. 

The majority of West African countries have made a distinction between penalties for the personal use of drugs and those for drug trafficking, supply, or production. However, every member state observer penalties for drug possession but the quantum of punishment significantly varies. For instance, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Act of Nigeria provides for punishment up to 25 years of imprisonment for possession of drugs, on the other hand, Senegal provides the range of 2 months to 1 year for imprisonment for possession. Ghana provides a minimum of 5 years of imprisonment for use of drugs and 10 years for possession in its Narcotic Drugs (Control, Enforcement, And Sanctions) Law, 1990.

However, there also some alternatives to imprisonment in several West African countries. Such measures are permitted under the international drug control conventions, and increasingly being promoted as steps towards more humane drug policies. In Senegal, the underage or the first time offenders may even be exempted from the punishment if they make a solemn declaration purporting that they wouldn’t re-engage in the drug use. In fact, the first time offenders are usually given a jail term of less than one month or are released with the said warning. In Nigeria, the Courts can require minor offenders to undergo measures such as treatment, education, aftercare, rehabilitation, or social integration as an alternative to incarceration. However, the question regarding the effectiveness and actual applications of these legislations project another complex area to peruse.

Generally, the penalties prescribed for the drug supply, trafficking, production, and other offences in West African countries are greater than that for the mere possession of drugs. For instance, Nigeria provides life imprisonment in former cases without any concession, moreover, life imprisonment as a punishment was incorporated in place of the death penalty in 1986. Again, in total contrast, Senegal provides for a range of 5 to 10 years of punishment with a fine in such cases. Ghana, in this respect, provides for 5 years of minimum punishment for supply and 10 years of minimum imprisonment for production. Moreover, the West African countries also include many related offences like facilitating or encouraging drug use by other people.

The above account provides that the drug laws at the national level leave considerable responsibility of the judiciary to decide for punishment and also for the alternatives. However, it has been observed that none of the legislation provides for the implementation of harm reduction services. As of 2017, Senegal supports the implementation of harm reduction services. This is perhaps required to be addressed as early as possible because of the evidence that shows high-risk drug use and related HIV and other health pandemics. Moreover, the laws do not even provide for the protection of core human rights. In Senegal, however, the law includes sanctions against officials who abuse the human rights of people. But the implementation of such laws is seriously challenged in actuality.

Moreover, ECOWAS has also developed many strategies in the context of Narcotics Control. One of the most critical aspects of these strategies had to ensure the responsibility of each individual state in implementing the Abuja Declaration and the accompanying Action plan. The critical functions of ECOWAS include, firstly, mobilizing the political leadership, and address the needs for adequate budget allocation by members states for preventing and combating illicit drug trafficking, and related crimes; secondly, ensuring effective law enforcement and national/regional cooperation against the drug trafficking and organized crimes; thirdly, developing and strengthening appropriate legal frameworks for justice; fourthly, to confront emerging threats collectively such as health and security problems associated with the increased drug abuse, and lastly, to assess and maintain valid and reliable data regarding the magnitude of the drug trafficking.

The Abuja Declaration, however, remained in effect till 2013. In 2013, ECOWAS and the European Union delegation in Abuja agreed on a new framework agreement called EU Support to the Implementation of the ECOWAS Drug and Crime Action Plan. The agreement aimed at enabling ECOWAS to address capacity issues and play a leading role in advocacy, coordination, and monitoring of drug-related issues. 

Along with the efforts of ECOWAS, multiple sub-regional initiatives have also been developed to support its working and enhance cooperation in the West African states. For instance, the Dakar initiative is an initiative signed by seven countries. It tenders to support the ECOWAS Regional Action Plan and the Declaration. 

International commitments and responses

All seventeen countries, in addition to being the members of ECOWAS, are also the signatories to the three international drug conventions, namely, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961; the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971; and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988. These three treaties form the essential space of the international drug control system and seek to ensure that controlled substances are allowed for medical and scientific purposes, however not for any other illicit purpose. 

However, it has been observed that the engagement of different countries differs significantly in international drug policy discussions. The international discussions majorly take place through the Committee on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The CND is the governing body and operational segment of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The CND meets annually when it considers and adopts a range of decisions and resolutions. In the most recent Ministerial segment of 2019, it adopted the 2019 Ministerial Declaration which emphasized on strengthening actions at the national, regional, and international levels to accelerate the implementation of joint commitments to address and counter the world drug problem.

After the Abuja Declaration, a range of actors including UNODC, INTERPOL, EUROPOL, the Unitest States Drug Enforcement Administration (US DEA), and the United Kingdom’s Special Organized Crime Agency have developed initiatives to support the implementation of their own organizational policies in support of the ECOWAS at regional as well as national levels. They have, however, focused predominantly on controlling narcotics flows and strengthening law enforcement, and less on public health or governance issues, despite the longer-term security implications that neglect of the latter might give rise to.

Concerns and future policies

Indeed, the menace of drug trafficking of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and ATS has been increasing in West African countries. Moreover, it has been observed that Drug trafficking networks established their footholds by exploiting already weak governance systems and loopholes in the legislation. However, the criminalization of drug use and possession places a significant burden in this situation on already overburdened criminal justice systems, marked by corruption. The drug menace not only affects the system of governance but also tends to induce violence and affects the human rights of civilians adversely.

Moreover, evidence has shown an opportunistic relation between traffickers and terrorist networks. This further threatens the governance and stability of the West African states. However, it has been observed that the whole issue of drug trafficking has been majorly construed from the perspective of criminal justice, in this respect, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, has suggested to change the course and treat the drugs-use as a public health issue with socio-economic causes and consequences. It also suggested actively confronting the political and governance challenges induced by corruption within state governments, the security services, the judiciary and to develop drug laws on the basis of existing and emerging minimum standards. 


In sum, it can be said that due to the very nature of the trade of drug trafficking, it has the potential to generate undesirable implications that threaten to sweep over not only in the African continent but also in other countries. One of the main reasons indeed is the weak and corrupt enforcement agencies at the regional level, which considerably affect the implementation of national as well as international regulations and treaties. In this sense, an appropriate intervention by a single country can neither be effective or sufficient. Consequently, a simultaneous need for increased cooperation among the different countries in the West African regions also becomes important. Moreover, the increasing risk of human rights violations and health issues make it more urgent for the states to act in an effective manner. Hence, it is required more than ever before that the African states improve their administrative and judicial services to curb the menace of drug trafficking.







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