The SUR file on drugs and human rights

West Africa: a new frontier for drug policies?

Adeolu Ogunrombi

West Africa’s development as a centre for drug trafficking, production and consumption gives governments the opportunity to embark on more enlightened policy responses

Photo by Carlos Reis / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



West Africa is recognised as a trafficking region in the global drug trade. However, increasingly it is also becoming a region of consumption and production. Here the author discusses how the region’s governments typically employ repressive policies in response, despite increasing evidence to show that such policies are not only futile but result in gross human rights violations.


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This article explores why West Africa has traditionally been used as a drug trafficking route and how it is increasingly becoming a region for consumption and production. This is despite the continued use by West African governments of the repressive policies perpetuated by the concept of the “war on drugs.” The article attempts to explain the continued reliance on these policies by examining both the international and local context. Finally, the disastrous impact that these policies have on human rights in the region is highlighted by focusing on the situation in Nigeria and Ghana.

The trafficking of illicit drugs through West Africa has continued to grow in volume over the past decades, mainly from the Latin American countries to the thriving European and North American markets. 11. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Drug consumption and trafficking in West Africa: Local impact and international implications,” March 21, 2014, accessed July, 2015, This growing market is estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually 22. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa: A Threat Assessment (Vienna: UNODC, 2013), accessed July, 2015, and there seems to be no sign of it abating.

The choice of West Africa by traffickers has been attributed to a number of factors such as its geographic vulnerability in terms of easy access and weak intra and inter-state surveillance systems. 33. Kwesi Aning and John Pokoo, “Drug Trafficking and Threats to National and Regional Security in West Africa,” West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) Background paper 2013, accessed July, 2015, Other factors include international counter-narcotics measures driving away traffickers from their usual routes such as direct shipment from Latin America to European countries 44. Mikael Wiggel and Mauricio Romereo, “Transatlantic Drug Trade, Europe, Latin America and the Need to Strenghten Anti-Narcotics Cooperation,” Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) Breifing Paper, June 2013. to a less resistant route such as through West Africa, 55. Liana S. Wyler and Nicolas Cook, “Illegal Drug Trade in Africa: Trends and US Policy”, Congressional Research Services, 2009, accessed July, 2015, coupled with the availability and willingness of local collaborators. This growing challenge has also brought the enormous responsibility of how to address the issue. Many of the governments in the region have adopted the populist ideology of “war on drugs.”

“The EU and the US have also played a major role in influencing drug policy direction within the region”

The ease with which this policy is adopted can be explained by various factors. Firstly, there is the prevailing societal perception that drugs are a social evil and governments need to do everything possible to eradicate them. This is reflected in the mission statement of some of the drug control agencies in the region. A typical example is the Nigeria Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) which has a mission statement promising to “deploy all resources at its disposal for the total eradication of illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances; suppression of demand for illicit drugs and other substances of abuse…” 66. Mission Statement,” National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), accessed July, 2015, During a public ceremonial burning of approximately 86,000 kg of seized cannabis in 2014, the chairman of the NDLEA said “it gladdens my heart that we are gathered here today to destroy what destroys lives and destinies.” 77. Emeka Ibereme, “NDLEA destroys N619M Illicit drug in AKure,” Newswatch Times, April 30, 2014, accessed July, 2015,

In addition, the European Union (EU) and the US have also played a major role in influencing drug policy direction within the region with a strong focus on interdiction, arrest and the criminal justice system. This influence can be seen by analysing the thematic focus of financial aid given to many African countries for counter-narcotics measures. Axel Klein (2014) in his paper titled “When Agendas Collide: Combating Drugs and Organised Crimes in West Africa” explicitly mentioned, for example, that much of the collaboration between the EU and West Africa in tackling cocaine trafficking is funded as development cooperation but directed at transnational organised crime operating in West Africa and that this approach equally reflects the external security policy of the EU. 88. Axel Klein, “When agendas collide: Combating drugs and organized crime in West Africa,” Global Drug Policy Observatory, Policy brief 4, June 2014, accessed July, 2015, After many years pursuing this policy approach it is obvious that it has not yielded the desired result. Rather, the policy’s collateral damage of gross human rights violations such as mass incarceration and torturing of drug users, which are going unreported and unchecked, are of particular concern. It is therefore not an overstatement to say that these foreign-motivated drug policies have empowered the more corrupt and inhumane tendencies of law enforcement officers within the region. Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantshnig (2012) in their book “Africa and The War on Drugs” succinctly put it that the war on drugs in Africa has been counterproductive, just as it is in many other regions because it “sidelines discussions on human rights in drug policy, the provision of drug treatment facilities and a focus on more pressing drug issues for Africans.”99. Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantshnig, Africa and the war on drugs (London: Zed, 2012). Latin America shares considerable economic and development attributes with West Africa1010. Andrés Solimano, “The Challenge of African Development: A view from Latin America,” Africa in The World Economy - The National, Regional and International Challenges, ed. Jan Joost Teunissen and Age Akkerman (The Netherlands: Fondad, the Hague, 2005), 46–50, accessed July, 2015, and has experienced devastating consequences of the war on drugs, for example high levels of violence and use of herbicides that are toxic to humans.1111. Helen Redmond, “Drug War Devastation in Latin America,”, International Socialist Organisation, May 31, 2012, accessed July, 2015, It thus provides a good example for West Africa on how not to approach the drug challenge.1212. David Bewley-Taylor, “Why is West Africa Repeating the Failures of the Latin American Drug War?” Open Society Foundation, Voices, January 28, 2014. accessed July, 2015, West Africa cannot afford to be the “new frontline of the failed war on drugs.”1313. “Declaration of the West Africa Commission on Drugs,” The Kofi Annan Foundation, June 2014, accessed July, 2015,


