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Call for Papers: The Moral Landscapes of Drugs in Africa

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

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Special issue coordinated by Corentin Cohen (Sciences Po/CERI, OxPo) and Gernot Klantschnig (University of Bristol)

Deadline for the submission of proposals: 20 April 2020

Context The trade and consumption of psychoactive products are not new to Africa. There are traces of cannabis cultivation dating from the sixteenth century in Eastern and Southern Africa (Duvall 2016) and records of colonial concern with its cultivation since the 1920s in Nigeria and Ghana. At least since the 1950s the region has started to be used as a transit point by some heroin smugglers (McCoy 1991) and in subsequent decades there have been reports of a clear increase in the volume of cocaine trafficking from Latin America. This has made West Africa into a socalled global hub, a place of transit for more than a third of cocaine exports to Europe and a « new » space of consumption for drugs, such as synthetic opioids (UNODC 2006, 2008, 2017, 2018). Existing data regarding heroin and crack show that consumption has also increased locally while amphetamine production capacities have developed in Nigeria and Guinea Conakry (UNODC 2012).

Most of the existing literature has been discussing these developments from state and security perspectives. Fueled by sensationalistic media reports and the proliferation of discourses on « narco jihadism », part of the literature has also borrowed from the paradigm of failed states and has thus described « weak », « fragile » or « destabilized » states as engulfed by the drug trade (Sindzingre 2001 ; Felbab-Brown 2010 ; McGuire 2010). In particular, Guinea-Bissau has been described as a « narco state » (Chabal and Green 2016), a concept that has little analytical value regarding the importance of illicit economies for the state and the role of illicit activities in countries, such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Guinea Bissau, and Morocco, but which has nonetheless gained traction in the African context (Chouvy 2016).

Critics of these literatures have focused on different points. Discussing the privatization of African states, liberal restraint and increased international trade, Ellis, Hibou and Bayart have shown how the security focus ignores the blurred lines of the lawful and the illicit, the legal and the illegal. The last issue of Politique africaine that dealt with the issue of drugs in 2004 and entitled “Globalization and the Illicit in Africa » also contributed critical ideas to this debate. One of the articles in the issue showed that the fight against drug trafficking was at times part of political strategies, and that anti-drug campaigns were “smoke curtains”. The Moroccan authorities’ account of the “small profits” of the Riff producers, compared to those made by the European sellers, was intended, for example, to hide the illicit incomes of leaders of the local security forces (Bordes and Labrousse 2004). Similarly, in Nigeria, the fight against drug trafficking is inseparable from a political agenda of power struggles between political groups, and international drug cooperation has been a way to gain access to resources and institutional prestige (Klantschnig 2012).

Three limitations regarding this security and state focus have particularly been highlighted in the literature since then but have not yet been properly addressed. Firstly, there is a question of data production and use. Much of the existing analysis relies on official or UNODC data which have been said to be unworthy (Thoumi 2006) and biased (Klantschnig, Dimova and Cross 2016). However, these same data still serve as tools for governments to signal and justify their efforts in the war on drugs to the international community, help reproducing power structures and criminalize users. Doing so, they often reproduce the discourses of authoritarian regimes (Allen 1999). If researchers have lamented the weaknesses of this data, it has nonetheless remained the main source for representing views of the illicit. Secondly, existing approaches do not account for the diversity of histories and experiences associated with drugs and psychoactive products (Klantschnig, Dimova and Cross 2016) such as khat (Anderson and Carrier 2009), cannabis (Akyeampong 2005) and heroin (Ellis 2009), which all have local and global trajectories and different social constructions, including diverse relations between traders, politicians and security forces. Drawing on research in Kenya, Carrier describes khat as a « global pariah, national hero » (Carrier 2009) highlighting the tension between the legal prohibition regime and drugs such as khat, cannabis or tramadol, which have a fluid and ambiguous « quasilegal » status (Carrier and Klantschnig 2018; Klein, 2019). Finally, most of the research does not take into account the role and experiences of consumers and how each drug has different reputations (Syvertsen et al. 2016), sociabilities and practices that have become part of daily lives of citizens, sometimes even contributing to the definition of individual or group identities as it has been the case in some Oromo communities in Ethiopia (Lesourd 2019).

