Book Review – Africa and the war on drugs

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According to recent UN reports, African countries face an increasingly grave threat. This is not the HIV/Aids epidemic, nor ongoing conflict, terrorism, or corruption. It is a plague – not unrelated to all the former – that seemed to have spared Africa its worst depredations: drugs.
Nigerian drug lords, khat-chewing Somali pirates, crystal meth-smoking gangs controlling South Africa’s streets, narco-traffickers corrupting the state in Guinea-Bissau. These are some of the vivid drug related images from Africa which have alarmed policymakers, academics, and the general public in recent years. In the book, the authors – Neil Carrier, a researcher at the African Studies Centre of Oxford and Gernot Klantschnig, a professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham, with extensive experience researching the drug trade in East and West Africa – weave a provocative argument on Africa’s role in the global trade and control of drugs.

Guinea Bissau – Lesotho – Nigeria

Carrier and Klantschnig scrutinized three countries: Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Nigeria. Guinea-Bissau, a small coastal state that is among the world’s poorest nations, has been labelled Africa’s first ‘narco-state’ and portrayed as about to fall into the hands of drug cartels. The country has extensive unpatrolled land borders and rugged coastlines with many small islands, which makes it even harder to detect ships or planes smuggling drugs. Above all, there is strong evidence of military involvement in the drug trade.
Despite its size, Lesotho is one of the world’s major cannabis producers and a major supplier to the South African market. Beyond question, cannabis production and trade have flourished because Lesotho is an administratively ‘weak state’. Many of the mountain kingdom’s villages are impenetrable to state officials and policy, not only during the rainy season when roads are impassable. Cannabis, locally known as matekoane, is typically grown in isolated and unreachable mountain areas. Some local chiefs and strongmen have their own cannabis fields and have helped shield villagers from state attempts to identify the farms; they also helped to pay off officers that reached the villages. The authors say that while cannabis plays a critical role in Lesotho’s economy and its economic relations with South Africa, it is rarely problematised in international policy discourse. Indeed, international policy experts have yet to make strong claims about drugs in Lesotho.copreview
Nigeria is clearly different from the small states of Guinea-Bissau and Lesotho. As in those countries, the Nigerian state has been both complicit in and neglectful of the drug trade. Yet there have been recurring scandals at the country’s main drug agency and there is clear evidence of law enforcers’ complicity in illegal activities. In 2010 Nigeria’s drug tsar was sentenced to a lengthy prison term due to the protection offered to drug traffickers. Since the mid-90s Nigeria has worked closely with the US DEA and UN drug bodies. Nigeria was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to have permanent US and UN drug representatives dedicated to assisting policymakers. This was particularly important in the 1980s when the Nigerian drug agency was modelled on its US counterpart. Since then the volume of foreign drug control aid and operational cooperation between US and Nigerian law enforcers expanded immensely and the country has been widely praised for its war on drugs. Human rights violations that occurred during drug controls were not taken into account. On the other hand, critics also argued that the Nigerian drug war has had little to show in terms of success, apart from drug seizures at airports.
Finally, Carrier and Klantschnig try to offer a calm and reasoned review of the existing evidence and to develop an effective critique of the ‘war on drugs’ approach. Without doubt, the book provides important insights into recent perceptions and approaches to responding to their trade and use, particularly in West Africa. Their critique of the ‘war on drugs’ is timely, not least in light of recent developments on the drug policy front in other regions and at the international level. The book comes up short, however, in registering some of the winds of change in drug policy that are blowing through Africa today. Notwithstanding, it is essential reading for anyone interested in drug policy in Africa.

Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig, Africa and the war on drugs, 2012, Zed Book, London, pp. 176.


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