Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa: A Threat Assessment

This report is one of several studies conducted by UNODC on organized crime threats around the world. These studies describe what is known about the mechanics of contraband trafficking - the what, who, how, and how much of illicit flows - and discuss their potential impact on governance and development. Their primary role is diagnostic, but they also explore the implications of these findings for policy.

Executive summary

West Africa has long been the focus of United Nations attention, but it is only recently that the international community recognized organized crime as a key issue for the region. This recognition stems primarily from a single contraband flow - cocaine - a flow so large that its wholesale value on arrival in Europe would exceed the national security budgets of many countries in West Africa. While the threat of cocaine is clear, there are many other forms of organized crime that threaten the stability of the region. These threats are both a cause and a consequence of weak governance, a dynamic explored in the present report.

Understanding the cocaine flow requires some historical context. In the last decade, the world cocaine market has undergone a dramatic shift. Cocaine demand in the United States has been in long-term decline, with a particularly acute downturn after Mexico implemented a new national security strategy in 2006. But cocaine demand in Europe has doubled in the last decade, and cocaine is more expensive in Europe than in the United States. As European law enforcement agencies became aware of the threat in the mid-2000s, direct smuggling to the continent became more difficult. Cocaine traffickers in South America began to look for a staging area on the other side of the Atlantic, and found one in West Africa.

( For more, see 'Executive summary' | Endnotes available here)


This report focuses on West Africa, a collection of 16 nations that is home to around 325 million people. All these countries score poorly on human development indexes, and they are some of the poorest in the world. The region is also politically unstable - just under one third of the States have experienced a coup d'état in the last four years.

Organized crime in West Africa became an international security concern in the mid-2000s, due to the detection of large cocaine shipments transiting the region on their way to Europe. Subsequent assessments conducted by UNODC revealed that a number of transnational organized crime problems pose a threat to stability and development in the region, including oil bunkering, arms trafficking, human trafficking, migrant smuggling, toxic waste dumping, fraudulent medicine, cigarette smuggling, and the looting of natural resources.

( For more, see 'Introduction' | Endnotes available here)

The flows: Cocaine from the Andes via West Africa to Europe

Few transnational contraband flows have generated more alarm than the flow of cocaine through West Africa. Around 2005, it became clear that massive amounts of drugs, worth billions of dollars, were being shipped through one of the least stable regions in the world.

( For more, see 'The flows: Cocaine from the Andes via West Africa to Europe' | Endnotes available here)

The flows: Methamphetamine from West Africa to East Asia

West African involvement in transnational drug markets extends back at least as far as the 1970s. Nigerians, particularly those from the southeast of the country, have traditionally shuttled cocaine and heroin from diaspora communities near production areas (such as Karachi, Sao Paulo, and Bangkok) to diaspora communities in consumer countries. The West African sub-region itself played little role, aside from being an air stopover location and as a place to launder the profits. All this changed when the region became a cocaine transshipment zone in the mid-2000s.

Since the cocaine profits have begun to ebb, it is perhaps not surprising that traffickers are looking for new income streams. For the first time, evidence of large-scale drug production in West Africa has emerged. The drug - methamphetamine - has many advantages over plant-based drugs, not the least of which are low start-up costs and the ability to engage in production anywhere.

( For more, see 'The flows: Methamphetamine from West Africa to East Asia' | Endnotes available here)

The flows: Smuggling of migrants from West Africa to Europe

Migrant smuggling occurs most frequently along the fault lines between two regions of vastly different levels of development, such as West Europe and West Africa. Though the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea pose formidable obstacles, thousands of people cross them each year in order to migrate irregularly. Almost all of those who choose to do so require assistance, and the act of rendering this assistance for gain constitutes the crime of migrant smuggling.

In recent years, about 9% of irregular migrants detected in Europe came from West Africa. Due to the economic downturn, this flow has declined, but unpredictable geopolitical events (such as the recent crisis in Libya) can rapidly increase the demand for smuggling services. The easiest way to migrate illegally is to fly into a country with a fixed period visa and simply overstay that visa. The visa itself may be legitimate, fraudulently acquired, or completely forged. It remains unclear what share of irregular migrants do, in fact, take this route, but estimates typically range from 75% to 90%. Migrant smugglers make money by helping people to fraudulently acquire visas and coaching them to pass the inspection of border officials.