Confronting the realities: from transit to consumption

With the growing threats of drug trafficking and consumption in West Africa, Kofi Annan, the Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation and Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs in January 2013. The commission is chaired by the former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, and consists of other West Africans drawn from civil society, the judiciary, the health and security sector and politics. The principal objectives of the commission are to “mobilise public awareness and political commitment around the challenges posed by drug trafficking; develop evidence-based policy recommendations; and promote regional and local capacity and ownership to manage these challenges.” 1414. West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD), webpage: In June 2014, the Commission launched its maiden report “Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa” which highlighted some pertinent realities of the illicit drug trade that are often missing in the usual narratives about narco-trafficking within the region. The report highlighted that the region is no longer just a transit route, as commonly referred, but also a region of consumption.1515. West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD), Not Just in Transit: Drugs, The State and Society in West Africa (WACD, June, 2014), accessed July, 2015, It is also becoming clearer that beyond the cultivation of cannabis in the region, synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine are being produced, not just for trafficking but also for local consumption. This is evident, for example, with the discovery of about six clandestine methamphetamine laboratories in Nigeria within a space of two years between 2011 and 2013.1616. Isidore S. Obot, “Prevalence and pattern of Drug Use in Nigeria” (presentation made at the UNODC/LEA/CSO sensitization workshop, November 12–13, 2014). In terms of consumption, the 2012 World Drug Report (WDR) published by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that there are about 1.6 million cocaine users in West and Central Africa.1717. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2012 (New York: United Nations, June 2012). The 2013 report highlighted that the estimate of opiate users is at par with the global estimate and higher than that of the West and Central Europe.1818. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2013 (New York: United Nations, May 2013). In the same light, the 2015 WDR showed that cannabis users in West and Central Africa is three times higher than that of the global estimate.1919. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2015 (New York: United Nations, May 2015).

These realities, instead of providing a compelling justification towards public health and human rights-centred drug policies, have become a rallying cry for policy makers, both within the region and outside, advocating the war on drugs to respond with more policing and militarisation.2020. Joanne Csete and Constanza Sanchez, “Telling the Story of Drugs in West Africa: The newest frontline in a losing war,” Global Drug Policy Observatory, Policy brief 1, November 2013, accessed July, 2015, With a growing number of opiate users, only one country (Senegal) out of sixteen West African countries has an explicit reference to harm reduction strategies in a national policy document.2121. Katie Stone, ed. The Global State of Harm Reduction 2014 (London: Harm Reduction International, 2014), accessed July, 2015, Consequently, injecting drug users are driven underground where they are at risk of HIV transmission and other blood borne diseases which can be transmitted through sharing of needles and syringes. Furthermore, those who are opiate-dependent and should benefit from potentially life-saving therapy, such as methadone treatment, are denied access by not making such service available. This denial on its own constitutes a violation of the fundamental right to health which most West African countries’ constitutions claim they respect. The pervasiveness of the situation and the harm on drug users is well captured in the words of a 55 year old heroin user in Lagos, Nigeria:

I have been hooked on heroin for many years and in my struggle to be free I have been to many rehabilitation centres which do not work for me. Because of this I have lost my family, could not keep a steady job. How I wish treatment such as methadone is available I know I will be giving a different story today.2222. West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD), Nigeria country visit report, 2014

Photo by Carlos Reis / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Undocumented violations and increasingly repressive drug policies

