Seeing patterns, from Colombia to Cape Town

Africa and the War on DrugsFor those who have been wondering what the truth is behind the media sensationalism about global cartels establishing Africa as their new theater of operations, Africa and the War on Drugs  by Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig (Zed Books, London, 2012) clears the air in a welcome way.

The authors, a pair of British academics, portray a strategy by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to hype the threat and replicate the hardline policies pursued in Latin America and elsewhere on the African continent. Drug trafficking has definitely been growing in Africa in recent years—ironically, the authors argue, as a result of "successes" in Latin America. As the old cartels and their smuggling routes were broken up, new more fragmented networks have sought new routes and markets. This conveniently coincided with South Africa's reintegration to the world economy after the end of apartheid, and more generally with Africa's globalization.

But Africa has been a market and transit point for psychoactive substances for centuries. In an overview of such substances used on the continent, the authors first note the legal and traditional—like kola and betel nut. Long before Coca-Cola got in on the act,  these mildly stimulating nuts were traded along caravan routes from West Africa across the continent as far as Sudan. The authors also include coffee in this category, noting its ritual use by the Oromo people of Ethiopia.

Also traditional but falling into a "quasi-legal" category is the leaf khat, chewed socially throughout East Africa—legally in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, Yemen and Somalia (to the extent that there are any laws there at all); illegally in Tanzania and Eritrea. It is a traditional crop of the Meru people of Kenya’s Nyambene region, and is also grown in the Ethiopian highlands and the northern hills of Yemen. It is legally exported to consuming countries not only in Africa but also Europe—including the UK, where it consumed by East African immigrants. (It's illegal in the US, you might have guessed.)

Even these traditional substances are touched by the debate over the social effects of "drugs" (a term which is itself politicized, the authors say). The Western media have sensationalized about khat-crazed Somali gunmen and warlords, but ritual chewing may serve as a social glue in those parts of the country where localities have built islands of peace amid the chaos (chiefly the autonomous Somaliland region in the north).

Equally traditional but falling into the illegal category (thanks to the Single Convention) is, of course, cannabis. First introduced to East Africa by Arab traders over 500 years ago, it had spread across the continent by the time Europeans arrived. Nineteenth century explorers in Central Africa noted a "charismatic movement" of the Bashilange  people called Bene Diamba—Children of Hemp—centered around ceremonial cannabis use. (Diamba and its variant jamba remain popular slang for the herb nearly across the continent today.) Another tantalizing exponent of Africa's indigenous cannabis culture still survives today: the Baye Faal brotherhood of Senegal, which seems a sort of Sufi-Rasta hybrid—dreadlocked mystical Muslims who smoke out to reggae beats.

Cannabis was in the herbal pharmacopeia of traditional healers for centuries, but recreational use exploded under the influence of Afro-pop stars like Nigeria's Fela Kuti in the 1970s. Today, African strains like Durban Poison and Malawi Gold are sought after by growers worldwide, and cultivation has proliferated.

Kenya is a top producer, and cannabis-growing has been blamed for deforestation in the once-verdant Mount Kenya area. But it is the crop's illegality that forces growers deeper into the forest.

The authors see the explosion of the drug economy "as a consequence rather than cause of poverty and ecological decline." Under "structural adjustment" policies mandated by Western banks and governments, price supports for legal crops have dried up, as well as state subsidy of domestic industries that provided employment.  Cannabis has emerged as a “compensation crop.” In the landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho, cannabis has become the economic mainstay since the job market in neighboring South Africa contracted. The law simply goes unenforced in remote Lesotho, under a "de facto decriminalization."

Some of the other illegal drugs that have filled the economic vacuum are, of course, a lot uglier. In addition to cocaine and heroin are mandrax, an anti-malaria drug now used recreationally, and industrial chemicals used for adulterating majat (low-grade cannabis). Methamphetamine (locally known as tik) is widespread, South African smugglers swapping for the precursor chemicals with black-market abalone in a healthy trade with the Chinese Triads. Such activities have resulted in waves of gangland violence in the poor districts of South Africa's Cape Flats and Kenya's Coast province.

This makes good propaganda for UNODC's campaign. But contrary to media portrayals of new African drug "barons," the authors find that the trade is still  dominated by small-scale "freelancers," not cartels. And while cocaine seizures have jumped dramatically in Africa over the past decade, the continent still accounts for well less than one percent of total global seizures. (South America still reigns supreme at over 60%.)

While little Guinea-Bissau, with its notoriously corrupt authorities, is demonized as Africa's first "narco state," Nigeria has gone furthest towards the harsh enforcement model favored by the UNODC and United States. This model is now being exported through such regional programs as the West Africa Initiative and West African Joint Operations.

There are some signs of movement in the other direction. A cannabis decrim bill was introduced in Rwanda in 2010, and such proposals are at least widely discussed in South Africa. Even a recent UNODC report generously admitted the "unintended consequences" of the enforcement model, including a "lucrative black market" and "violence and corruption." (No, ya think?)

The authors sometimes seem a little naive about the very propaganda they are critiquing. They note without voicing skepticism the unlikely claims of a major role in the African drug trade for al-Qaeda and Colombia's FARC guerillas. Without comment, they site figures of cannabis-related hospital admissions in Nigeria. (Huh?)

To their credit, they don't pretend to provide easy answers—they warn that cannabis decrim could harm rural livelihoods, because prohibition jacks up prices. But they still make a good case that Africa may have more to fear from the "war on drugs" than from illegal drugs themselves.


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