Licitness and illicitness: articulation through political and moral landscapes

In line with these works, this special issue of Politique Africaine will draw its attention to the ever-shifting line between the licit and illicit. It proposes to explore the meanings of legal and illegal activities and practices associated with drugs, drug consumption, drug trade and drug money to question their changing degrees of local legitimacy and legality. Using the idea of moral economies popularized by Scott (Scott 1976) and that has proven useful to understand different practices including corruption (Olivier de Sardan, 1999), we will move from an existing focus on official views of the drug criminal and « drug trafficker » to the question of the users and trader and the social debates regarding these activities. While the international narratives on drugs and organized crime are clearly identified and contribute to a criminalization of drugs, little has been said about trader and consumer narratives and how they co-exist, challenge or use political narratives, as well as the popular discourses on the threats and opportunities offered by drugs.

In the light of the existing literature on criminal activities, the question of the legitimacy is particularly important given the livelihoods that drug activities may generate and the ‘social bandit’ role moral entrepreneurs can contribute to build up. This dimension has not been discussed in research, even though it is made clear by recent movies such as Wulu (Mali, 2016) or Drug Barons (Nigeria, 2017) showing that different morals co-exist and are the object of controversies. As has been the case with the illegal mining activities in the DRC and the development of Bana Lunda, one would be tempted to ask if there are other narratives that frame this illegal trade or consumption and which could point to the emergence of new classbased and gendered identities (Monnier, Jewsiewicki and De Villers 2001). These narratives can also reflect market driven social transformations as is the case with the market for drug mules and associated services (Cohen 2019), and efforts of different actors undermining and producing legitimacy. Taking the case of Guinea Bissau, Henrik Vigh, for instance, has shown the ambiguities regarding the perception of cocaine as a drug and the acceptability of its incomes depending on individual’s situations and relations (Vigh 2017).

Thematic axes To further our understanding of the moral economies of drugs in Africa, the issue welcomes articles reflecting particularly on three dimensions:

  1. The articulations between licitness and illicitness, with a focus on the different entrepreneurs who contribute to the definitions of the moral economies of drugs and to the shift in moral landscapes. What kind of moral discourses do religious actors or local communities produce? To which extent can « big men » or so-called traditional leaders encourage or tolerate certain practices? How do these moral economies embody or challenge existing definitions of morality, success and wealth? Does a generational approach allow to understand these moral economies – a point that has been highlighted in related work on the legal drug alcohol (Willis 2002)? What are the perceptions of these moralities and discourses by the different actors involved in drug consumption or trade? Do these actors develop counter-narratives and how do they negotiate and produce moralities?

  2. The special issue raises the question of the representations of drug consumption and trade. Do these representations differ according to the drugs themselves or the mode of consumption? What is the role of local and regional media, music, film, art, literature and other cultural artifacts and their makers in the establishment of tropes, stereotypes regarding trade and consumption of drugs? What social representations do they contribute to create? What are the representations of users; are they seen as deviants, immoral, or as in need of help? How do cultural artifacts represent the trade and its political and economic implications? To what extent do global imaginaries of Reggae, Rap, Latin American « narcos » and Western modes of drug consumption circulate? How do they affect existing representations and reflect the unequal dynamics of globalization?

  3. Finally, such an approach recognizes that drug markets, practices and moral economies can also be invested by political actors who negotiate and build up different relations through this issue. This would particularly be the case in spaces where consumers and traders are publicly identified and have a major economic role. What are the negotiations implied by existing moralities, how do politicians use the issue and how do they navigate and articulate their positions vis-à-vis international agendas? Under what circumstances can « criminals » be accepted or tolerated in certain communities and how do the moral discussions affect the enforcement of law and its making in different spaces?

The editors of this special issue welcome contributions from different disciplines (anthropology, history, sociology, politics, but also literature or media studies) and related approaches with original empirical data on a range of illegal and semi-legal substances, such as cannabis, cocaine, khat or synthetic opioids. We invite all the authors to adopt a reflexive position regarding the data and methods they will use, the role of « official » devices of power and narratives in their approaches.

Selected contributors will have the opportunity to present their research at different side events and workshops organized by the editors in 2020 before the final submission date.

