Local Perceptions, Security Forces and Drug Trafficking in West Africa
October 10, 2012
Ousmane Conte, son of Guinea's late president Lasante Conte, sits in detention on drug-related charges in Conakry in March 2008. In their bid to reach European markets, Latin American drug traffickers are increasing routing supplies through fragile West African states (AP Photo/Jerome Delay).

For the last few months, I have been travelling across West Africa to speak with state security forces and narcotics traffickers about the region’s increasingly notorious reputation for drug-related activities.

No to sound alarmist, but I’ve obviously found that security personnel in West Africa face serious challenges in countering the flow of narcotics to Europe, or even destinations within the region. The majority of these obstacles, however, involve local citizen perceptions of police forces within West African states; not necessarily the physical prevention of trafficking itself.

This is primarily because security services in most West African states are not trusted by their general populations, and are viewed as predatory agents of a structure far removed from the concerns of meeting daily needs.This is nothing new.

However, because West African police forces are perpetually lacking financial resources, they must rely on the involvement of local populations. Tailing suspects in cities with little programmed urban planning, for example, is a complicated and expensive activity. In many cases, the local population is best placed to indicate the location of suspects, but often unwilling to do so.

Since police and gendarmerie are understood as a source of local harassment and loss of resources (usually in the form of bribes paid to avoid traffic court), avoiding state security agents is the order of daily life.

A police commissioner in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Dakar recently explained to me how police work is constantly hampered by residents’ hesitation to inform officers of trafficking activities and drug usage. Since police and gendarmerie are understood as a source of local harassment and loss of resources (usually in the form of bribes paid to avoid traffic court), avoiding state security agents is the order of daily life.

While this has been going on for decades, however, West African governments are also eager to demonstrate a willingness to pursue ‘good governance’ in security matters for Western donor audiences. But instead of attempting to change local perceptions of their police forces, this has instead been translated into increased penalties for drug-related infringements.

To this end, the Senegalese government recently held the second instalment of a regional conference dubbed “The Dakar Initiative” to harmonize drug laws across Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Cape Verde.

Many of the delegates at the event indicated that their states needed to demonstrate a commitment to stopping drug trafficking. As a result, the draft harmonized law produced by the initiative significantly increased present sentences enshrined in the member states’ legal codes. Such a move, however, only solidifies local perceptions of the predatory nature of West Africa’s police forces for activities not generally viewed as significantly harming local populations.

Lastly, there are also indications that security services are complicit, if not directly implicated in drug trafficking activities. Police chiefs and public officials in multiple countries, for example, have suggested that corruption reaches the upper echelons of government and the military. Unfortunately, the Dakar Initiative’s proposed law on harmonization does not cover a breach of public trust with regard to agents of the state being involved in drug-related activities.

Drug trafficking in West Africa does present a serious set of challenges to the governments of the region, and others abroad. Narcotics that move through the region are destined for Europe and North America. Some of the product stays in local markets in the states’ capitals and resort towns, usually to be purchased by members of the expatriate community. But if the problems associated with growing usage of narcotics are to be confronted appropriately and effectively, citizens of West African states must first trust in their own security forces.

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