The African connection: The growing drug trade in the continent

Member of the newly trained Emergency Response Unit of the Liberian National Police, after identifying a suspect, conducts a search of his body for drugs and illegal weapons, during patrol downtown. 9/Nov/2008. UN Photo/Christopher Herwig.
Liberian police officer conducts drugs search (© United Nations photo)

Drug addiction is a phenomenon normally associated with the developed world, in particular North America and Europe, and with the producing countries in Asia and South America. Now the drugs cartels are extending their tentacles to the world’s last remaining market: Africa.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 31, 1995


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The African Connection”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

My name is Caroline. I’m 35 years old and I’m a drug addict. I’ve been a drug addict since 1983, that’s now 12 years. I’m on brown sugar or heroin, by any other name. EB: How did you start? Well, actually I went to India for university after my A levels here in Nairobi. After doing about 2 or 3 years, I got introduced by somebody very close to me. I was really very naive. I had no idea what drug I was using. I knew I was on a drug, but I really did not know what it was or the repercussions. By the time I found out what it was, I was already an addict.

Drug addiction is a phenomenon normally associated with the developed world, in particular North America and Europe, and with the producing countries in Asia and South America. Now says Roy Sethna, the regional director of the UNDCP, the United Nations international drugs control programme in Nairobi Kenya, the drugs cartels are extending their tentacles to the world’s last remaining market: Africa.

I think it’s fair to say that the problem is increasing. Traditionally we were concerned about East Africa and East African cities and ports as transit points for drugs going on their way to market from producer countries to user countries. This has changed very dramatically over the past 10 years or so, and in more recent times, you are seeing virtually type of substance that’s available in western Europe and North America being abused and being sold on the streets of cities like Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Lusaka and particularly in South Africa with the recent emergence into the diplomatic and political world.

I didn’t suspect at all because I knew absolutely nothing about drugs. I knew literally that marijuana has smoked, heroin was injected and coke was sniffed. Since we were smoking it, I thought it was a soft drug like marijuana. I had no idea that you could smoke heroin or even coke for that matter. I discovered that much later. EB: What happened to you in India? Did you finish university? Well, the drug abuse prevented me from actually finishing my studies. It was a choice between my life and…you know, life and death. If I had stayed there any longer, I would have died. I tried suicide. Everybody around, my parents, my family, it was decided that it’s simply best if I come back home and patch up my life. So I came back home. I was OK for two years ‘cause I still had no idea that you could get any hard drugs in Nairobi. When I did encounter heroin again in Nairobi, it was like I had never stopped. The two years didn’t exist. I was back where I had stopped in India. It was just inevitable that I was going to use again.

There are no reliable figures about the amount of drugs which make their way to and from the African continent. But the UNDCP’s regional law enforcement adviser for East and southern Africa, George King, says recent seizures in Europe indicate that more and more drugs are transiting through the African continent.

Within the past year, there has been over 100 tonnes of hashish, cannabis resin, seized within western Europe which has come through the ports of eastern and southern Africa. This comes from Pakistan. It comes in transit through the ports of this region, in many cases being interchanged between one container and another container because there is no proper controls carried out or proper examinations of documents to identify suspect consignments. It’s only when it’s discovered in Europe that we find out that the consignment has actually passed through.

It’s not only the soft drugs like hashish and marijuana which bear an African transit stamp. Large quantities of heroin and other hard drugs like cocaine are also passing through the continent. Some drugs consignments arrive through Africa’s harbours, but airports are also becoming major transit points. The United Nations international drugs control programme believes large quantities of heroin are arriving via airports like Addis Abeba in Ethiopia, Lusaka Zambia and Kampala in Uganda. Most of the drugs are carried in passengers’ luggage or ingested by drugs couriers. Once they get into the country, the narcotics are repacked and sent to other destinations, either in Africa or elsewhere. The reason more and more drugs are passing through the continent, says Roy Sethna, is quite simple.

In the early days, when the authorities in North America or Western Europe received passengers or cargo from Africa, they didn’t suspect that it contained narcotic contraband. They would not have expected that this part of the world would be forwarding that type of substance. That was one reason. The other reason is that inherently the controls are so weak at the airports and the harbours and ports in African countries that you can send virtually anything you want via these ports and airports to other countries and disguise the paper trail, disguise the contents of your consignment or disguise the contents of hand baggage and personal luggage of passengers arriving from these destinations and thereby fool the authorities at the receiving end.

