Why you should care

The front lines of the war on drugs are always shifting, and now they threaten to undermine East Africa’s progress in governance and economic development.

A column of black smoke rises from the Mombasa horizon. A large vessel goes up in flames and slowly begins to sink — along with the 378-kilogram shipment of heroin hidden inside its diesel tank.

The Kenyan government has blown it up as a demonstration of efforts in the war against drug trafficking, which is on the rise in the region. But as the ship drifts toward the seabed, dozens of others sail along happily up and down the East African coast, bellies laden with dangerous, yet lucrative, cargo.

There is no doubt East Africa is becoming a drug trafficking hub.

 

In recent years, this part of the world has seen an astounding surge in the trafficking of narcotics. West Africa has long been an established trafficking hub, especially for cocaine crossing the Atlantic from South America. But now drugs are coming ashore in countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Increased enforcement efforts account for some of the sharp rise in seizures, but by no means all of it. “There is no doubt East Africa is becoming a drug trafficking hub,” says Hakan Demirbuken, program manager for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

East Africa Drug Hub

East Africa Drug Hub

But the biggest business is the deadliest: heroin.The region’s become a popular transit point for drugs heading to Europe, America, East Asia and South Africa. Traffickers carry cannabis and khat from Pakistan, methamphetamines from India and China, and cocaine from South America, typically smuggled by drug mules in planes.

An Australian warship seized over a ton of heroin worth $268 million from a dhow — a traditional wooden boat.

According to UNODC, more heroin was seized in East Africa between 2010 and 2012 than in the previous 20 years — and more was seized in the first half of 2013 than in the previous two years. An estimated 22 tons of heroin is trafficked through the region yearly, coming mainly from the Makran Coast, which spans Iran and Pakistan.

Earlier this year, an Australian warship seized over a ton of heroin worth $268 million from a dhow — a traditional wooden boat — in Kenyan waters. That’s about the same as all the heroin seized in 11 East African nations between 1990 to 2009, according to the UNODC estimates.

Why the surge? First, there’s the long, unprotected coastline, porous land borders, a tradition of corruption, widespread poverty, limited law enforcement, and poorly staffed sea- and airports. And then traditional drug trafficking routes, both for Europe-bound Afghan heroin through Iran and the Balkans and for cocaine through Western Africa, are under more pressure from law enforcement agencies. Though it’s farther from Europe, East Africa’s lower costs and ease of transportation make the longer journey worthwhile for smugglers.

“It’s called the ‘balloon effect.’ When you squeeze one smuggling route by policing it, it just displaces the hub somewhere else,” explains Neil Carrier, professor at the Oxford’s African Studies Centre and co-author of Africa and the War on Drugs. “The increase of smuggling in East Africa has partly been due to increased vigilance in the Caribbean routes and West Africa.”

Consequences for local populations are already visible. East Africa is now estimated to consume at least 2.5 tons of heroin per year, worth some $160 million.

A lot of brothers are dead because of heroin use.

 

Most African addicts prefer to smoke heroin, known in the streets as brauni or unga, the Swahili word for flour. But in ports like Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, the sight of used syringes littering back alleys has become increasingly common as HIV infection rates rise.

“A lot of brothers are dead because of heroin use. I don’t share needles. Many of those who shared needles got infected with HIV,” says Ali, an addict in Mombasa, as he sits on a sidewalk dissolving the heroin in water and looking for a vein in his hand. “Finding a vein sometimes becomes a problem. I need this fix three or four times a day.”

Drugs are also contributing to an increase in petty crime and corruption, further destabilizing the environment that attracted smugglers in the first place.

Of course, East African governments have vowed to crack down on traffickers, but the region is poorly equipped to fight them. “Those people who get caught are often small-time cannabis users or low-scale drug dealers, while the upper echelons of the organization can get away with these things through corruption,” explains Carrier.

Caring for the growing number of drug-addicted citizens is also a challenge. Tanzania has already taken big steps by launching harm-reduction initiatives, including a national methadone program.

Governments also need to figure out what’s going on. “Without reliable information, we can’t design the right strategies. But data production requires education, training and resources,” Demirbuken points out.

The governments of Kenya and Tanzania have already come together to boost intelligence sharing and possibly put suspected traffickers on trial in local courts. But they are also asking the international community for help.

“All crimes have become transnational, so fighting crime without a regional approach will not assist us. We need to strengthen cooperation in carrying out simultaneous operations,” said Francis Rwego, head of Interpol’s Regional Bureau for East Africa, at the annual conference of the East African Police Chiefs Association.

East African countries have a ways to go before becoming failed “narco-states” like Guinea-Bissau, but without rapid action, that could be the sad future.

This piece was originally published 9/10/14 and was updated as of 11/2/14.

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