Inside Drug Trafficking In Africa

Is Africa in the midst of becoming run by drug-cartels, is it turning into a narco-continent?

Africa, the second largest continent on the globe, but #1 with drug trafficking issues. Many third-world countries reside in Africa and are subject to political sabotage by the hands of Latin American drug cartels. The governments of the countries are weak, their economic standing is poor, and their accessibility to mental and physical health programs is low. One of Africa’s countries has already been branded as an official narco-state, but as drug trafficking worsens in certain areas, is Africa close to becoming a narco-continent?

Drug Trafficking

drug use
Image from @f7photo on Unsplash

Drug Trafficking from Africa has been a massive issue since the late 1950s, early 1960s. Most of Europe’s cocaine, cannabis, and heroin come from two key trading hubs, Ghana and Guinea-Bissau. Drug trafficking is primarily an issue in West Africa, as its weak government, and borderline defenseless countries have become the ideal target for South Americans to invade and produce/distribute their drugs through them. While the cocaine market grows in European countries such as Switzerland and France, so does the South American cartel’s influence on West Africa’s government. From recent year’s drug-busts, it has become clear that drug smuggler’s preferred way of bringing drugs into Europe is via commercial air travel. West Africa drug-gang proxies are frequently caught trying to smuggle numerous pounds of cocaine and heroin into European countries. The UN has officially called for the liberation of West Africa from Latin American cartels, as they are ruining the country’s financial stability and safety. It is estimated that 46 tons of cocaine are smuggled out of West Africa every year.

With bribery, brute force, and drug addiction running ramped, The UN has confirmed that this security threat is too significant to ignore. According to the UN’s 2008 report on drug trafficking in West Africa, “The single greatest point of vulnerability lies in the region’s under-resourced criminal justice agencies, highly vulnerable to corruption. At present, even when arrested, international drug traffickers operating in West Africa are seldom sentenced. Much needs to be done with very few resources, so the region needs to strategize carefully for maximum impact.” In an area where 55% of the population live on less that one dollar a day, it is estimated that “$1.8 and $2.8 billion in cocaine sales in 2009.”


Image from @iambobnelson from Unsplash

Cannabis has been cultivated in Africa since it’s introduction from Asia 1,000 years ago. The cannabis plant is a cash-crop planted by farmers throughout Africa; it holds political and economic value to the continent since most of Africa’s exports come from agriculture. However, the selling of marijuana has always been more lucrative than growing. Due to the recent move towards global legalization, drug trafficking marijuana has made Africa an ideal market due to the cheap growing/supplying cost. Drug traffickers have maintained a level of power over African farmers by paying them for their cannabis through wholesale and reselling it for more in Europe and America. In 2018, South Africa moved to legalize the cultivation and smoking marijuana in private. The highest court in South Africa found that it is the right of its people to “privacy entitles an adult person to use or cultivate or possess cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption.” The race for legalization, cultivation, and transportation has created a “reborn” market for cannabis, since now the crop has a higher value as an export to European countries. It is estimated that South Africa’s marijuana industry could be worth $1.7 Billion by 2023.

Cannabis and Religion

During ancient times, the plant was a staple in many religious ceremonies. Tribesmen have been known to chew on the cannabis plant, and then later begin smoking it, after that, cannabis became a worshiped symbol. Eventually, the Bena-Riamba (a.k.a “Sons of Hemp”) originated a religion that surrounds cannabis, using it as “the center of a ritual connecting the community.

The most well-known religion surrounding cannabis is Rastafarianism. Originated in Jamaica, Rastafarianism sees the cannabis plant as the prophesied “Tree of Life,” as mentioned in the Bible. Rastas see cannabis as a “sacrament,” arguing that it has healing properties, that smoking allows introspection on a divine level. To them, the key to a righteous life is living “naturally,” with that, they see Africa as the pinnacle of “natural” living, where they may practice “be themselves on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level.”  In order to preserve the integrity of their ideals, the religious move to Africa cemented the ideology that Rastas should follow “African rules,” no matter where they are geographically located. In doing so, rastas often break the laws of their inhabitant country, one of which is still participating in the smoking and cultivation of marijuana regardless of how legal or illegal it may be.

North Africa

Apart from West Africa’s popular cocaine routes, North Africa is an easily accessible means of entry for traffickers using marine transportation. Cocaine has been trafficked and seized in countries such as Algeria and Morocco for decades. The largest seizure of cocaine happened in 2018 when local businessman Kamel Chikhi, had his meat shipment raided, police found 1545 pounds of cocaine hidden amongst the containers. The seizure, involving many key political affiliates, caused a rift in Algeria’s government and 2019 presidential election.

