Trafficking in the Sahel: Cracking down on illicit drugs


In this feature, part of a series exploring trafficking in the Sahel, UN News focuses on the illicit drug trade.

According to a new report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), drug trafficking in the Sahel continues to hinder security, economic development and the rule of law while jeopardising public health.

“Drug trafficking is well-established in the Sahel region – with detrimental consequences both locally and globally,” said Amado Philip de Andres, who heads the agency’s West and Central Africa regional office.

“Increased drug flows to West Africa and the Sahel undermine peace and stability in the region,” he said. “This is not only a security issue as armed groups are deriving revenue to finance their operations, it is also a public health issue as criminal groups tap into population growth to expand illicit drug markets.”

Cannabis seized in a drug sting. (file)

Large-scale trafficking

In some Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – cannabis resin remains the internationally trafficked drug most commonly seized, followed by cocaine and pharmaceutical opioids.

Indeed, seizures of cocaine skyrocketed in the Sahel in 2022, from an average of 13 kg per year seized between 2015 and 2020 to 1,466 kg in 2022. UNODC assessments said this suggests the presence of large-scale cocaine trafficking through the region.

Although annual estimates were not available for 2023, by mid-year, 2.3 tons of cocaine had already been seized in Mauritania, according to the agency.

The region’s geographical location makes it a “natural stopover point” for the increasing amount of cocaine produced in South America en route to Europe, which has seen a similar rise in demand for the drug, the new report found.

Experts examine cocaine in Guinea-Bissau. (file)

Experts examine cocaine in Guinea-Bissau. (file)

‘Vicious cycle’ links trafficking and instability

The drug economy and instability in the Sahel are linked through a “vicious cycle”, the report noted, in which the weak rule of law is facilitating the expansion of the drug economy. That can, in turn, provide financial resources for maintaining or expanding conflicts, which then continue to weaken the rule of law.

The new report found that drug trafficking continues to provide financial resources to armed groups in the region, including Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin 2014 d’Alger (Plateforme) in Algeria and Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) in Mali, enabling them to sustain their involvement in conflict, notably through the purchase of weapons.

Meanwhile, traffickers are using money-laundering to disguise their illicit proceeds in a growing number of sectors, from gold to real estate. That makes financial transactions more difficult to track while giving traffickers greater economic leverage and “a veneer of legitimacy”, the report found.

Port control units established under the framework of a UNODC-support container control programme seized 260 tonnes of cocaine in 2023.

Port control units established under the framework of a UNODC-support container control programme seized 260 tonnes of cocaine in 2023.

Corruption enables traffickers

Corruption and money laundering are “major enablers” of drug trafficking, according to the report.

Recent seizures, arrests, and detentions in the Sahel region reveal how drug trafficking is facilitated by a wide range of individuals, which can include members of the political elite, community leaders and heads of armed groups.

Traffickers have used their income to penetrate different layers of the State, allowing them to effectively avoid prosecution, according to UNODC.

The report also highlighted overwhelming evidence of the continued involvement of armed groups in drug trafficking in the region, and found that terrorist organisation affiliates are likely to benefit indirectly through exacting zakat, a form of wealth tax, from traffickers and taxing convoys that cross areas under their control.

Terrorist groups and organised crime

Combatting terrorist groups operating in the Sahel was in the spotlight at the recent High-Level African Counter-Terrorism Meeting, held in Abuja, Nigeria, in late April. Among concerns raised by Heads of State across the region were the increasing links between terrorism and organised crime.

Speaking at the meeting, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed described the situation in Africa, particularly in the Sahel, as dire, noting that the region now accounts for almost half of all deaths from terrorism globally.

“A major factor that has fuelled the rise in insurgency in the Sahel is organised crime, particularly the proliferation and smuggling of firearms across our porous borders,” she said. “The availability of weapons empowers terrorist groups, often better equipped with the latest technology.”

Children play in front of a police station in Gao that was attacked by terrorists.

Children play in front of a police station in Gao that was attacked by terrorists.

Da’esh, Al-Qaida heading south

At the gathering, UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov warned that Da’esh, Al-Qaida and their affiliates have made some significant gains in the Sahel and are moving southward to the Gulf of Guinea.

“We recognise that no single actor can resolve today’s threats to peace and security alone,” he said. “Instead, we need multiple actors working together, with solutions grounded in strong national ownership and supported by funding partners.”

A “step change” in commitments to address those complex challenges came with the launch of the UN Joint Appeal for Counter-Terrorism in Africa, he said, bringing together 16 UN entities in support of 10 new multipartner initiatives across the continent to tackle such critical areas as border management and countering terrorism travel on the continent and the nexus between terrorism and organised crime.

A detention centre in Bamako, Mali. (file)

© MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

A detention centre in Bamako, Mali. (file)

Wake-up call

Meanwhile, local and regional actors continue to join forces to combat the illegal drug trade in the Sahel, according to UNODC.

The agency’s new report should serve as a “wake-up call”, said Leonardo Santos Simão, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel.

“States in the Sahel region – along with the international community – must take urgent, coordinated and comprehensive action to dismantle drug trafficking networks and give the people in these countries the future they deserve,” he said.

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