West Africa under attack

Drug trafficking is a security threat ECOWAS High-level Conference on Drug Trafficking as a Security Threat in West Africa

Praia, Cape Verde, 28 October 2008

Mr. Chairman,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The alarm bells are ringing. West Africa, which already faces mass poverty, hunger, and a legacy of conflict, is under attack and is at risk of becoming an epicentre for drug trafficking, crime and corruption.  Let's be frank:  Africa in general, never faced a drug problem - whether we speak about production, trafficking or consumption.  Now the threat is real and present, on all these fronts.  I therefore applaud ECOWAS for convening this Ministerial Meeting - which UNODC is proud to support. I also thank our hosts, Cape Verde, our partners such as the UN Office on West Africa, the European Union, and all those who have provided political and financial support to make this meeting possible.

We are facing more than a drug problem, and time is running out

The threat posed by narco-trafficking through West Africa is spreading as criminal groups exploit the intrinsic vulnerability of your countries and the business opportunity derived from it.  From Cape Verde a few years ago, to Guinea Bissau yesterday, and now to Guinea (Conakry), Gambia, Togo, Sierra Leone and so on, the Gold Coast of Africa, one of humanity's most beautiful assets, is turning into a Coke (or cocaine) Coast.

Drug trafficking is perverting weak economies at their core: in some cases the value of the trafficked drugs is even greater than the country's national income.  Drug money is corrupting government officials, army and navy officers, even the security services. Drug money is not only buying real estate and flashy cars: it is buying power. In return, some people - including family members of high level officials - are selling their integrity, setting an example that common people look at in dismay. Your youth wants leadership, jobs and food:  in the absence of these, they accept income offered by drug dealers, thus spreading addiction, crime and violence.

In short, drug trafficking through West Africa is more than a drug problem.  It is a crisis for public health and security in the region. And it is undermining your ability to reach the Millennium Development Goals. Not surprisingly, this issue has gained the attention of the Security Council and the Peace-building Commission.

How big is the problem? The UNODC report on Drug Trafficking as a Security Threat in West Africa, being launched today, shows that at least 50 tons of cocaine transit  your  region every year, heading north where they are worth almost $2 billion a year on the streets of European cities.

The problem is getting worse

Cocaine seizures in West Africa have doubled every year since 2005, when there were 1,3 tons, to 3,2 tons in 2006, to 6,5 tons last year (at least 10% of all cocaine being trafficked around the world). This summer, 600 kilos of cocaine were seized in a plane (with fake Red Cross markings) at the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone. We have seen photos of un-authorized planes with the UN logo, landing on tarmacs in the region, protected by elite army troops:  this is certainly not standard operating procedure. We have heard of relatives of the political elite in some countries, intercepted as they were trading drugs, gold and money across borders. We have seen footage, at the international airport in Bissau, with several hundred boxes unloaded from a plane under suspicious circumstances.  Most of these seizures were by accident, suggesting that this is just the tip of the iceberg. All of these seizures show that the drug cancer is spreading throughout West African societies.  Why is this happening?

Because your countries are ill-equipped to deal with this onslaught. Government structures are weak and inadequate.  Law enforcement lacks the means to track and intercept the planes and the boats that are smuggling in the drugs. Legal systems lack the legislation and the structures (namely, police forces, prosecutors and the courts) to bring traffickers to justice. Corruption is enabling traffickers to operate with impunity, and even get out of jail - if there are jails at all.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I paint a sinister, yet true picture:  one that I have seen with my own eyes. And I have heard your calls for help. This is why we are here, today:  representatives of West African countries, funding partners, and international institutions.

So what can be done?

How can the defences of West Africa be strengthened against the narco-attack? Obviously the biggest problem is poverty - and this is not something that we can solve today. Poverty prevents the creation of government structures able to control the territory and protect the citizens.  Poverty creates vulnerability to crime, and crime deepens vulnerability to poverty. Unemployed and desperate youth are easily swayed into becoming foot soldiers for criminal groups. Low paid officials are vulnerable to corruption.

It is tragic to divert badly needed funds away from development into security. Therefore, I welcome development partners present here in Praia:  foreign assistance can help fight a crime that eventually brings drugs into Europe.  At the same time, if the problem is left unaddressed, the crisis will cause political instability, socio-economic hardship and even a regional crisis. This is the warning from the Security Council.

The way out of this vicious circle is to promote development so as to strengthen security:  in that order.  If you are looking for a model, look no further than what our hosts, Cape Verde, have done in the past decade to fight drug trafficking, reduce poverty, attract foreign investment, and integrate the country into the global economy.

Evidence shows that development promotes security, and in turn, requires it. The states of West Africa must regain control of their coasts and airspace. Many of you have told me that you need hardware (boats, planes, and radar), know-how (like investigative techniques and container security), as well as counter narcotics intelligence.  Resources for all this must come from abroad - through bilateral and multi-lateral assistance. Attracting and coordinating such assistance should be made easier by the ECOWAS Regional Response Action Plan.  Of course, it is vital to put crime prevention high on your national agenda.