The trafficking cartels are not only using Africa to conceal the drugs trail. In recent years, they have also been creating a local market for their product.

Some of the drugs that are passing through are indeed encouraged to remain behind. They are sold at a reasonable price, at a price that people can afford it in these developing countries. The couriers and the traffickers realise that one way of creating a market is to make it affordable. Indeed they are affordable in this part of the world. You have in Nairobi the ability to find virtually any kind of substance that you can find in the streets of New York or London or Amsterdam.

Well, when I found it, I was kind of shocked. I wasn’t expecting it. I really had no idea that I could get it. When I did see it, it was at a very prominent hotel, when I actually saw it, all the hairs on my back stood up, and I knew, I just knew that I was going to use it. EB: Was it difficult to get afterwards? Well, now that I had gotten introduced to it, finding it was no problem because the person who showed it to me introduced me to the people that supplied it. From there it was no problem. Once you know where to get it or once you know somebody who knows how to get it, getting it is no problem at all. EB: Was it expensive? At that time, it wasn’t expensive. In fact, it was relatively cheap. At that time, it was about 400 shillings a gram. EB: About $8. Now, the same weight is actually about 1600, that’s four times. I suppose compared to other countries like Europe and America, it is cheap, but when you consider the cost of living in Nairobi, it’s not cheap.

But then heroin and cocaine aren’t the most widely used drugs. Soft drugs, such as marijuana, have been used for ages in Africa, just as coca leaves are chewed by peasants in Latin America. In Africa, people would use marijuana or hashish during traditional or ritual ceremonies and other occasions or to relax at the end of a hard day on the farm. In East Africa, qat is one of the most popular substances. Qat is chewed and is not a banned drug since the active ingredient is not high enough to fall under international law. But qat use is now so widespread in some countries, says Roy Sethna, that it’s becoming a source of concern.

We do know that it has a debilitating effect not only on the human body and psyche but also on the economy because for one thing the qat chewing phenomenon, for example, in Yemen where we know most about it, every day at 2 o’clock, the whole country comes to a standstill as everybody disappears into their homes to chew qat until 6 p.m. when they re-emerge and start to do their chores and work. Now the cost to the economy of losing four productive hours of the day is enormous. In Somalia, I’m sure that much of the aggression and the clan clashes are to do with qat. They are either a result of the qat, the consequences of the effect of chewing qat for hours on end or as a result of the fight for the market. I know that there are some very prominent people involved in it. Perhaps the best qat anywhere arises from Kenya, I’m told. Plane loads of it is exported to Somalia on a daily basis. I have heard estimates that the daily trade is worth half a million dollars. And so it’s difficult, even through advocacy and advice and talking to ministers to get any action on it. 

It’s not only the rich and powerful who are making money out of the trade. More and more farmers who used to grow a bush or two of marijuana in their backyards are believed to be producing larger quantities to be sold in the cities. The UNDCP fears that growing use of qat, marijuana, hashish, prescription pills and even alcohol could lead to the abuse of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. If all these different substances are included, says Roy Sethna, drug abuse in the continent has become pervasive.

Virtually every element of society is involved in one way or another. It depends on the drugs, substance. From the rural Kenyan or Ugandan or Tanzanian who will abuse cannabis the way it’s been abused for centuries. He will abuse local brews of spirits and beers, which are easily available, and he will graduate to various kinds of psychotropic substances: pills such as Valium, Rohypnal, Mandrax. Mandrax is particularly important in the southern African context where it is perhaps the most abused substance of all.

Many medical experts would dispute whether drinking alcohol, taking soft drugs or popping pills inexorably leads to the use of hard drugs. Carolyn, who has been on the Nairobi drug scene for almost a decade now, says the abuse of hard drugs is increasing even if the numbers still appear relatively small.