Globally there is growing evidence to show the failure of the war on drugs and its inability to protect human rights. 2323. The War on Drugs: Undermining Human Rights,” Count the Cost, 50 years of the War on Drugs, 2013. Instead, it has increased violence and human right abuses. The major casualties of this failed approach are people who use drugs. They suffer indiscriminate arrest, torture, denial of access to justice, health and social services, among many other issues. In Africa, there is sparse documented evidence of drug-related human rights abuses caused by policies motivated by the war on drug. In fact, this is confirmed by the available reports which have shown that many human rights violations in Africa go unreported and are rarely documented.2424. 3 Recent Human Rights Issues in Africa,” Amnesty International, St. Louis Blog, March 13, 2013, accessed July, 2015, However, this gap in documented evidence does not in any way indicate that there are few human rights violations against drug users in the region.

It is important to note that the concept of human rights in West Africa and Africa as a whole is yet to fully develop in terms of societal consciousness and available systems for enforcement of rights. Human rights are often considered a western ideology especially when being applied to issues that are considered not to be in tandem with cultural norms and values. Thus, the practice and implementation of human rights within the African context is largely influenced by the African human values which according to Rukooko are considered “incompatible with the Western conception of human rights on account of the Western individualistic basis.”2525. A.B. Rukooko, “Human Values as the Unifying Reference for Human Rights and The African Perspective,” in Ethics, Human Rights and Development In Africa, ed. A.T. Dalfovo et al. (Washington: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2002), Chapter VII, accessed July, 2015, That is, human rights are viewed from a communal perspective rather than what an individual should lay claim on. The implication of this is that the community frames what is acceptable and what is not. For an issue such as drug use which is still within the “moral debate,”2626. Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, “Dispatches: Is Legalizing Drugs 'Immoral'? (And Should that Matter?),” Human Rights Watch, January 3, 2014 accessed July, 2015, the promotion of human rights of drug users in Africa is indeed a huge task. This further explains why the ideology of the war on drugs is considered acceptable and easily implemented in many parts of the region. For example, the Ghana Narcotics Control Commission Bill (2014) is presently being reviewed by parliament. Section 26(2) of the draft bill stipulates that a person who, without lawful excuse, purchases a narcotic drug for personal use commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a term of imprisonment not less than five years and not more than ten years.2727. Ghana, Narcotics Control Commission Bill, 2014, 21–22, accessed July, 2015, The existing law stipulates an imprisonment term of not less than five years.2828. Ghana, Narcotic Drugs (Control, Enforcement and Sanctions) Law - 1990 (PNDCL 236), accessed July, 2015, It is disappointing that such a radical approach is taken despite increasing evidence of the failure of punitive drug policies. Another example is a country like the Gambia, where the minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment for drug trafficking was amended in 2010 to the death penalty for any person found in possession of more than 250 grams of cocaine or heroin in the country. This was later changed to life imprisonment in 2011.2929. “Gambia,” Death Penalty World Wide, Cornell University Law School, September 10, 2012, accessed July, 2015, This reality confirms the manner in which many African governments are continuing to deal with their drug problems.


Lessons from Nigeria and Ghana: a series of violations regarding drug policy

This section will offer examples of how the human rights of drug users are violated, focussing on two major countries in the region, Nigeria and Ghana. The choice of these two countries is because both, especially Nigeria, have considerable hegemonic influence on policy direction within the region.3030. Victor Adetula, “Nigeria’s Rebased Economy and its role in regional and Global Politics,” E-International Relations, October 13, 2014, accessed July, 2015,

Firstly, the use of excessive force and guns by the police and military to arrest drug users is endemic. This action is often taken with the view of ensuring a drug free society. For example, on 17 October 2013, the Modern Ghana – an online media publication – reported how a police officer shot to death a young man who was accused of smoking cannabis with his friend in his neighbourhood.3131. Daily Guide, “Cop Kills Bike Repairer,” Modern Ghana, October 17, 2013, accessed July, 2015, Earlier in the same year in May 2013, another mainstream newspaper in Ghana reported how three police officers killed another young man in an attempt to arrest him for smoking cannabis.3232. Adeolu Ogunrombi, “A community Visit by the West African Commission on Drugs,” Kofi Annan Foundation, May 2013, accessed July, 2015, Situations such as these are not peculiar to Ghana. On the 13 October 2014, the military raided a community known as Dagba in Abuja, Nigeria in an operation aimed at flushing out drug dealers in the community. This led to the killing of two people and injuring many others.3333. Chidinma Eze, “Soldiers raid criminal joint in Abuja, two killed and many injured,” Daily Post, October 13, 2014 accessed July, 2015, More broadly, the 2015 report by YouthRISE Nigeria “We Are People: The Unintended Consequences of the Nigeria Drug Policy on the Human Rights of Young People Who Use Drugs”3434. See: chronicles the experiences of young people who use drugs and who come into contact with drug law enforcement agents.