Personally, I would like to encourage the Security Council to establish a mechanism to monitor implementation of the regional action plan to be agreed at this meeting. Continuing that thought, UNODC - drawing on data produced at the national and regional level - commits itself to produce an annual report on the situation of drug trafficking in West Africa.

Furthermore, strengthening law enforcement capacity is vital - for example special police forces (as in Cape Verde or Guinea Bissau) to investigate organized crime and drug trafficking.  In the region at large, this should be the centrepiece of security sector reform.

Cooperation is essential, within and between states. Again, Cape Verde offers a good example. Five years ago, this country was under attack from cocaine traffickers. UNODC intervened with a large scale project because the government of Cape Verde asked us to deploy funding provided by the European Union.   Stronger and better coordinated customs and immigration officials, border guards, the police, and counter narcotics agents have made Cape Verde a risky destination for drug traffickers. The same should happen elsewhere.

Intelligence sharing in West Africa is essential, to cope with drug trafficking that easily cross borders - especially the open borders between ECOWAS countries.  Intelligence does not have to be limited to drug trafficking. Some of the same criminal groups are also involved in smuggling of migrants, blood diamonds, counterfeit medicine, hazardous waste, and illegally cut timber (as recognized in the Political Declaration). Terrorism financing is another form of collateral damage. UNODC has promoted regional intelligence centres in Central Asia (called CARICC) and in the Persian Gulf (called GCCI). When the time is ripe, we would gladly do the same in West Africa, in cooperation with ECOWAS.

Intelligence cooperation with the drug supply and destination countries is also crucial:  after all West Africa is only the front line of a much bigger drug control exercise. Closer legal cooperation between West Africa, South America and Europe would enable more effective extradition, mutual legal assistance, and confiscation of the proceeds of crime. I am glad to see representatives from Latin America, the US and the EU at this meeting: this underlines the sense of shared responsibility.  I urge you implement the United Nations conventions against organized crime, corruption and drugs.

These UN instruments also provide the foundation on which to identify needs for technical assistance. UNODC has a range of expertise at your disposal, to fight corruption, money laundering, and trafficking, to train judges, prosecutors and investigators, and to reform prisons. Our engagement in Africa has increased dramatically in the past few years, and we plan to invest further. Contingent on sufficient funding, we would like to assist you by deploying more criminal justice experts on the ground. Let`s make West Africa a prototype for effective crime prevention.

Yet, there is no substitute for leadership and integrity

Ladies and gentlemen, passing new laws to fight organized crime and corruption will be meaningless without the political will and capacity to implement them. Too often, drugs that are seized disappear rather than being destroyed.  Judges, police and witnesses are intimidated. Security forces turn a blind eye, or extend a helping hand, to smugglers. Members of the ruling classes benefit from this bloody trade, because of greed and as an insurance policy for hard times when power will be lost.  We are aware that major trafficking rings are run from places of power, while counter-narcotic operations (run by low paid, junior officers) are compromised by corrupt, high-level interference. As a result, short term gains that enrich a few cause long term damage to the many.

As you know, we have teamed up with the World Bank to help countries recover stolen assets under the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative. Similarly, I commit my Office´s support to help you recover assets from the proceeds of crime. Let´s get this blood money. And let´s name and shame those - especially in high places - who are profiting from organized crime: even impose sanctions.

It is up to you - the leaders of West Africa - to turn the tide. To launch a counter attack against drugs and crime, you need expensive hardware from abroad, as well as inexpensive software already at your disposal: political will, leadership, and integrity.

The international community will help - you have seen that, most recently in the response to the crisis in Guinea Bissau. But there will be no success in combating this regional problem if individual countries fail to show the resolve needed to stamp out the problem in their midst. Criminals will exploit the weakest links - and as a result the whole chain will break. Yes, you are victims of a global trade - caught in the cross-fire of drug suppliers to the West and drug consumers to the North. But traffickers are targeting your countries because of conditions that enable them to operate with low risk. And many of these wounds are self-inflicted.

I therefore appeal to you, not only to agree on a Political Declaration, but to follow up those words with robust deeds that will drive the traffickers from the shores of West Africa.

Set the tone from the top that will strengthen integrity. Take the steps needed to strengthen the rule of law. Hold to account - and bring to justice - those who collaborate with criminal groups. Create more opportunities for youth.

Rest assured, the international community will take its cue from such moves. Budget support, technical assistance, and development aid will follow - as it has in Cape Verde. This will not only lower vulnerability to drugs and crime, it will accelerate economic and social development and strengthen the rule of law. UNODC will be your partner and your advocate.

Let this Praia meeting go down in history as the moment when West Africa turned the tide against narco-trafficking.