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Are Drug Traffickers Re-Colonizing Africa?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In 2009 the West African country of Guinea Bissau made a rare and brief appearance in the international media when, in the early hours of March 2nd, President Vieira was assassinated—apparently at the hands of units of the military.  Only hours before, the head of the army, Gen. Tagme Na Waie, had been killed; the assassination of the President was widely believed to have been an act of retaliation for the murder of a long-time rival.  Although the details of those hours remain murky, accounts of these events rapidly moved beyond descriptions of a power struggle to implicate the international drug trade.  Guinea Bissau was characterized as a “narco state”  in the making.  Suddenly, a continent generally seen as peripheral to the global drug economy—in terms of production, distribution and consumption—was moving to center stage.  A few weeks later Thomas Harrigan, Chief of Operations from the DEA, would testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that West Africa had become a major transshipment site for Latin American cocaine bound for Europe, and that heroin produced in Southwest Asia was also being channeled through West and East Africa to Europe.

The rise of West Africa (and the tendency for that to be generalized to Africa as a whole is an interesting aspect of the rhetorical history of drug imperialism) as an important site for the drugs traffic is of course not so new as the sensationalist reporting of events in Guinea Bissau might suggest. A special issue of the journal Review of African Political Economy (vol. 26) in 1999 devoted to the drugs trade signaled these developments and others, but noted that there was little information available and little research underway.  As Stephen Ellis’s excellent 2009 overview of “West Africa’s International Drug Trade” [African Affairs, 108: 171-96] indicates, ten years later evidence remains sparse.  Just as US and international drug interdiction efforts have focused on the major centers of production,  scholars have largely ignored the distribution networks that have drawn various African countries into the drug economy nexus.

In his June 2009 testimony the DEA’s Harrigan reminded Senators that “transnational criminal organizations” had a “penchant for finding and exploiting vulnerable regions of the world to further their illicit activities.” And he went on to stress that “Africa is such a place, with its strategic geographic location, and, in many instances, weak governments, endemic corruption, and ill-equipped law enforcement agencies.”  What events in Guinea Bissau (and in several neighboring countries) seemed to suggest was that drug imperialism in Africa was entering a new phase.  Mirroring the late-19th-century imperial “scramble for Africa,” the new drug scramble was moving beyond the phase of “informal empire,” documented by Ellis and his co-authors Jean-François Bayart and Béatrice Hibou in their 1999 book, The Criminalization of the State in Africa (James Currey, Oxford), in which drug enterprises built alliances with highly influential local political brokers, to something approaching a systematic control of the state itself.

These developments raise important questions for students of the history of the drugs trade and of contemporary Africa.  A series of articles in major newspapers painted a picture of Guinea Bissau in the late 2000s as a country in which major figures in the armed forces had been incorporated into global cartels and foreign drug operatives in the late model SUVs openly wheeled and dealed around the decaying capital city.  But just as quickly as Guinea Bissau became hot news, it disappeared from view and there were indications that drugs enterprises had moved on—in the realization that notoriety was a negative in this business environment.  Perhaps from the perspective of drug organizations, the complications and mild chaos associated with informal empire represents a more desirable business environment than the order that might be the product of more direct control?  Here on the US-Mexico border, we’re often asking ourselves that question:  wouldn’t it be more profitable and efficient for cartels to find accommodations with each other and with the state?  And we often read that new verb, “Columbianization.” Maybe, just as colonial powers came to realize, direct imperial rule could be expensive and bloody.  And the very weakness that made Guinea Bissau vulnerable to drug power also made it visible to international authorities.  Moreover, in the modern drug business context “failed states” like Guinea Bissau hardly represent ideal working environments.  With their crumbling infrastructures, they lack the veneer of development (malls, restaurants, clubs, golf courses, and so forth) so important to high rollers of all types; more significant they lack the banking, commercial, transportation and communications systems that underpin the 21st century international drugs business.  Perhaps then, places like Guinea Bissau are destined to play minor roles in the global drugs economy, just as they have been on the periphery of the global economy.   What rarely surfaces, however, in the sensational tales of the new drug imperialism is the tragic consequences for people in these countries.  In Guinea Bissau, as in African country after African country, the international drugs trade has spilled over to create local drugs markets.  And as drug enterprises move on to find other transshipment points they keep their foot in the door with the legacy of local consumers.

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