Drug trafficking and violence threaten gains in West Africa – UN official

7 July 2009

West Africa’s progress in consolidating stability and security is being jeopardized by coups and organized crime, the top United Nations envoy to the region warned today.

Said Djinnit, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, told the Security Council that West Africa’s determination to “decisively” tackle its problems “have led to an important reduction in the scope and the level of violence across the sub-region.”

He pointed out that “there is currently no open armed conflict going on in West Africa.”

But he cautioned that the progress is fragile, as exemplified by last year’s coup d’état in Mauritania, the continued political and constitutional crisis in Niger and other obstacles – from terrorism to governance to the current global economic crisis.

Mr. Djinnit, briefing the Council on the Secretary-General’s most recent report on the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), said the resurgence of unconstitutional or violent changes in government are “one of the most alarming threats to peace and stability in West Africa,” he said, adding that all recent unconstitutional government changes on the continent – with the exception of Madagascar – have occurred in West Africa.

He also cited drug trafficking as a key security challenge to the area, which has become a hub for cocaine trafficking between Latin America and Europe, with traffickers “taking advantage of the weaknesses of West African States, including porous borders, abundant unemployed youth, widespread corruption and poverty.”

Also addressing today’s open Council meeting, Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said that the volume of drugs passing through the region have dropped.

Some 20 tons of cocaine – worth $1 billion – are still transiting through West Africa annually, and he warned that there is no guarantee the volumes will continue to fall. “Perhaps drug flows have only been temporarily disrupted as criminal groups lie low to minimize risk,” he said.

Recent turmoil in Guinea-Bissau and Guinea has demonstrated that “there are powerful forces with a stake in illicit activity,” Mr. Costa told the 15-member body.

“Change, in the direction of more justice and transparency, is a threat to people with a vested interest in crime,” he said, calling for the reasons for the region’s vulnerability to be tackled to make it less attractive to traffickers.

But the UNODC chief emphasized that drugs are not the only goods being trafficked, with a new agency report showing that West Africa is also a hub for cigarettes, arms, counterfeit medicines and oil, among others.

“All this is in the hands of organized crime which is undermining the rule of law, governance, the environment, human rights and health,” he said, adding that trafficking threatens strides made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs],” eight anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline.

The UNODC report found that in some cases, the value of trafficked goods exceeds the gross domestic product (GDP) of West African nations, which are among the world’s poorest.

The revenue from 45 million counterfeit anti-malarial pills, worth nearly $450 million, is greater than Guinea-Bissau’s GDP, while profits generated by cigarette smuggling, with a $775 million price tag, surpasses the Gambia’s entire GDP.

Meanwhile, the income derived from illegally selling oil or trafficking cocaine, worth $1 billion annually each, rivals the GDPs of Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, the report said.


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