Key Judgements

  • While networks operate across the entire West Africa, Guinea Bissau represents the regional hub and transit zone for drug exports shipped from Latin America to Europe. As part of this network, West Africa suffers the most.
  • There are currently 12 countries in Africa experiencing armed conflict which led to the displacement of 25 million people. They are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. Most African victims are trafficked into forced labor, often in fields such as agriculture, domestic service, and manufacturing.
  • Amid UNICEF programs and ECOWAS strategies implemented in the region, child trafficking is still very common in countries like Nigeria, Benin, Togo or Burkina Faso. More than 50 percent of trafficking victims in West Africa are children.

Reconstructed Scenario

Drug and human trafficking represent major security issue concerning the West African states. Although organised crime reaches high levels in the region for around 2 decades now, more recently drug exports broke the record with 1.6 tons of cocaine being seized in Guinea Bissau in September 2019. At the same time, human trafficking in West Africa involves mainly children and women and 99% of victims detected in West Africa are trafficked within their own country or region.

Cocaine and methamphetamine count for most of the profits made through drug trafficking in West Africa. However, cocaine is being sold in record quantities with at least 50 tons coming from South America. Apart from these two, a new product is becoming more and more popular on the African drug markets: opioids.Large quantities of tramadol were collected by local police forces and Interpol in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo between September 2018 and May 2019. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opioids are mainly consumed in Nigeria, where around 14% of the population abuses drugs (more than twice the global average).


“Europe’s Cocaine, Africa’s Trouble”

Much of the cocaine headed to Europe today transits through West Africa, where crime groups from Nigeria, Benin and Guinea-Bissau re-export the drug. Since the mid-2000s, West Africa has emerged as one of the most important transit areas for the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Europe. The 2017 World Drug Report reveals that two-thirds of all cocaine smuggled between South America and Europe cross the West African countries. This trend comes as a result of increased law enforcement adopted measures in the Caribbean, aimed at countering drug cartels operating there.

The UNODC Strategy against Opioids Traffic

UNODC launched in June 2018 an integrated strategy to support countries in addressing the on-going opioid crisis. Some of the measures include coordinating the international response, reducing supply of opioids for non-medical use, capacity building in support of national law enforcement interventions, promoting rational use of opioids for medical and scientific purposes, etc. This strategic response is also supported by the World Health Organisation and other NGOs active in the area. Yet the international involvement is not enough to counter the spread of opioids. Local governments have a better understanding of the country’s society and can reach to communities more easily compared to the foreign missions sent by the UN.

Drug Networks Adapt

The inter-governmental cooperation against narcotics in West Africa is on the rise. For this reason, criminal groups feel the need to adapt to the new challenge and to reorganise their structure. The aim is to increase de undetectability of smugglers which are usually endangered due to a hierarchical system. In order to conceal the shipments, drug-trafficking networks are now using containers and maritime shipping labels, as drug mules are often getting caught at airport security checks. Another tactic consists of using “low runners” whose responsibilities are very limited, as well as their access to critical information.

Some of the tactics require the “low runner” to collect the cash before letting the customer know by text message where the shipment was made. This system resembles a lot the horizontal structure model employed by terrorist organisations, where the group does not depend on a single leader and the operations are conducted mainly by “contractors.”