Some thoughts on narcotics problems in Africa


Narcotics control is a field which touches upon the vital human question of public health, the general economic and social conditions of people and, considerations of law and order. It thus has a scope which, in some ways, goes even deeper than, for example, a programme of industrialization or of monetary reform.


Author: Robert K. A. GARDINER
Pages: 39 to 40
Creation Date: 1968/01/01

Some thoughts on narcotics problems in Africa

Executive Secretary Robert K. A. GARDINER United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

Narcotics control is a field which touches upon the vital human question of public health, the general economic and social conditions of people and, considerations of law and order. It thus has a scope which, in some ways, goes even deeper than, for example, a programme of industrialization or of monetary reform.

Many of the changes which we see taking place around us in Africa, today - such as those regarding industrial development, the improvement of agricultural methods, the spread of education, the development of modern medical and public health services; as well as those changes which directly affect the traditional structure of our Africa society, our family life and the very strength and quality of our culture and customs - all have repercussions in the narcotics field.

In a rapidly changing world, new problems are bound to emerge. Some of these are simple in nature and, therefore, capable of quick and easy solution. There are others, however, which, by their very origin, are complex and which will increase in size and intensity, unless the whole force of community sanctions and governmental measures are adopted and adapted at a sufficiently early stage to cope with them, and to prevent their spread. To this latter category, we can include the problems of drug addiction, illicit traffic and narcotics control.

The complexity of these problems can be seen from the fact that the drugs themselves may be of such vital necessity in human medicine that their total prohibition may not be in the best interest of society. What is more, in some areas, the cultivation of these drugs forms an important and, perhaps, the only source of cash income and livelihood for small peasant farmers; and rigid control of farm production may create economic hardships. Where the non-medical consumption of these drugs is sanctioned by longstanding local tradition, and is therefore socially acceptable (though inimical to public health), official efforts at prohibiting their general consumption may turn out to be a difficult task.

Note: This essay is based on the opening address delivered at the United Nations Seminar on Narcotics Control for Enforcement Officers in East Africa, in Africa Hall, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), April 1967.

The task is by no means an easy one, and I do not wish to minimize the difficulties with which governments may be confronted.

To a casual observer, who may not fully appreciate their complexity, it might seem very strange indeed that the organized international society has not yet been able to overcome the network of international traffickers, and that the world-wide contraband movement of narcotics continues to flourish in defiance of powerful governments and international police systems.

The United Nations international organs are indeed playing a most useful role, both in the study of the problem and in the waging of campaigns against the traffic. They also assist in establishing standards of international conduct embodied in narcotics treaties or in generally accepted decisions. They allow for international co-ordination of control measures and give advice to governments in this field. It is important to remember, however, that these international organs do not have any means of exercising direct administration of national control measures; and they do not have any supra-national executive powers, either. They are organs of association of individual sovereign States and there are limits to the pressures which they can apply.

Therefore, it stands to reason that, in the final analysis, it is the individual governments which must be responsible, and it is in their hands that the ultimate remedy lies to take appropriate legislative and executive measures.

Fortunately, in Africa, drug addiction and illicit trafficking in narcotics do not, at this stage, constitute a very significant problem; and we are fortunate in not having any pernicious abuse of drugs, as we see happening at present in some of the most advanced countries of the world. We have all read about the havoc that the abuse of drugs is causing at present, for example, in North America or in some countries of Europe.

In spite of some degree of alcoholism and some abuse of cannabis, in some countries in this region, we are yet far from the crisis through which other regions of the world are passing. And, in our relative good fortune, our governments may be tempted to under-estimate the size of their problem - forgetting that drug addiction is closely related to basic human characteristics and that no country can safely regard itself as immune from it, in one form or other. This is so because the use or abuse of drugs has something to do with the fears, the weaknesses and the aspirations of man; and the attitude that any society adopts towards drugs, in a way, expresses its whole philosophy and its ideas about right and wrong.

The question therefore arises: Why is the problem not yet acute in our African countries? Could it be that things are currently happening, of which we are not yet aware but which are bringing us closer to it? Are our African governments really aware of the extent of their internal narcotics situation and do they fully recognize the need for greater efforts in their own territories, as well as on the international level? And, do our governments sufficiently realize that their own national interests would be served by an improvement in the drug situation in other countries - particularly, neighbouring countries? It is my view that if every African government is able to ensure, at this stage, that it is in the position to take the necessary measures in the field of narcotic drugs - measures which are designed not only to maintain and improve the present situation, but, essentially, to forfend future nefarious developments - then, and then only, can we be justified in saying that our countries are prepared for this problem.

Africa's encounter with the 20th century is bringing us many boons; it will also bring us some woe. We have seen some glimmerings of the negative aspects of modern progress; urban isolation, social anonymity, the disruption of tribal and family ties, the reduction of the human being to a unit of labour - these are changes which are new to our Africa. It is possible that as the tensions of industrialization and economic development increase, other social problems, such as drug abuse may come to the fore. We are already beginning to suffer from what has been described as "the revolution of rising frustrations ". But, apart from preparing us for any such contingency, I think an understanding of the problems that narcotic drugs present, may help us the better to understand other societies as well as our own.

It is a good thing that, through the United Nations, enforcement officers from a region as vast as East Africa should come together to look at narcotics problems from the technical and practical point of view. In a way, this is all part of the process of Africa coming to know itself. Increasingly, our Heads of State, our statesmen, our leaders, meet to find a common window on the world, while at the same time gaining greater sympathy and appreciation of each other's point of view. The public officers at the Seminar deal directly with the people in their countries, and through the United Nations they have been given the opportunity to exchange ideas and develop a concerted approach to what is perhaps a small law and order problem today, but which will always need our efforts and those of our other colleagues in government, to contain it within manageable proportions.