North African laws often bleed into the Middle East’s politics, and therefore, their shared drug issues are a priority issue. However, depending on the country’s drug laws, drug trafficking can warrant different crimes and punishments. In Dubai, any possession of drugs, from the smallest amount to the greatest, could result in imprisonment or death. The poppy and cannabis plants are popular amongst poorer Middle Eastern/ Northern African (MENA) countries. Amphetamine-type stimulates popular in Morocco, and opioid pain-killers are a growing trend in Egypt. Terrorist groups have been known to traffic cocaine and marijuana, respectively, throughout various countries such as Europe, the Russian Federation, and Asia. Governmental eradication efforts have proven inconsequential; cultivation is always being secretly done; a lot of it has the protection of certain Latin American cartels. MENA countries approach drug trafficking with strong and intense policing. In certain countries where Islam is the predominant religion, drinking is illegal because consumption is a sin in the Quran. The Middle East has had a rise in efforts towards eradication of dealers by making even the possession of paraphernalia a felony. However, in North African countries where policing is underfunded and under-resourced, it is harder to maintain the drug trafficking happening. Therefore, dealers from the Middle East see North Africa as a loophole, a mode of trafficking without getting killed.

South Africa

In recent years a new “cocktail” drug has entered the streets of South African countries, causing mass death and addiction issues. Nyaope, a drug mixture of “low-grade heroin, marijuana, cleaning detergents, rat poison, and chlorine” and is either rolled into a joint and smoked or left as a powder and snorted. Nyaope is roughly $2 for a hit. Addicts usually sport a disheveled appearance, burnt cheeks, fingers, and lips. Due to how expensive the drug is, they try to get as much out of their joint as they can, by lighting it until the very end they often burn themselves in the process. The high can last anywhere from 2-4 hours to a couple of days if a large amount is consumed. While the high might “feel like heaven” as one addict described, the withdrawal symptoms are severe and intense. The South African National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA) associate Cathy Vos stated, “Addicts have severe physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms… when one is addicted to heroin one needs long-term therapy of two to four years because it is so highly addictive.” Because of this, having a government-funded facility to deal with the addicts is too expensive, so addicts seeking help turn to unlicensed rehabs. Though the drug was made illegal in March of 2014, it remains a popular street fix.

South Africa is also home to an extensive hub of illicit drug selling. These “markets” have contributed to the sale of cannabis, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and Mandrax. According to Bruce D. Johnson, “South Africa is one of the world’s largest cannabis producers and the largest international consumer of Mandrax. Heroin, cocaine powder, crack, and methamphetamine (called tik) is less common, but growing.” Johnson theorizes that the post-apartheid South Africa is essentially revolting against the once oppressive regime. The extreme incline in drug use and selling is a direct bi-product of that so-called “rebelling.” Illicit drug markets have become so bad that dealers have begun mixing “cannabis with heroin, cocaine, crack, Mandrax, methamphetamine, and other drugs.” This system relies on instability and under-resourced government programs and regulations; and will continue until it is finally addressed.

West Africa

West Africa is home to an increasingly popular drug trafficking route, allowing South African smugglers to transport into Europe. Predominantly, cocaine is moved from Africa by the metric ton. In 2010, it was found that 46-300 metric tons of cocaine a year are moved through West Africa to supply Europe’s “new interest” in the drug. In recent years, the use of hard drugs has become more prevalent as drug-lords are now making heroin, cocaine, and crack cheaper and more easily accessible to low-income West African families. VOA News found that “one gram of pure cocaine can be purchased for as little as $35, compared to $90 in France. A rock of crack costs less than $10.” Drug-lords no longer pay their dealers in cash, but now in product. By keeping their suppliers hooked, the dealers sell more to create more “business” while also maintaining a steady way to obtain their “fix.”

West Africa is also home to the world’s first narco-state, Guinea-Bissau. Most of Africa’s exported cannabis comes from Guinea-Bissau, wealthy Columbian drug-lords run it. The country is the fifth poorestin the world, making it under policed, the ideal standing for traffickers. The impoverished nation is under complete control of those that seek to harm it the most. Using their land and their people to move drugs out of Africa, the Western coast is, what the UN calls, under attack.

