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Africa’s illegal drug epidemic fuelled by organised crime and ineffective policy

By November 27, 2019No Comments
Africa's illegal drug trade

Over time, there has been a huge rise in the illegal drug trade in Africa. The number of drug users is estimated to increase to a total of 14 million drug users by 2050. 

ENACT, a project that builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime, recently published a press release that explores the causes of this epidemic. 

From organised crime and weak governmental policies, Africa’s drug trade is expanding at a rapid rate. 

Overview of the drug trade in Africa

While Africa was previously only considered as a transit region for drug trafficking, today the continent is increasingly becoming a consumer and destination market for all forms of drug abuse.

The distribution of individuals using illicit drugs in African regions during 2018 was as follows:

  • West Africa – 55% – 5.7 million
  • Eastern Africa – 19% – 1.9 million
  • Southern Africa – 12% – 1.3 million
  • Northern Africa – 8% – 0.8 million
  • Central Africa – 6% – 0.6 million

ENACT shares that, “In the past few decades alone, the number of people in West Africa who use illegal drugs or prescription opioids for a non-medical purpose has more than tripled from an estimated 1.6 million in 1990 to 5.7 million in 2018.” 

“In the next 30 years, sub-Saharan Africa will see the world’s biggest surge in illicit drug users, with its share of global drug consumption projected to double.”

Reasons for the rise of the drug trade

The rise of the presence of illicit drugs in Africa is due to far more than just addiction. In areas where organised gangs and corrupt politicians run the show, the drug trade has free reign. 

Organised crime

Africa has a reputation for it’s organised crime that has spread on a global scale. These groups work in syndicates to trade all sorts of illegal produce. This poses a threat to the environment, health and safety of individuals, and to the escalation of the drug trade.

From the illegal trade of pangolins and perlemoen, to cross border arms trafficking. These organised crime groups are causing environmental damage and fuelling national conflict. These trade routes are well established – and greatly feared – making the movement of illicit drugs both convenient and lucrative. 

ENACT quotes, “West Africa’s role has also expanded as a global trafficking hub for drugs, particularly cocaine. An underground economy has developed around the production and distribution of methamphetamines, particularly in Nigeria. A growing heroin economy has emerged from the international drug smuggling route down the East Coast of Africa for shipment to international markets.”

Weak policies

Sadly, organised crime has found loopholes in the system. By taking advantage of weak policies and partnering up with corrupt government officials. The African drug market is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Criminals take advantage of secure innovations to further their business. Such as blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and various trading platforms on the dark web. 

Criminal governance systems are facilitating drug trafficking along various routes, such as the East African coast which has become a frequented route for heroin trade. The heroin trade in this area “plays a significant role in local and national politics in countries along the eastern seaboard of Africa”. 

This lucrative trade becomes attractive for corrupt officials, making the epidemic even more challenging to counter. 

“Participation in drug trafficking offers political, security and business leaders windfall profits, says Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s Mark Shaw, an organised crime expert. ‘They can conduct electoral and security campaigns, feed patronage systems, or take a fast track to wealth and power. In turn, politicians and security leaders can offer traffickers protection or even assistance.”

Recommended solutions

The African drug trade and the politics that they are attached to are complex and controversial. When criminals hold as much power as they do then various communities are put at risk when these groups are challenged. 

There needs to be an intention and proactivity in creating sustainable drug intervention programmes. The response to the demand for the drug trade in Africa needs to be supported with strategy, evaluation and research. 

The drug trade fuels crime and violence, with drug proliferation leading to increased levels of crime and violence in communities. This heightens safety risks.  Over the years, Development Works Changemakers (DWC) has been involved in several projects relating to the crime and safety sector. These include research into various crime and safety aspects and evaluations of projects designed to reduce crime and create safer communities. These projects include, but are not limited to: 

  • Midterm evaluation of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s five-year strategic implementation plan
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime baseline, endline and impact assessment of the Line Up Live Up Programme in South Africa
  • Implementation and evaluation of substance abuse programmes for the Western Cape Provincial Government, Department of Social Development
  • Implementation and evaluation of the youth safety and partnership programme for the Western Cape Provincial Government, Department of Community Safety

The drug trade cannot be eradicated – but a deeper understanding of the causes and effects is imperative. Greater efforts, alliances and commitments are required to fund, resource, plan, prioritise and implement policies, strategies and programs to better deal with this epidemic and the negative and damaging impact on communities.

For more information on best practices in the crime and safety sector, if you need help to design a new programme, or evaluate an existing programme, please contact Lindy Briginshaw on

drug trade route