In April 2014, an Australian warship intercepted a sailboat roughly 30 nautical miles off the Kenyan coast. Aboard the ship was more than a ton of heroin, worth an estimated $260 million. The haul was approximately equal to the entire amount of heroin intercepted in East Africa’s waters between 1990 and 2009. Later that same year, Kenyan naval forces boarded a vessel from Pakistan carrying nearly 1,800 pounds of heroin. These incidents served as further confirmation of sub-Saharan Africa’s emergent role as a major narcotics hub.

Since the the early 2000s, crime syndicates have increasingly exploited the sub-Saharan region’s weak state institutions, relative poverty, and porous borders to funnel large quantities of cocaine and heroin into Europe and, to a lesser degree, North America. Narcotics trafficking has distorted the economies and politics of a number of African states while enriching violent nonstate actors, including groups linked to terrorism in the region. In addition to posing a security risk, the African drug trade has fostered greater substance abuse within the states along its trade routes, priming many nations for public health epidemics.

Although international and local law enforcement agencies have sought to counter narcotics trafficking in Africa, their efforts do not appear to have appreciably reduced the overall flow of drugs through the continent. The prominent role of indigenous gangs in the trade and widespread tolerance for smuggling enterprises among local communities make it difficult to track and seize illegal narcotics transported overland. Consequently, any serious attempt to curb drug trafficking should initially focus on interdicting narcotics shipments en route to Africa. Lessons from the war on drugs from abroad can make their way to Africa, and when paired with the right training and equipment, local law enforcement officials can stem the tide of drugs coursing through the continent.


Drug trafficking in Africa is nothing new. Parts of the continent have long served as conduits for narcotics destined to reach Western streets. According to the late historian Stephen Ellis, Lebanese smugglers moved heroin to the United States via West Africa as early as 1952. By the 1980s, Nigerian and Ghanaian gangs had emerged as notable players in the international drug trade owing to their organizational flexibility and alleged ties to corrupt government officials. It was only at the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, that sub-Saharan Africa became an important transit area for narcotics shipments. Starting in 2002, the annual size of cocaine seizures in Africa began to rise dramatically, growing from 1,232 pounds in 2002, to 2,434 in 2003, to 7,928 in 2004.  

Sub-Saharan Africa’s narcotics trade initially took off thanks to the saturation of the North American cocaine market, as well as a clampdown on Caribbean smuggling routes. With the North American narcotics market no longer as attractive as it once was, South American drug syndicates began to focus more of their attention on Europe and deemed West Africa to be a natural transshipment point for their product. Soon, suspected Colombian and Venezuelan cartel members were being regularly sighted by inhabitants of the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau. Across the continent in East Africa, the trafficking of Afghanistan-produced heroin has become increasingly commonplace as improvements in central European law enforcement and the security fallout from the Arab Spring have made traditional routes through Southwest Asia and the Balkans more vulnerable.  Known as the "Smack Track," the trade reportedly involves networks made up of Iranian and Pakistani nationals as well as local criminals.

Packs of cocaine are burnt by officials and members of United Nation Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in Monrovia February 2, 2008.
Packs of cocaine are burnt by officials and members of United Nation Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in Monrovia February 2, 2008. 
Emmanuel Tobey/UNMIL
Indigenous African gangs dominate the movement of illicit narcotics within the sub-Saharan region. These criminals often transport drugs through the utilization of local clandestine trade networks that date back generations. Africa’s large, informal economies help to further shield illicit activities from official scrutiny while fostering an environment where a substantial percentage of locals tolerate and even sympathize with local smugglers. Although many Africans may consider the drug trade to be a “Western problem” that has only a relatively benign effect on their own countries, nothing could be further from the truth. 


Over the past decade, narcotics trafficking has helped destabilize a handful of African states, with the most well-known victim being Guinea-Bissau. Here, traffickers reputedly formed close business ties with senior military officials, who used their outsize influence to ensure drug shipments entered and exited the state without incident. One 2008 report by the International Crisis Group recounted how Guinea-Bissau soldiers could be observed unloading drugs from planes on abandoned airstrips. Prominent senior security officials tied to the narcotics trade included former navy chief Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States. The partnership between drug traffickers and elements of the nation’s armed forces has frustrated previous efforts at security sector reform and is widely believed to have contributed to the 2012 military coup d’état.

Mali has been another African country adversely affected by the drug trade. Once a perennial darling for international aid agencies, the Malian state temporarily collapsed in 2012 when an ethnic Tuareg revolt in its northern territories precipitated the ousting of then President Amadou Toumani Touré. Some analysts at the time largely attributed Mali’s turmoil to the 2011 toppling of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, as well as decades of ethnoregional tensions. Although these factors certainly played a role, the drug trade that had developed in Mali’s far north during the first decade of the twenty-first century was another key contributor to the upheavals. According to a 2014 paper by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, narcotics trafficking in the Sahel-Sahara region militarized local communities, disrupted established political structures through the enrichment of traditionally marginal actors, and exacerbated malfeasance within already feeble state institutions. 

