West Africa: Drugs & Guns Threaten Stability

Published: 26 February 2013


The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has released its report: Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa: A Threat Assessment, detailing criminal developments in Western Africa[1]. The report highlights the diversification of crime in West Africa since the last Threat Assessment in 2009, focusing on cocaine, methamphetamine, and small arms trafficking. The report also discusses fraudulent medicines, maritime piracy, and illegal migration.


Cocaine trafficking in Western Africa has changed as criminals adapt to law enforcement efforts. The period between 2005 and 2007 saw a sharp rise in the amount of cocaine being trafficked through the region, from 17 tons in 2005 to its peak level of 47 tons in 2007, according to UNODC estimates. The number has since fallen, but it is unclear if this is due to reduced shipments or because traffickers have found more successful methods of trafficking the illicit substances. Regardless, the UNODC stresses “the gross volume of drugs transiting the region is less relevant than the way West Africa interacts with it.” Increasingly, West African crime groups are taking a role in the transport of cocaine from South America to Africa and onward to Europe. While South American groups are still the largest traffickers of cocaine by a large margin, the development of local, West African crime groups capable of large-scale trafficking threatens to further undermine security in the region.


West African drug traffickers, particularly Nigerian crime groups, have been known to be moving methamphetamine through the region since at least 2008, according to the UNODC, which estimates that around 3.000 methamphetamine couriers travelled from West Africa to Asia in 2010. Methamphetamine production sites in Western Africa itself were first reported in 2010.  The ease with which the drug can be produced, combined with the potential profits from its sale in European, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asia markets, makes it an enticing opportunity for groups facing a decline in cocaine profits. Ephedrine, the stimulant used to make methamphetamines, is exported to West Africa from South Asia. Once in West Africa, the ephedrine is converted to methamphetamine and then shipped to Asia and Europe to be sold.

Small arms trade

The influx of weapons during the 1990s means that demand for small arms today can be fulfilled largely through local supply. Add to that “official state stocks, legitimately procured but diverted to the illicit market,” which serve as the main source for firearms in the region according to UNODC, and there is no shortage of firearms in the region. To further complicate matters, the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya meant the spread of a large number of new, sophisticated, unregulated weapons into the area. The easy availability of weapons means that organized crime groups, as well as separatist, militant or extremist organizations have no difficulty arming themselves; that the transfer of weapons often occurs with the aid of security forces only compounds the risk to stability.


The rise in homegrown production and trafficking of drugs provides new challenges for the governments of West Africa. When drug traffickers are better funded than governments, and when considerably greater money is available in crime, at relatively low risk, the possibility of security apparatuses being co-opted rises dramatically. The issue of small arms trafficking represents an existential threat to the region, for when non-state actors are better armed than the state, the risk for state collapse, whether through coups, assassinations, or direct invasions by non-state actors increases. This is especially true in circumstances where corruption within the ranks of the army and police forces is as widespread as in the West African region.

[1] West Africa includes: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Saint Helena, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo (via UN definition).