The former Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), Kofi Anna, has said that governments in West Africa should decriminalize narcotic drugs to avoid wasting scarce resources fighting a war that cannot be won.
Mr Annan’s comments come after a UN report estimated that the cocaine trade through West Africa is worth at least $1.25 billion each year.
The revenue from the drug trade is higher than the combined government budgets of several countries in the West African Region. The region has become an important trans-shipment point between Latin America, which produces the drug, and consumers in the United States and Europe.
Ghana, one of the key transit points, recently dissolved its board in charge of fighting narcotics over suspected complicity of officials, aiding drug cartels in their escape from security checks at the country’s airport.
Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, said the cash-flow from the drug trade threatens to corrode and undermine economic progress and democratic practice in West Africa and that experience has shown that force alone cannot reduce the drug supply or the criminality and corruption that it induces.
“Education, treatment, and decriminalization will serve our societies much more than the continued refusal to see the harmful impact drugs have on the health and well-being of our people. Drug users need help, not punishment. That is why we recommended to treat drug use primarily as a public health issue and to focus on punitive actions towards big-time traffickers and their accomplices, who have mostly remained untouched”, he said.
He also criticized the United States and Europe of not handling the drug problem well, encouraging them to be part of the struggle towards decriminalizing the drugs.
“In the first place it is West African governments and their peoples that have to deal with this crisis. But Europe and the United States, which are the main market for the drugs transiting through our region, must also share the burden. The Ebola crisis, for example, has shown that supporting West Africa’s health infrastructure is in everybody’s interest” Mr Annan said.
Mr Annan admitted that drugs have destroyed many lives, but insisted that the situation where governments place embargos on drugs is causing more harm than good, calling for various interests groups in countries in West Africa to get involve to end the drug problem.
“As I have maintained in the past, drugs may have destroyed many people, but wrong governmental policies have destroyed many more. Let us not repeat this mistake. We cannot expect governments to solve all problems on their own. Civil society must also be closely involved as well as the international community, which cannot leave West Africa alone to tackle this menace. It too must play its part. State institutions, civil societies, and regional organizations must all work together for the maintenance of peace and stability in the region”, he added.
In 2013, the drug problem had become so alarming that Mr Annan convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs, which was chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
In 2012, in Nigeria alone, authorities had seized 200kg of heroin, more than five times the amount recovered the year before; over 8,000 offenders were arrested.
The Commission concluded that the current policies are not only ineffective, but actually detrimental to the efforts being made to contain the threats that drugs pose. It also reported that the drugs were not just in transit in the region, but increasingly available to and consumed by the local populations. The use of cocaine, in one form or another, is on the rise, particularly among young people who are not engaged in any meaningful venture.
Across the whole of West Africa, the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime says that 760kg of cocaine was nabbed in 2013.
So far, West Africa has avoided the large scale drug-related violence that haunts parts of Latin America. But there is a risk that it may eventually follow suit. Across the region, governments are waging a war on drugs but fighting it the wrong way.