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Guns, Drugs and Development

Laura Ralston's picture

Trafficking in West Africa

Trafficking is not new to West Africa, but its magnitude is
. From Northern Mali to The Gambia, smugglers have traded fuel, cigarettes and staple food for decades. Longstanding trade routes and interregional tribal connections have allowed illegal cross-border trading to grow alongside traditional commercial practices.

Moroccan cannabis was one of the first trafficked goods to appear in the region, arriving in the 1990s. South American cocaine followed, in part due to increased demand in Europe.  As rebel groups in the region have flexed their muscle, the market for trafficked weapons has increased throughout the past decade, from secessionist movements in Niger and Mali, to Boko Haram and Delta rebels in Nigeria, to the Young Patriots in Côte d’Ivoire. Valuable natural resources, such as oil, diamonds, and timber, are illegally acquired and frequently traded for cash to sustain criminal and rebel activities.

While estimates vary, the size of these illicit flows runs into the billions of dollars annually, making trafficking one of the most lucrative economic activities in the region and undermining traditional local revenue sources. Diversified trafficking networks span the entire region. Some serve local markets (arms, cannabis), while others target consumers of developed countries (cocaine, heroin, diamonds).

Instability across the region has raised the profile of trafficking and the toxic influence of trafficking revenues adds fuel to an already burning fire. Several recent studies have highlighted the role of trafficking networks’ direct connections to the rebellion in northern Mali in 2011, increased instability due to organized crime in the Sahel, the political crisis in Guinea-Bissau, and at a broader level, security issues across the region.

Trafficking is not only a security issue but a development challenge as well. Organized crime directly undermines state- and peace-building . To better understand how trafficking interplays with fragility and development in West Africa, we recently exchanged views with researchers on this topic (here is a link to the recording of the event). Some preliminary findings:

Trafficking and fragility do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Trafficking happens virtually everywhere, in developed and fragile countries, although some countries show much greater resilience to the ill-effects of trafficking than others. The reason may lie in the interplay of trafficking with pre-existing drivers of fragility. Take Guinea-Bissau: a weak state characterized by a history of concentrated political power, a politicized military and widespread state corruption, have made it particularly vulnerable to trafficking. In more resilient states such as Ghana or Senegal, good infrastructure and a developed financial sector increased opportunities for money-laundering and small-scale air-shipping, but the political process remained largely insulated.   

Where trafficking exacerbates fragility, it does so through multiple channels:

1. Funding rebel and criminal groups – Trafficking offers a source of financing to rebels and criminals who have complementary skills and assets to trade (for example, vehicles to move goods, control over territories, access to criminal networks). As they already operate illegally, the additional risk of undertaking new criminal activities is lower for them.

2. Rewarding and promoting skills related to violence – Be it for enforcement, assault or extortion, trafficking generates a demand for violence. As of now, this impact is still limited by the fact that trafficking is not very labor-intensive (compared to crop cultivation for instance). But were a retail market for narcotics to develop in the region, West Africa would be at risk, since many young men in the region already display many risk factors associated with violence: exposure to traumatic experience, breakdown of family structure, lack of economic opportunities.

3. Challenging the authority of the state – In marginalized areas where the state is unwilling to invest, traffickers (or the officials backing them) can win support by providing jobs, public goods and services to the local population. To truly root out local trafficking, the state needs to out-compete traffickers. This often means focusing on the provision of legal goods and services before moving to law-enforcement.

4. Shifting incentives of policy-makers – Trafficking is like natural resource extraction: both command large economic rents which may shift officials’ incentives away from law enforcement and toward appropriation. In countries with weak governance, trafficking can become an integral part of statecraft, as has become apparent in Guinea-Bissau, where some state officials actively invest and support cocaine trafficking instead of their constituents’ broader interest.

5. Leading to conflict between competing groups – In the absence of formal institutions, property rights and contracts can only be enforced through peer pressure, threats or violence. As rival trafficking groups compete for the control of the best routes or access to political patrons, local violence rise.  

In an upcoming post, we will delve deeper into the possible responses to this challenge and we welcome your thoughts on the topic. Have you ever come into contact with trafficking in your work? Do these channels align with your experiences in the field? Are there other ways trafficking impacts development? Have you seen successful examples of development responses to trafficking?

With special thanks for their support to us in this work to:


Submitted by Gabriel on

You might be interested in this background paper I did for the 2011 WDR on drug trafficking and violence in Central America, which has highlights from an earlier study I did on the issue. It has an annex on West Africa, about which I was much less well-informed.

Submitted by Côme on

Thank you for sharing your paper. Even though West Africa's trafficking problems have generated a lot of interest lately, we are still miles behind the knowledge generated in Latin and Central America on the subject.

When it comes to trafficking, both regions still differ a lot in terms of industrial organization. West African traffickers are still very fragmented and cross-border integration between criminals is also weaker than in Central America. But there are signs that suggest this is changing. It would be interesting to see if West African traffickers are merely replicating what has been done in Central America or coming up with something entirely new.

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