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Johnnie Carson on “African (Drug) Issues”

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Heeere's Johnnie!

In a recent talk on “African Issues” and US policy on those issues, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, chose to conclude by stressing the growing challenge of drug trafficking in Africa.  Having discussed democratization, having covered all of the regional hot spots and having emphasized hot-button topics such as HIV AIDS, malaria, and lagging agricultural production, Carson turned his attention to a topic that he reminded his audience would not have been included on his list of “African problems” a decade or even five years ago.  Addressing a large audience at the African Studies Association meeting in Washington in mid-November, Carson, who has had a long career at State and was formerly Ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda, reminded fellow Africanists that a claimed 40% of illicit drugs interdicted in Europe had passed through West Africa.  What is a major issue for Europe and the USA must therefore become a major issue for Africa.

"Africa Confidential," UNODC

All of the focus on Guinea Bissau as the first African narcostate (a topic that I addressed in an earlier blog post) has tended to distract us—according to Carson—from a much broader and growing pattern of drug trafficking throughout Africa.  Although Guinea Bissau may provide a dramatic tale of high level politicians in the thrall of global drug lords gunning each other down in the ramshackle capital of a marginal state, the drug trade routes run through virtually every West African country and certainly through Sénégal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and especially Nigeria—which has been a nexus of trafficking and drug gangs that spread across five continents through networks that reach across the Indian Ocean as well as the Atlantic.  Unsurprisingly, Carson made the case for US official support for efforts in African countries to combat the trade.  Again unsurprisingly, he talked exclusively about the need to provide moral, material and training support to the USA’s African allies in a global war on drugs.It is safe to say there were many in the audience of his fellow Africanists who were unsympathetic to his emphasis on drugs trafficking.  Some would have challenged the entire drugs war approach. More certainly objected to his implicit occupation of the moral high ground (the USA assisting African states in combatting their drug trades).  Most probably thought the discussion of the drugs trade was a distraction when African countries face far more pressing problems.  More than a few probably suspected he was finding ways to stretch out his remarks to reduce the amount of time for questions.

And when the questions came, they were predictably hostile to a US Africa policy that many Africanists see as an ill-defined perpetuation of failed approaches stretching back into the 1990s and before.  Carson showed little sympathy for any suggestions that the US might bear any responsibility for the very problems he now portrays the USA as helping African countries to resolve.  One brave questioner did bring the discussion back to drugs.  “Was it not the case,” Carson was asked, “that the policies of structural adjustment that were pressed so very aggressively in the 1980s and 1990s had actually created the conditions that made African countries ripe targets for the drugs commerce?  Had not the relentless press for neo-liberal economic solutions led to a systematic weakening of state structures, which were thus themselves vulnerable to the powers of global cartels, and which in the case of military and police forces, will ill-prepared to combat them?”

Asking the Hard Question

Carson at first skirted the question.  But then he paused and made his assessment:  “African leaders,” according to Carson (and this is not a precise quote), “had from independence until 1991 [not the early 1990s, but that precise year] failed to respond to the needs of their citizens.”  That failure (and apparently no outside factors or forces) explained the weakening of African states and thus, it would seem, their vulnerability to the powerful international drugs trade syndicates.

Getting the Stupid Answer

Africanists have not in general paid much attention to drug use and the drug trade, but a panel that took place later on in this year’s conference (co-chaired by me and Gernot Klantschnig) gave us some indication of what an Africanist perspective might look like—a history of drug production, trade, use and control that does not automatically appropriate periodizations and conceptual orders derived from European and North American experience.


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