Drug trafficking in West Africa: A threat to youth

Africa's population is the youngest in the world, with more than 400 million people between the ages of 15 and 35, according to the United Nations Population Prospects, presenting both an opportunity for economic growth and challenges for sustainable development. These challenges include poverty reduction, hunger and malnutrition, education, health and access to equality. However, there is another threat that could undermine economic growth and development efforts at all levels, particularly affecting youth: drug use and trafficking. 

On April 22, 2022, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Office, the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and the Embassy of Spain jointly organized a Mini Dublin Group meeting on drug trafficking in West Africa at the Cervantes Institute in Dakar. This meeting was an opportunity for the organizers to exchange with representatives of diplomatic bodies working with UNODC to fight against transnational organized crime, and more specifically drug trafficking, in the region.

West Africa is facing a growing influx of drugs arriving through the region's ports and airports and also transiting through the desert. As recalled by UNODC Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Dr. Amado Philip de Andrés, three trends and substances are of particular concern: Cocaine with 53 tons seized from 2019 to 2021 in or destined for West Africa; Hashish with 57 tons seized in 2021; and Tramadol with 77% of global seizures made in West Africa for the 2015 to 2019 period. What is most worrying is that the users are, for the most part, young people who concentrate the continent's development promises.

According to the West African Epidemiological Network on Drug Use, 31.6% of people between 15 and 44 years use drugs in West Africa. H.E. Ms. Olga Cabarga Gómez, Ambassador of Spain to Senegal, stressed the importance of Spain's commitment to Africa in the fight against drug trafficking, as a country historically linked to Latin America, which accounts for 70% of drug shipments to Africa for the period 2015 to 2019. The Ambassador also stressed that there are no small victories in the fight against this form of transnational organized crime. A network that falls means lives saved, often young ones, and less violence in the streets and homes.

On the other hand, the number of users is on the rise with 275 million users (among 15-64 year old) and 36.3 million people in the same age group with drug use disorders, according to the UNODC World Drug Report 2021. "With a 40% increase in the number of drug users projected and a 43% increase in populations at risk of drug use by 2030 in resource-limited countries, this phenomenon presents a real burden in terms of lost years of life for drug users," according to Dr. Anselme Simeon SANOU, Head of the Health and Drug Demand Reduction Unit at UNODC's Regional Office for West and Central Africa.

Resources are currently limited for treatment of drug users. Only 74 out of 1 million people are accessing treatment, or one in 15 women. In West Africa, only one standard treatment center exists, in Senegal: the Centre de Prise en Charge Intégrée des Addictions de Dakar (CEPIAD).

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mahamat Saleh ANNADIF, said that the scourge of drug trafficking in the region and the increasingly organized operations of drug cartels remain a major source of concern. The Special Representative added that UNOWAS, through its Good Offices, supports strategic advocacy efforts with States and regional institutions, including the ECOWAS Commission, for the achievement of the objectives pursued by UNODC in particular and the United Nations in general to tackle the problems of transnational organized crime and drug trafficking in the West African region.

Bertrand Ollivier, Associate Researcher at the UNODC, also emphasized in his speech that: "If Africa is almost absent from global statistics in terms of quantification of flows due to lack of data, important seizures regularly made by the authorities are a reminder that West Africa remains a privileged transit area that now has processing laboratories reflecting a clear sophistication of the processes of traffickers.

UNODC's work consists of supporting States and populations by strengthening their capacities in order to promote treatment and prevent drug trafficking and use. This work includes assessment and data collection on treatment facilities. UNODC also conducts national surveys on drug use and raises awareness among students in schools in Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, and Burkina Faso. UNODC builds the capacity of States, potential users and families on the international standards of UNODC and the World Health Organization (WHO) on drug prevention and treatment of drug use disorders (quality assurance, treatment protocol, etc.).

In addition, UNODC works on drug use in conflict zones and humanitarian crises, with internally displaced persons and refugees; in the context of justice (treatment in prisons or as an alternative to prison, reform of laws on drug use); and in the context of controlling access to medicines.

The fight against drug trafficking is a huge challenge. This form of transnational organized crime contributes to money laundering, including the financing of terrorism, and is an aggravating factor in corruption and political instability. In this sense, the fight against drug trafficking is a crucial element of UNODC's mission on which joint cooperation efforts must continue in order to meet the United Nations pillars of peace, security, development and human rights and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.