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  • Writer's pictureScott Mistler-Ferguson

Cocaine and Corruption in West Africa

International demand for cocaine is booming, seeing both new international routes being forged along with the rekindling of old pathways to established markets. The Red Line's Scott Mistler-Ferguson details how West Africa has become a hotbed for smugglers trying to reach Europe and the diversity of approaches occurring in different nations in the region.

Global cocaine markets are riding a post-Covid high, coupling surging production in Latin America with the expansion of fledgling markets in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The classic markets in North America and Europe however, remain the cash cows they have been for decades. Supplying those markets is still every bit as desirable to transnational

criminal organizations as finding new ones.

U.S. and Cape Verde officials interdict six tons of cocaine off the coast of West Africa. Credit: United States Africa Command Public Affairs.

West Africa in particular, a subregion long associated with providing a bridge between Latin American suppliers and European consumers, has re-entered the international community’s field of vision as a key transit point following more than four years of jaw-dropping seizures.

Fears of the narcotic’s corrosive effect on democratic and autocratic governments alike are resurfacing amid rising political temperatures that have seen a rash of failed and successful coup attempts.

Reaching from Mauritania to Nigeria, each nation within the subregion varies in its exposure to cocaine trafficking and hosts a unique ecosystem of actors, routes, and modus operandi. By focusing on Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali, we can unpack the distinct cocaine routes through each and the footprint it leaves locally.

Nothing New... The West African cocaine route is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it static. It has seen ebbs and flows in terms of importance to international traffickers and to the international law

enforcement community seeking to stifle it, but the route’s origins date as far back as the late 1980s. Faced with increasingly saturated markets in the United States and mounting interdiction efforts in the Caribbean and Pacific, Latin America’s cocaine traffickers looked east to Europe.

In diversifying their customer base, traffickers also worked dutifully to adapt their supply routes. It was in this context that the sixteen nations forming the West African sub-region were introduced to the globalising cocaine market. The coastal states received cocaine primarily produced in Colombia, with traffickers passing the drug north through the Sahel to reach the high-spending European markets. As demand swelled and collaboration with local actors solidified, the flow through West Africa intensified, leaping from an estimated 3 tons a year to 45 tons by the early 2010s.

A patchwork of routes still thrive, making use of airports, container ships, smaller private vessels, and land couriers. The journey and vessels differ, but the need for reliability is constant.

Political cover, or what criminologists refer to as state-sponsored protection rackets, is the life blood of illicit trafficking. For a commodity as valuable and sought-after as cocaine, it is a necessity. Such rackets can act as passively as simply turning a blind eye to suspicious cargo in a suitcase at the airport, all the way to actively assisting in logistical operations by providing vehicles, weapons, and workers. In more infamous cases like Guinea-Bissau, cocaine seized by law enforcement officials will often vanish, presumably having been repossessed by protection rackets to return to traffickers.

Fickle Seizure Data

In a trade that by nature hides from observation, tracking the importance of specific routes is inevitably flawed. Many turn to seizure data as an imperfect yet acceptable measure of how much cocaine is moving through a country. It is this data that has had observers of West Africa sweating in recent years.

Following an explosion of large-scale seizures, the West African cocaine route appeared to be back in full swing. Multi-ton hauls of the drug began cropping up in 2019 across the region, and have shown little sign of slowing in volume or consistency. Senegal collected 1.3 tons over several days in 2019, later breaking its record for a single seizure with 5.1 tons in 2020. Côte d’Ivoire successfully stopped a 6-ton haul in 2021, while Benin seized 2.6 tons, and Gambia nabbed 3 tons the same year. It was Cabo Verde though, that ultimately took the crown. In 2019, the nation found 9.5 tons aboard a Russian ship that had made an emergency stop. Months later, 2.3 more tons were seized, followed by 5.7 tons in 2022.

In just three years, over a dozen seizures greater than one ton occurred in the subregion. These spurred a renewed wave of international handwriting not seen in over a decade when in 2008, West African nations formally committed to anti-narcotics collaboration under the Praia Declaration and later in 2013 under the West Africa Commission on Drugs.

Seizures though, cannot depict an illicit trafficking route alone. They are in fact, the failures of those routes to adequately protect a prized product from interdiction and must be viewed as part of a larger iceberg. While seizures are indeed increasing along the West African routes, so too are they increasing in Europe, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, and even within South America, where the vast majority of the world’s cocaine is produced. Whether the West African route is special or simply a symptom of a rising tide, is still murky.

