AMU Homeland Security Opinion

The Drug War Expands to Western Africa

By Jenni Hesterman

The area of concern with Guinea-Bissau is highlighted in red. (Wikipedia)

The Department of Defense will soon take on a new role: countering the expanding drug trade in Western Africa. The new initiative is outlined in the FY 2009 defense authorization bill, House Resolution (H.R.) 5658. Section 1024 of the bill provides funding for counter-drug equipment in the Republic of Ghana, the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, and the Republic of Senegal, in addition to the nations of the Western Hemisphere, central Asia, and the Caucasus. Additionally, the Senate Armed Services Committee is concerned by the rapid growth of illegal drug trade in the region and has directed the State Department and the Department of Defense to jointly prepare “a region-wide, counter drug plan for Africa, with a special emphasis on West Africa and the Maghreb.”

Since 2003, 99% of all drugs seized in Africa have been found in the West. The volume seized has increased 5 fold in the last few years, with 5.6 tons collected in the first 9 months of 2007 alone. Agencies involved in counterdrug operations acknowledge the situation in several Western African countries is rapidly deteriorating. The State Department’s 2008 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report states that “Ghana has become a significant transshipment point for illegal drugs, particularly cocaine from South America, as well as heroin from Southeast and Southwest Asia.” Additionally, DoD has identified Ghana as its “anchor country” for emerging counternarcotics efforts through AFRICOM.
But perhaps the greatest threat lies in Guinea-Bissau, which the UN has dubbed Africa’s first “narcostate”. With a land mass equal to the state of Maryland, Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world, with two-thirds of its 1.5M population living below the poverty line. It is attractive to traffickers due to its unpatrolled coastline, numerous hidden bays, close proximity to several other declining countries and weak rule of law. In a country with no main source of electricity, the police force has no cars, radios and few weapons. The military is thought to be complicit in the drug trade; last year, two military personnel were detained along with a civilian in a vehicle carrying 635 kilos of cocaine. The army secured the soldiers’ release and they have not been charged.
Trafficking and unrest is not new to Guinea-Bissau; it was first known as the “Slave Coast” when African rulers prospered from the slave trade. After centuries of Portuguese rule, a para-military group emerged and, aided by arms and supplies from Cuba, Russia, and China, fought a protracted war to eventually win the country’s independence in 1974. Years of unrest ensued; thousands of citizens who had fought alongside the Portuguese against the rebels were slaughtered and buried in unmarked graves. The country has subsequently faced bloody uprisings, conflicts and even a complete economic collapse. The U.S. and Britain’s official diplomatic presence pulled out of the country in 1998 during a civil war, moving to nearby Senegal.
In just 3 years since the first cocaine was brought to its shores, Guinea-Bissau has become a major hub for drug trafficking, bringing with it new prosperity. In a country where the average income is $1 a day, Columbians are regularly seen driving expensive SUVs and sports cars, and living in new Spanish style villas with swimming pools and armed guards in the countryside. In fact, officials believe there are more than 60 Columbian drug traffickers currently operating in Guinea-Bissau.
Europe, primarily Spain and Portugal, is the main recipient of cocaine from West Africa. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a quarter of all cocaine consumed in Western Europe is trafficked through West Africa, and it is estimated that one ton of pure Colombian cocaine leaves the country daily for Europe. The Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, believes the impact on Africa of Europe’s cocaine habit is an echo of that of slavery. “In the 19th century, Europe’s hunger for slaves devastated West Africa. Two hundred years later, its growing appetite for cocaine could do the same.”
The U.S. has been impacted in a slightly different way: DEA and UNODC report that Guinea Bissau and other West African countries are being targeted by Asian and African cartels trafficking heroin across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, to the US. Last year, the DEA and police in Chicago tracked nine West Africans who had moved heroin originating in Southeast Asia through various West African countries, markedly Guinea-Bissau, to the central U.S.
Drug trafficking is a transnational threat that directly impacts our national security, and that of our allies. Factor in terrorists, who often extract profit from drug trade, and use established trafficking routes to move money, people and equipment–and the threat becomes alarming.
The debate about whether DoD is the right agency to lead the effort in West Africa is moot; the point is that all Federal agencies engaged in counterdrug, counterintelligence and counterterrorism must work together to assess the issue, contain the threat, and together, push the traffickers out of the region before the threat and instability spread any further on the continent.
About the Author
Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism specialist. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at American Military University, teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies.
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