Maritime Trade Route Facilitates Africa's Growing Drug Problem

Published Oct 17, 2018 7:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

Sub-Saharan Africa will experience the largest rise in illicit drug users globally in the next three decades. Findings from an ENACT transnational organized crime project forecast that East Africa will be hit the hardest, with the proportion of people using illicit drugs increasing faster than other regions.

This spike is due largely to changes in drug flows, urbanization and the large youth population.

ENACT is funded by the E.U. and run by Interpol and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Africa.

For the past two decades, various parts of Africa have increasingly become transit points for the global trade in illicit drugs. As a result, a rising number of people across the continent have become involved in the trade – not only in facilitating the trafficking of illicit drugs, but also as consumers. This poses a formidable and growing problem to African governments, both from a law enforcement perspective and a public health standpoint, says ISS. 

It also threatens states’ ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in clear and direct ways. An increasing number of drug users – particularly of injection drugs – can result in a spike in costly diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. It is also associated with increased mortality rates.

Additionally, illicit drug markets fuel violence and instability and give rise to criminal economies that spread across borders and often involve political elites. The heroin trade along the east African seaboard is a case in point, says ISS. A network of maritime routes stretching along the East and Southern African coastline forms a trade corridor increasingly used by drug traffickers for the illicit shipment of heroin to Western Europe. The trade feeds a system of criminal governance in each country along the coast, tying political figures, their parties and their country’s prospects for democracy to the illicit economy.

The ISS says the Southern Route through South and East African coastal states has been called the “highway of impunity.” It is part of a major transit path for heroin being shipped from Afghanistan to Europe and other markets. In both Cape Town and Durban the organization notes that there are indications that the ports are being used for heroin trafficking. In September 2017, almost a ton of heroin was seized in the Western Cape, intended to be hidden in wine cases and exported to Europe in containers. Criminal networks (in this case, European ones) could have been exploiting gaps in surveillance, but there is evidence that Cape gang figures have tried in the past to get access to positions of authority and influence at Cape Town’s port.

Conflict and improved policing along the main land-based drug-trafficking route to Europe via the Balkans, as well as skyrocketing poppy production in Afghanistan, are the main reasons for increased use of the Southern Route.

This has caused not only a public health emergency but also a slow-burning political crisis in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa over the past 15 years. “Like all slow-burning problems it has been barely noticeable – highlighted mainly by maritime seizures by foreign navies,” says the ISS.

The ISS also notes that illicit wildlife products and illegally trafficked weapons share trade routes with drugs.

However, the ISS says more evidence is needed to frame the global illicit drug threat from an African perspective. For example, rather than harming development, Africa’s two largest drug crops – cannabis and khat (the leaves of an Arabian shrub, which are chewed or drunk as an infusion as a stimulant) – are used as “compensation” crops that boost the incomes of farmers and are firmly integrated into community economies.