“Drug users are regarded as not deserving of any empathy, compassion, support or dignity”

Secondly, the police and drug enforcement agents often use the strength of the law against drugs to intimidate individuals. The 2010 human rights report on Ghana by the US Department of State reported the case of two police officers and three soldiers who were arrested for extorting money from two men whom they falsely accused of drug offences.3535. US Department of States, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, “2010 Human Rights Report: Ghana,” April 8, 2011, accessed July, 2015,  In Nigeria, there are reports suggesting police officers often go out to arrest female drug users in order to have sex with them or require them to perform sexual favours to negotiate their release. In a documented case, a young woman gave an account of how a police officer continuously sexually molested her and some of her friends after they were caught using narcotics. In her narrative, the policeman often threatened her with arrest if she refused to satisfy his sexual desires:

The man [policeman] often comes after me and my friends. He knows where I am staying and where we hangout. He will threaten me with arrest, collect money from me and still sleep with me…3636. Adeolu Ogunrombi, preliminary report of in-depth interview with female drug users in Nigeria, 2014 (on file with the author).   

Thirdly, other cases of human rights abuse include the inhumane conditions that drug users are subjected to in treatment and rehabilitation centres. Some rehabilitation centres in the region operate based on the ideology that the more severe the punishment the faster the person recovers.3737. We Are People: The Unintended Consequences of the Nigeria Drug Law and Policy on the Health and Human Rights of Young People Who Use Drugs (London: Youth RISE, CISHRWIN, OSIWA, January 2015), 20–22, accessed July, 2015, They are therefore synonymous to a “house of torture” and are rarely monitored for human rights violations. Currently there are sparse reports on the experience of drug users within closed-settings in the region but the few available reports suggest a need for a deeper investigation into what drug users experience in treatment, and rehabilitation facilities and in detention and police custody. Human rights abuses against drug users have somewhat been normalised in the society and drug users are regarded as not deserving of any empathy, compassion, support or dignity.3838. Karyn Kaplan, Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy: A guide for Organizations of People Who Use Drugs (New York: Open Society Institute, 2009), accessed July, 2015, To avoid stigma and discrimination, those whose rights are violated rarely make any attempt to report or seek justice. In many cases, the drug users themselves are ignorant of their rights as individuals.

The challenges presented above are not due to lack of human right instruments which exist both at the national and regional level. Nigeria, for instance, has a constitution which includes specific provisions protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.3939. Nigeria, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, Section 33-44. In particular, the Bill of Rights contained in Chapter IV of the Constitution (Articles 33-46) provides for the right to life; the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and, the right to an effective remedy and redress in instances where these rights have been violated. The country is also a signatory to various human rights instruments which include the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.4040. Henrietta Jumai Danuk, Desk Review on Legislations on Human Rights Provision in Nigeria, 2014. In 1995, Nigeria established the National Human Rights Commission for the promotion and protection of Human Rights.4141. National Human Rights Commission, webpage: A similar institution, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, also exists in Ghana and was established in 1993.4242. Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, Ghana, webpage: These institutions provide a platform to engage with the government to ensure holistic and inclusive actions that promote and protect the human rights of drug users.



The war on drugs in West Africa and Africa as a whole has indeed undermined human rights with so many violations going unreported and unchecked. This challenge is huge but surmountable. Africa in the 21st century must advance the human rights concept and consider it central in developing appropriate policy responses to the drug challenge facing the region. Some critical steps that need to be taken include a general public enlightenment or education on what human rights are and the need for them to be protected irrespective of who is involved. Specifically, drug users need to be well educated on their rights and how to protect them. However, it will also be necessary for countries in the region to establish and strengthen human rights institutions that are independent and empowered to carry out their functions. The ideology of the war on drugs has been counterproductive and West Africa has a lot to learn from Latin American countries such as Mexico including how repressive policies have not only failed to reduce the scale of the drug market but rather created insecurity in communities and a public health crisis. West Africa need not to go in this direction.

Adeolu Ogunrombi - Nigeria

Adeolu Ogunrombi is a commissioner of the West Africa Commission on Drugs. He is also Project Coordinator of YouthRISE Nigeria and West African Countries, an initiative which focuses on advocacy, capacity building and research on drug policy reform with a special focus on young people.

Received in June 2015.

Original in English.