East Africa

Mombasa Kenya
Mombasa, Kenya. UNSPLASH Jessica Pamp

East Africa’s drug trafficking route allows easy access to transport from Asia to Europe and America. The countries that make up East Africa are notorious for having little news on drug busts and seizures; however, it’s known that illicit activity exists there. Most recently, Tanzania has caught the US government’s attention as new reports show that most Southwest Asia drugs are trafficked from Dar es Salaam. Traffickers use Dar es Salaam as a “launch-pad” for drugs coming from Latin America. According to The US Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Tanzanian traffickers transport cannabis, heroin, cocaine and amphetamines.” Heroin is a massive issue for Tanzania, usually transported in small quantities along the coastline and in larger quantities by land. These shipments typically make their way to Europe and North America. In October of 2019, Kenya’s DCEA seized over 226 pounds of heroin and cocaine that originated in Tanzania, this being the most significant amount of drugs seized in East Africa to date. The East African Journal writes that in the last nine months of 2019, Kenya officials conducted 1,500 raids of which they collected 125 pounds of heroin, 7.9 tons of marijuana, 7.9 pounds of cocaine, and $177,000 in cash and property.

With the constant flow of illegal narcotics in Kenya and other East African countries, heroin is unfortunately on the rise. Drugs are being trafficked in by cartels with the help of police and certain government officials. While most of Kenya’s government seeks to eradicate the trafficking issue, it is unfortunately involved in massive corruption and scandal, making these cartels hard to get rid of completely.

Moonshine Epidemic

Alcoholism runs ramped in Uganda, one local distiller describing the epidemic as being so bad that the “men around Kimasa drink all day and do no work.” Some even claiming that alcohol is the reason why Uganda is as poor of a nation as it is, comparing it to that of HIV or malaria.” Waragi is made in illegal distilleries inside of large tin barrels, a burner, molasses, bananas, and ethanol. The drink is cheap, it’s effective, and it’s deadly. These illegal distilleries usually employ women who immigrated to Uganda to escape sexual abuse and other dangers. The consumption of Waragi started during wartime when drinking in bars was not safe. People began creating their cheaply made alcohol, that not only got the person inebriated but essentially allow the drinker to get “more bang, for their buck.” The fermenting and boiling process creates a thick fog of acidic air, damaging the respiratory systems of those around it. Depending on the potency of the specific batch, it can make the drinker go blind, suffer permanent mental health issues, or suffer severe burns from barrel explosions. Getting the drink costs around 3-8 cents (USD) a jerry can. Waragi drinking has caused the death of 80 people in 2010, and that number is only going up. Waragi is virtually impossible to regulate due to how out of control the addiction to it has become. Distillers add chemicals such as menthol to the drink, which can be poisonous in large quantities, cause blindness, and an increase in mental disorders. Yet, that does not stop the villagers whose lives now revolve around the drink. According to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, illegal Waragi accounts for 80% of the country’s liquor production. This issue is so bad that the UNBS press officer, Moses Sebunya, claims that local Ugandan politicians use handouts of Waragi as brides for votes. The World Health Organization estimates that Ugandans drink about 23.7 liters of alcohol per capita, of which, 89% is illegally distilled. Waragi is responsible for the hard, yet cheap labor of the distillery workers and the deaths of those addicted to its potency. With absolutely no regulation and no alcohol policy, the citizens of Uganda remain allowed to keep creating this drink to obtain a steady income.


Africa safety
Image by @chuklanov from Unsplash

As Africa’s “War on Drug Trafficking” continues, the continent collectively is seeking to be better equipped to help those struggling with addiction. The National Medicines Regulatory Authorities (NMRAs) are trying to create regulation with pharmaceutical usage and drug trafficking; however, with the scale of the entire continent of Africa, that will prove to be complicated. All but one African country have agreed to adopt the NMRA, and it’s proposed African Medicines Agency, to provide an opportunity for harmonizing and strengthening” The NMRA functions as a way to control import and exports, pharmacovigilance, overseeing clinical drug studies, and more.

In North Africa, harm reduction services have been set in place to help addicts be sanitary and safe. However, these programs are often underfunded. The needle and syringe programs (NSPs) and the opioid substitution treatment (OST) are two of the programs with great benefits and relatively no funding. In MENA, drug consumption by injection remains the biggest reason for HIV spread. Middle Eastern countries have begun creating services geared towards HIV intervention, regardless of their social taboo of drugs.

As Africa begins the fight towards the invasive Latin American drug cartels, we will hopefully start seeing just how deep-rooted the corruption within the government has become. It will take many years to figure out precisely how drug traffickers operate and what routes they make to transport their drugs to specific locations. Only time will tell if Africa, along with the UN, can help save people forced into addiction and drug cartels by finally implement programs to truly help those suffering.

Daniella Fishman


Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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