The cases of Guinea-Bissau and Mali represent just the two starkest examples of the drug trade that has undermined African states. Available information suggests traffickers have established links with various officials in Ghana, Guinea, and Kenya, among others. Besides corroding governance capacity, drug trafficking appears to encourage other illicit activities—especially money laundering. Infusions of drug money have also fueled the expansion of criminal gangs. Although there has been no reported spike in gang warfare to date, some African officials have begun to express concern that their countries could soon experience a level of violence comparable to that in Latin America.

What’s more, African countries are experiencing a growing domestic demand for narcotics, despite the fact that most heroin and cocaine entering the sub-Saharan region continues on to the West. Africa’s young, rapidly expanding population makes the continent an increasingly attractive market for criminal syndicates. Rising drug consumption has led to a public health crisis in certain areas. One 2011 estimate puts the number of heroin users in East Africa at over 500,000. In Tanzania, the situation has gotten so dire that the government sponsors methadone clinics, the first of their kind in mainland sub-Saharan Africa. The use of old syringes and “blood flashing,” a practice in which heroin users share their laced blood with one another to save money, has spread infections.

A heroin addict prepares heroin before using it in Lamu November 21, 2014.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters


Africa’s burgeoning drug trade has already grabbed the attention of both international and local law enforcement agencies. Anti-trafficking efforts have achieved some progress in certain countries, but decisively diminishing the trade remains a daunting challenge thanks to weak government institutions and endemic corruption. Cracking down on traffickers in one African state, however, often causes them simply to move elsewhere on the continent. Following the U.S. sting operation that captured Bubo Na Tchuto in 2013, many drug gangs relocated their operations from Guinea-Bissau to neighboring Guinea with little apparent difficulty.

Lasting success ultimately hinges on strengthening states and improving government transparency. There are, however, tools that could strengthen enforcement in the short and medium term. Although sub-Saharan Africa produces cannabis and methamphetamines, it remains devoid of large-scale coca and opium poppy cultivation. The imposition of an effective interdiction regime could therefore have a measurable impact on regional drug trafficking.

The African drug trade has fostered greater substance abuse within the states along its trade routes, priming many nations for public health epidemics.
The use of surveillance drones to detect and track vessels trafficking narcotics provides one cost-effective option. States could even hire outside contractors to operate maritime surveillance equipment in order to reduce the likelihood of corrupt officials frustrating drug investigations. Some African states should also expand and modernize their naval presence on small bodies of water, where smuggling operations are rife. Patrol vessels may not be as prestigious as frigates, but regional threats make these vessels far more practical. Patrol boats can effectively maneuver in the coastal waters where drug smugglers have been known to operate.

Other tools include field equipment designed for the collection and handling of incriminating evidence, such as hand-held narcotics analyzers that help minimally trained customs and border patrol officers obtain an accurate chemical analysis of suspected packages of drugs. The United States makes increasing use of these devices, and they are particularly well suited for African countries that may lack the laboratory capacity to support broader efforts. Moreover, this equipment can provide evidence on how confiscated goods entered regional networks in the first place, leading to prosecutions that target higher-level operatives.

Finally, littoral states should consider adopting the World Customs Organization’s Cargo Targeting System. Many law enforcement experts consider the CTS—a Web-based software program designed to help customs officials collect and analyze cargo manifest data—a useful tool for identifying high-risk shipments. Washington has already urged Kenya to adopt the application.

Indeed, the United States, whether through the State Department or through its Africa Command operations, could provide additional assistance toward improving the sub-Saharan states’ anti-narcotics capabilities. If the African drug trade is allowed to further weaken government institutions and regional security, it could undo Washington’s investments there on initiatives ranging from public health to economic growth. Worse, the narcotics trade can provide radical groups and other violent nonstate actors with additional revenue streams. In northern Mali, for example, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has previously profited from its participation in the Sahel-Sahara drug trade. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa derived much of its early funding from ethnic Lamhar Arab drug barons who regarded the group as a vehicle to protect their economic interests. Curbing the drug trade would prevent radicals and criminals from gaining a stronger foothold in the region, thus protecting U.S. interests there. 

Of course, any major breakthrough in curbing Africa’s drug trade would need to be spearheaded by local actors and national governments. Fortunately, there are signs of progress: recent comments by prominent African statesmen suggest that the continent’s leadership increasingly realizes just how dangerous narcotics trafficking can be for both their own countries and the global commons. If African states are to succeed, the West must provide additional support to the region.

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  • TOM WOODS is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and President of Woods International, LLC. 
  • MICHAEL W. BACA is an Africa analyst.
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