Transnational Trafficking and the Rule of Law in West Africa: A Threat Assessment


West Africa suffers from a combination of factors that make it vulnerable to organized crime. It is one of the poorest regions on earth. In many countries governance is weak. The region is located along illicit trafficking routes. And criminal groups can recruit foot soldiers from a large pool of desperate youth.
Criminals are exploiting these conditions to traffic a range of products through the region: drugs (mostly cocaine from South America to Europe); cigarettes; weapons and ammunition; people (destined for illegal migration or the sex trade); counterfeit medicines; toxic waste (including e-waste); oil; and natural resources (like hardwood and diamonds). In some cases, the value of trafficking flows dwarfs local economies. This trade is putting a fragile region at greater risk - undermining the rule of law; deepening corruption; polluting the environment; violating human rights; stealing natural resources; depleting human resources; and jeopardizing health. This makes West Africa more prone to political instability and less able to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
While this Report takes a regional approach, its assessment should be put into a global context. Most illicit activity occurring in West Africa is caused by external market forces. That being said, there are many beneficiaries in the region. Collusion between corrupt elites and opportunistic criminals enriches the few, impoverishes the many, and undermines public institutions. States are being hollowed out from the inside. Democracy and development falter, while crime and  corruption flourish. A two-pronged approach is needed. First, based on the evidence in this Report, the international community should be better prepared and equipped to identify threats, and take the remedial action needed to tackle them. Rich countries should take their share of the responsibility by curbing their appetite for the drugs, cheap labour and exotic goods that are being smuggled via the region, and by stopping the use of West Africa as a dumping ground for weapons, waste, and fake medicines. Private companies that are complicit in this illegal business should be named, shamed, and banned, and codes of conduct more rigorously enforced. Second, illicit transnational flows may change over time, including in response to successful policy interventions. Signs  of a recent decline in cocaine trafficking through West Africa provide a welcome example. However, unless the underlying  issues are addressed, the problem will be displaced somewhere  else, or simply replaced by another illicit activity. Therefore, governments must strengthen the rule of law in their countries to develop social antibodies against organized crime and to eventually break the cycle of crime and underdevelopment. Because of the transnational nature of the threats, national governments should draw on the support of donors, regional arrangements, and international instruments like the UN Conventions against Corruption and Transnational Organized Crime. West Africa is under attack, from within and especially from abroad. It is time for the world - and the governments concerned- to respond to the threat before more of the common wealth is stolen, more lives are lost, and before criminality deepens its penetration of state institutions and society at large.

Antonio Maria Costa
Executive Director (former)
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime


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