While seizures are indeed increasing along the West African routes, so too are they increasing in Europe, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, and even within South America, where the vast majority of the world’s cocaine is produced.

Global Players

What is clear is the staggeringly international nature of the cocaine trade in West Africa. Latin American and European trafficking organisations have worked for years to establish connections in the subregion, but remain wholly reliant on the expertise of local criminal groups for logistics and protection on the ground. Organizations like Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta, and Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel all operate out of the subregion alongside other heavy-hitting trafficking groups. There, they tap into smuggling routes across West and North Africa that vastly predate the arrival of cocaine, intermingling with the smuggling of precious metals, humans, and other narcotics.

A map detailing West African cocaine routes into Europe, through the nations of Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali.
A map detailing West African cocaine routes into Europe, through the nations of Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali.

The eastern coastal nations of South America play an outsized role in the first leg of cocaine’s journey, with West Africa’s coastal nations typically acting as points for trans-shipment, redistribution, or long term storage. Overland routes through Mali, Niger, and Mauritania retain their importance as cocaine is transported into North Africa, but the Sahel is only one piece in the puzzle. Bulk loads aboard cargo ships, specially-designed “narco-submarines”, and smaller commercial vessels are also key features of the route. Such maritime options deflect the need for parcelling the drug into smaller consignments as is usually the practice in overland trafficking. Meanwhile, the airways are flooded with couriers transporting smaller batches in their luggage or ingesting them.

It is not uncommon for trafficking arrests to include individuals from as many as five different

countries within and without the subregion, but the most commonly spotted among those

arrested are the so-called ‘Cocaine Hoppers’, namely Nigerian traffickers.

Nigerian Networks

Nigeria bucks convention when it comes to cocaine trafficking in the subregion. Seizures are consistent and since commercial airline couriers are the preferred MO of local trafficking

organizations, corruption among airport officials is rampant. Yet from 2000 to 2021, the country saw barely any large-scale seizures, averaging just under 300 kg per year.

A Nigerian national returning from São Paulo, Brazil is arrested with 2.7 kilograms of cocaine. Credit: National Drug Law Enforcement Agency

For a supposedly dominant player in the West African cocaine ecosystem, this raises eyebrows. One explanation for such a pitiful interdiction record is the impressive regional and global reach of Nigerian traffickers. Operating in South America, across Africa, Asia, and much of Europe, Nigerian nationals frequently crop up in seizure arrests where the cocaine may never have even passed through their home country’s borders.

Brazil, Venezuela, and Suriname in particular, are plentiful feeding grounds for Nigerian networks looking to recruit couriers, secure small-scale shipments, and of course source the product. Nigerian trafficking groups are also well-positioned for modern cocaine trafficking. Again, Brazil helps as home to a huge and still-expanding diaspora and as a natural trafficking launch pad. Cities like São Paulo host dedicated trafficking organisations like the PCC who provide reliable access to cocaine produced in the Andes. The Nigerian diaspora in turn can be exploited for short term courier assignments, while the structure of Nigerian groups lend themselves to the type of decentralised trafficking preferred by larger organizations in Latin America.

Small-scale cells, working often independently from one another and based on personal loyalties, can coalesce quickly to form networks for a single shipment before once again dispersing to find new partnerships. It has long been accepted that cocaine trafficking has by-and-large ditched monopolistic patterns with one organisation governing production, transit, wholesale, and retail. Instead, networks of brokers, logistical specialists, and political protectors form temporary bonds in a system extremely favorable to the fluid nature employed by most Nigerian traffickers. Ultimately though, these advantages do not explain the consistently low yearly spoils of cocaine within Nigeria’s own borders.

Allowing cocaine, among a host of other smuggled goods, to pass through their fiefdoms provides a useful revenue stream for non-state actors engaged in perpetual conflict.

Here, leading experts offer another theory. According to Mark Shaw, Director of the Global

Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Nigerian cocaine market has achieved a rather stable balance whereby protection rackets exist for traffickers, though they likely do not permeate all the way to higher levels of government.

Shaw suggests that a minute portion of cocaine is “given up to demonstrate state activity through ‘seizures’, on the understanding that wider trafficking will not be impeded.”