Timeline 20 April 2020: Deadline for submission of proposals (One-page summary in French or English) to be sent to Corentin Cohen and Gernot Klantschnig

30 April 2020: notification to the authors of the acceptance or rejection of their proposal

15 November 2020: article deadline. Articles can be submitted in French or English.

For more information on the format of the articles to be submitted, see


Akyeampong E., « Drink, Power, and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, c.1800 to Recent Times », London, James Currey, 1996.

Akyeampong, E. “Diaspora and Drug Trafficking in West Africa: A Case Study of Ghana.” African Affairs 104 (416), 2005, pp. 429–447. Allen C., “Africa and the Drugs Trade.” Review of African Political Economy, 26 (79), 1999, pp. 5–11.

Carrier, N. Kenyan Khat, Leiden, Brill. 2009.

Carrier N., & Klantschnig G., « Quasilegality: khat, cannabis and Africa’s drug laws ». Third World Quarterly, 39 (2), 2018, pp. 350-365.

Anderson D., Carrier N., « Khat in Colonial Kenya: A History of Prohibition and Control ». Journal of African History, 50, 2009, pp. 377–397.

Bayart, J-F., Ellis S., Hibou B., La criminalisation de l’Etat en Afrique, Bruxelles, Complexe, 1997.

Bordes P., Labrousse A., « Économie de la drogue et réseaux de corruption au Maroc », Politique africaine, vol. 93, no. 1, 2004, pp. 63-81.

Chabal P., Green T., Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”, Hurst & Company, 2016.

Chouvy P-A., « The myth of the narco-state », Space and Polity, 20 (1), 2016, pp. 26-38.

Cohen C., « Development of the Brazilian Drug Market Toward Africa: Myths, Evidence and Theoretical Questions ». Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 1 (2), 2019, pp.134–144

Duvall, C. S. « Drug laws, bioprospecting and the agricultural heritage of Cannabis in Africa », Space and Polity, 20 (1), 2016, pp. 10-25.

Ellis S., “West Africa’s International Drug Trade.” African Affairs, 108 (431), 2009, pp. 171– 196.

Felbab-Brown, V. « The West African Drug Trade in Context of the Region’s Illicit Economies and Poor Governance, Conference on Drug Trafficking in West Africa », Brookings Institution, 2010.

Klantschnig G., « Les politiques de contrôle des stupéfiants au Nigeria : centralisation, répression et insécurité », Politique africaine, n° 128, 2012, pp. 53-75.

Klantschnig G., Dimova M., Cross H., « Africa and the drugs trade revisited », Review of African Political Economy, 43 (148), 2016, pp. 167-173.

Klein, A., “Drug Problem or Medicrime? Distribution and Use of Falsified Tramadol Medication in Egypt and West Africa. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 1 (1), 2019, pp.52–62

Lesourd C., Puissance Khat, vie politique d’une plante stimulante. Presses universitaires de France, Paris 2019.

McCoy, A. W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA complicity in the global drug trade, Chicago, Lawrence Hill Books, 1991.

McGuire P., « Narcotics Trafficking in West Africa: A Governance Challenge », The Pardee Papers, Boston University, No. 9, March 2010.

Monnier L., Jewsiewicki B. J, De Villers G., (eds.) « Chasse au Diamant au Congo/Zaïre », Cahiers africains, L’Harmattan, n° 45-46, 2001.

Olivier De Sardan J-P., « A moral economy of corruption in Africa? » The Journal of Modern African Studies, 37 (1), 1999, pp. 25-52. Sindzingre, A. « Economie illégale et drogues en Afrique sub-saharienne : crédibilité des Etats et réformes économiques », CEMOTI, n°32, 2001, pp. 117-138

Syvertsen JL., Ohaga S., Agot K., Dimova M., Guise A., Rhodes T., Wagner KD., « An ethnographic exploration of drug markets in Kisumu, Kenya”, The International journal on drug policy, 30, 2016, pp. 82-90.

Scott J., The moral economy of the peasant: Rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1976.

Thoumi F., « The Numbers Game: Let’s All Guess the Size of the Illegal Drug Industry ». Journal of Drug Issues, 35, 2005, pp. 185–200.

UNODC Annual report 2006

UNODC Annual report 2008

UNODC Annual report 2017

UNODC Annual report 2018

Vigh H., « Caring through crime: Ethical ambivalence and the cocaine trade in Bissau ». Africa, 87 (3), 2017, pp. 479-495.

Willis J., Potent Brews: A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa, 1850–1999, London, James Currey, 2002

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