( For more, see 'The flows: Smuggling of migrants from West Africa to Europe' | Endnotes available here)

The flows: Firearms trafficking in West Africa

After the Cold War, there was a time when West Africa received tons of armaments from outside the continent. This era has largely passed, because today, regional supply can satisfy local demand. On the one hand, the number of civil wars in Africa has declined since the 1990s, reducing demand. On the other, the firearms trafficked during those years did not evaporate, and continue to be re-circulated throughout the region.

These legacy firearms are primarily of interest to those looking to start a revolution. For daily use, the primary source of arms appears to be official state stocks, legitimately procured but diverted to the illicit market. Criminals seem to be able to get what they need from the local security forces, buying or renting weapons from corrupt elements in the police and military. The imports that do occur are not made through underground arms brokers, but rather through mainstream commercial channels, and then directed though corrupt officials or complicit governments to criminals and rebel groups.

( For more, see 'The flows: Firearms trafficking in West Africa' | Endnotes available here)

The flows: Fraudulent essential medicines from South Asia and East Asia to West Africa

Many of the flows described in this study can affect grand scale geopolitical events. Cocaine trafficking has fed instability in Guinea-Bissau; firearms trafficking has fueled a rebellion in northern Mali; maritime piracy threatens to undermine commerce in the Gulf of Guinea. These flows demonstrate that transnational organized crime has truly risen to the level of a security threat in West Africa.

The importation of fraudulent essential medications does not have this kind of dramatic impact. The profits appear to be too diffuse to make corrupt officials into millionaires, and are too small to be of much interest to non-state armed groups. Rather, the effect is subtler, almost impossible to measure. The sick get sicker and resistant strains of disease evolve that won't make headlines until it is too late.

( For more, see 'The flows: Fraudulent essential medicines from South Asia and East Asia to West Africa' | Endnotes available here)

The flows: Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Much of the piracy that affects West Africa is a product of the disorder that surrounds the regional oil industry. A large share of the recent piracy attacks targeted vessels carrying petroleum products. These vessels are attacked because there is a booming black market for fuel in West Africa. Without this ready market, there would be little point in attacking these vessels. There are indications that oil may also be smuggled outside the region.

Nigeria contains half the population of the region, and contributes more than half of the regional GDP. Oil is the source of 95% of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings and up to 80% of budgetary revenues. It is the single most important industry in the entire region, and for two decades has been threatened by transnational organized crime.

( For more, see 'The flows: Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea' | Endnotes available here)


Cocaine has garnered most of the international attention, but the transnational organized crime problems affecting West Africa are manifold. Some, like fraudulent medicines, may pose a greater threat to public safety than illicit drugs. Others, like firearms trafficking, make violent uprisings possible. Still others, like petro-piracy, could blossom to become much greater problems than the situation currently reflects. Each of these issues requires a tailored response, because the commodities involved respond to distinct sources of supply and demand.

While each flow discussed in this study represents an independent problem, all are enabled by weakness in the rule of law. This weakness makes the region vulnerable to smuggling of all sorts

( For more, see 'Conclusion' | Endnotes available here)

Press Release


Key Findings

The flow of cocaine through West Africa appears to have declined to about 18 tons, down from a peak of 47 tons in 2007. These 18 tons would be worth US$1.25 billion at wholesale in Europe, providing West African traffickers with substantial income.

Methamphetamine production in the region is a growing concern, with two methamphetamine laboratories detected in Nigeria in 2011-2012. The main market for West African-made meth is East Asia, and to a lesser extent, South Africa. The income from trafficking West African-made methamphetamines to East Asia is remarkably high for such a new flow, but the long-term prospects are limited in light of competition from producers located in the destination markets.

Due to the economic downturn, the flow of smuggled migrants from West Africa to Europe has declined in recent years. The prominence of the many routes has shifted significantly, with routes moving eastwards.

Given the number of weapons still circulating from past conflicts in the region, there is very little need to import large numbers of weapons into West Africa. Most of the illicit flow of weapons in the region is diverted or stolen from licit national stocks held by the police and military. The recent flood of 10,000 to 20,000 firearms from Libya does represent a serious threat to stability in the region, a threat that appears to have been realized in northern Mali.

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