Given the existence of far more lucrative licit and illicit markets for state officials to compete over in a rentier economy, oil extraction being the largest, this nearly uninterrupted calm in the cocaine business starts to make sense.

The serenity of Nigeria’s cocaine flies in the face of the country’s broader security situation. A dizzying array of insurgent, bandit, militia, and jihadist groups hold territory in the country, contributing to Nigeria’s unfortunate position as one of Africa’s most violent nations. The climate seems less than conducive to smooth cocaine trafficking. Yet the flow of cocaine can advantage armed groups who control large swathes of territory as they can tax its movement through rudimentary checkpoints. Allowing cocaine, among a host of other smuggled goods, to pass through their fiefdoms provides a useful revenue stream for non-state actors engaged in perpetual conflict. In a country racked by political violence, smugglers often enjoy more mobility than gunmen.

The Guinea-Bissau Racket

Some 3,500 kilometers west, Guinea-Bissau has adopted a wholly different environment for cocaine, inverting the Nigerian model for a top down enterprise. Here, politics reaches far deeper into the trade while instability and coups hamstring the country. In nearly 50 years of independence from Portuguese colonial rule, only one president of Guinea-Bissau has ever completed a term.

President José Mário Vaz achieved this though, while burning through nine different prime ministers in just five years. Interestingly enough, this instability has not translated to widespread conflict in recent decades. Instead, violence in Guinea-Bissau looks fairly top-heavy with actors in the political and military class being targeted while the majority of society enjoys, for the most part, low homicide rates.

Reporting from the capital in 2013, Alexandery Smoltczyk described a country at odds with the typical portrayal of a nation smothered by white powder. “For a narco state, Guinea-Bissau seems rather peaceful, even sleepy at times. There are no junkies here and no beheaded traitors on the roadside. The daily drug trade is conducted virtually without violence.” For context, between 2014 and the first half of 2023, Nigeria suffered nearly 19,000 recorded episodes of violence ranging from full-scale firefights to attacks specifically targeting civilians. In that same period, Guinea-Bissau experienced 37.

Herein lies a key element that has long attracted Latin American traffickers to the coastal nation. The protection that elements of the military have historically provided to cocaine in transit towards Europe is tempting in a market characterized by high risk. Though corrupted officials can be found in alternative countries along the West African route, no other node in cocaine’s European journey is protected by military officials so entrenched in national politics that they can deliver generally safe passage for the product in bulk.

Political protection is a vital ingredient in creating a long-lasting cocaine trafficking route, and can even lead to traffickers choosing geographically nonsensical journeys for the drug as reliability is given a higher premium than minimized distance.

Cocaine trafficking alone does not dictate political developments in Bissau, but it does have a gravitational pull, especially when the profits involved are estimated to overshadow the entire nation’s GDP.

In Guinea-Bissau, no such trade-off is required. The country’s privileged mid-way positioning between supplier and market, coupled with a patchwork of some 88 islands well-situated for receiving parceled up shipments of cocaine make Guinea-Bissau a natural choice. Meanwhile, seemingly unshakeable political cover means that the all-encompassing violence observers expect in a drug trafficking haven remains largely absent.

Cocaine trafficking alone does not dictate political developments in Bissau, but it does have a gravitational pull, especially when the profits involved are estimated to overshadow the entire nation’s GDP. In a highly-clientelistic political system, control of the drug protection economy is a lifeline for maintaining power among elected representatives, entrepreneurs, and military elites alike. In truth, cocaine’s fingerprint has been present in each of the country’s latest attempted and successful coup attempts.

With help from political elites, military officials at the highest tier are well-equipped to quash change by hobbling reformists and the Judicial Police.

Wielding a hefty budget, disproportionately engorged ranks compared to its neighbours, and powerful sway over the Balanta vote, the country’s largest ethnic group, the military’s aces are formidable. The resilience of its protection rackets is such that they’ve remained intact for decades, weathering assaults from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, internal reformists, and international sanctioneers.

However, since Umaro Sissoco Embaló’s ascension to the presidency in 2020, official seizures have plummeted. He has proclaimed an end to Guinea-Bissau’s role in the cocaine trade often and loudly, and in 2022 survived an alleged coup attempt which he personally linked to drug traffickers. Unfortunately, each of these developments are littered with controversy.

Embalo’s election was heavily influenced by military elites such as Antonio Indjai, Braima Camará, and Nuno Gomes Nabiam, all widely considered to be key movers in the cocaine trade. Experts and civil society members maintain that cocaine trafficking has swelled, ushered in with the new administration. This latest iteration of Guinea-Bissau’s cocaine racket does though, have its fault lines.

Embaló has hungrily consolidated power under the office of the president while actively diluting that of the Balanta military that delivered it to him. Ultimately, the politico-military protection racket has proven sturdier than any single coup thrown at it, but this one appears likely to face renewed heaves as political schisms widen in Bissau.

The Malian Thruway

Mali shares many of the factors underpinning Guinea-Bissau’s cocaine trade to the west. Both rank in the bottom tier of the UN Human development Index, a decent indicator of living standards in a country. Both have militaries prone to putting their thumb on the scale whenever political clout appears threatened, and both have large swathes of territory where the national government is decidedly not in control. Yet cocaine trafficking dynamics on the ground appear completely at odds.

A local drug trafficking mansion in Gao, Mali. Credit: Yochi Dreazen/Foreign Policy

Here, Guinea-Bissau’s top down pyramid yields to the more fluid, decentralised approach of Nigerian traffickers. Cocaine trafficking is managed primarily by clans in the Northern and Central regions of the country, where cross-border smuggling of licit and illicit goods is a well-established practice and the national government’s footprint is often non-existent.

These networks typically transport cocaine in smaller volumes, after it has been stored and divided in the coastal nations. The UN’s 2023 Global Cocaine Report noted the sheer complexity that Malian networks undertake in moving smaller hauls of cocaine north into neighbouring Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger. Indeed, cocaine’s journey by car, truck, and plane takes it through swarms of Mali’s own armed groups, from JNIM, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Islamic State Sahel Province to name just a sliver.

Tellingly, taxation appears to be more closely linked to the route used rather than the cargo being smuggled, further watering down claims of a grand narco-terrorist alliance.

International media outlets often crow about the nexus between organized crime and terrorist organizations and much has been made about JNIM’s involvement in the cocaine trade. In Mali, research shows these links to be tangential. In both Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso, JNIM acts in a similar manner to Boko Haram cells in Nigeria, taxing smugglers for safe passage through territory the coalition controls. Tellingly, taxation appears to be more closely linked to the route used rather than the cargo being smuggled, further watering down claims of a grand narco-terrorist alliance. Across the rest of the subregion, a similar relationship of tacit gains appears to exist between traffickers and armed insurgents.

In Mali, traffickers adeptly traverse a country where fully two-thirds of the national territory is

engaged in open insurgency. The very fluidity of their networks insulates them against political shocks like the country’s latest military coup in 2021. Stakeholders within the current rulers, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), can derive the same benefit from trafficking routes that predate the coup. Despite the arrest of multiple key actors allegedly responsible for providing political cover for traffickers, large scale seizures have not increased while flows remain intact. Mali’s largest seizure on record in fact, a 1-ton interdiction in Tabankort, predated the coup by roughly a year.

In Niger, the latest West African nation to fall prey to a coup attempt, co-optation of smuggling routes as a source of extra cash is similarly practiced. As with Mali, unseating elected officials is unlikely to lead to an overhaul of the country’s cocaine routes.

The Cocaine Rush

The rising tide of demand for cocaine in Europe and the Middle East, joined with political climates favorable to trafficking in much of the subregion have placed West Africa firmly on the pathway channeling cocaine outward from South America.

For many in these countries, bereft of economic opportunities and largely absent any state-provided services, tapping into this flow is seen as inescapable. Indeed, informal economies in West Africa have long been the norm, accounting for 60-80 per cent of total GDP in most of the subregion. Therefore, extracting benefit from what appears to be a ceaseless river of demand is often viewed not as a form of organized crime, but of basic survival.

Dr. Jude Roys Oboh, author of Cocaine Hoppers, wrote that traffickers in Nigeria view their own trade as just another cog in an already spoiled system. 40 per cent of respondents from a 2021 survey by Emani stated that “transporting hard or prescription drugs for a fee,” is not a crime. Political elites in Bissau have oft-characterized cocaine as an issue for Europeans not Bissau-Guineans.

A focus group in Gao, Mali echoed this sentiment, arguing that cocaine trafficked in Gao was simply passing through the area, with one participant asserting “our people rarely consume these illicit products, therefore they are not detrimental to our communities”.


Written by Scott Mistler-Ferguson.

Edited by Wade McCagh.


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