When I started using in Nairobi, there was only 2 or 3 people that I knew, but from India, that were using drugs. In total, we must have been 10 to 15 people that were using in Nairobi. The number has grown a lot. Off hand, I would say that there are over 600 people in Nairobi alone that are using heroin. The majority are actually what I would say are criminals. They started a criminal life, and for some reason they gravitated towards using heroin. Many of them are prostitutes and for the same reason, I suppose, they gravitated towards using heroin. You find a few, a minority, who started using heroin and then had to start a life of crime to support their habit, but those are a lot fewer.EB: Are these people injecting the drugs? Are you injecting the drugs? Well, I’m not injecting but there are people who have started injecting a lot in the past year. Initially nobody used to inject – 1, 2 people would inject. But within the past year, the number has surged because, I suppose, they find it a lot more economical to inject and getting a needle and syringe is not really that difficult if you have the money. And it’s not that expensive. It’s 10 shillings. And then as most addicts all over the world, they use their needles and syringes over and over.

And they share their needles, which puts them at risk to get AIDS, a disease which is making major inroads throughout East and southern Africa. Several organisations are conducting research to get a clearer picture of the extent of the use of alcohol and soft and hard drugs in the region. The Kenya Street Children’s organisation completed its first survey some time ago and KESCO’s director, Peter Singatheru, says the poor and the young are at greatest risk.

We find that most of them are in the city and others are free from schools, and others are just looking for employment. But to keep themselves busy, they are thinking of looking for drugs which would be a way or a method of just killing their time. Most of the drugs are being used by a majority of youth. The age between 12 and 25 years are the ones being affected by the drugs and maybe a few elderly people, maybe ?? or maybe using them for other purposes.

The common factor says Roy Sethna is poverty. Unemployment rates in many areas are above 50%, and the poor and the young, who make up more than 50% of the population, are often low priorities in the eyes of the authorities.

For example, in the city of Nairobi, available land is at a premium. Everybody wants to get their hands on a piece of land to put up a building or whatever. This creates a major problem of sports and recreation for the youth, whereas they’d be out there playing football or hockey or soccer or whatever it is that they do, when land is arbitrarily used by the city council or abused by a politician, they seem not to be aware of the problems that it creates for some of these slum dwellers and the youth that have no other place to go. And that’s part of the problem. EB: Is it also because people are trying to escape the horrible reality that they have every day? This is so, yes. Escapism is very much part of it because all of these substances have a psychoactive effect and it creates a different world for the user, and yes, that’s indeed the reason that’s behind it.

But drug abuse is no longer restricted to the slums and poor neighbourhoods. According to Bjorn Fransen also of the UNDCP, drug abuse is slowly spreading to the rest of society.

We know schools that had to close down for one or two days, get all the parents together and the teachers and discuss what can we do about the drug abuse situation in our school. What is really frightening is to see how young people, bright kids are going down the drug route and how much wasted resources that could be used for social and economic development that is now totally destroyed by drug abuse. And with an unemployment rate as high as in Kenya, it’s a very, very volatile situation.

Various organisations, including the UNDCP, are launching major awareness campaigns to try and discourage youths from getting involved in drugs. Commercials, like this one, are broadcast almost every night on Kenyan television. They primarily target the 50% of Kenyans under the age of 15. Non-governmental organisations are going to schools in all the major cities in Kenya to talk to youths about drugs. Care International, with the support of UNDCP, is publishing a comic book called the Pied Crow, which is being distributed in all primary schools in Kenya to inform kids about drugs. However, for these campaigns to be truly effective, says Bjorn Fransen of UNDCP, all of society must be well informed about narcotics.

It’s imperative for a successful anti-drug campaign that the demand for information is coming from the bottom up and not top down. And to create this kind of general awareness of the drug abuse problem, we’re trying in as many different ways as possible to just spread the general idea that drug abuse is a problem, and it’s here and we have to do something. The most famous example in Kenya is our anti-drug pop video that’s been shown on TV almost every day. The first one was called “Get in the driver’s seat”. The message was that you have to be in control of your life. You have to be in the driver’s seat. Don’t let drugs interfere with your own ability to be in charge.

And the second one, this year’s, was “Choose your life”, focusing on young adults, telling them that you have the option either to go the difficult way of saying no to all temptations around you, including drugs, or to go the more easy way at the beginning, that is to follow peer pressure and take drugs and then face the problems later on.

But it’s never easy to beat drug addiction, particularly not in Africa, says Carolyn.

Oh God, I think I’ve been through everything. I have been through electric shock therapy. I’ve had medication for nut heads. I’ve had to go through cold turkey, withdraw with nothing. I’ve used a substitute for heroin that we had here called DF118. You can’t get it very easily now. At that time, you could get it over the counter, no problem. At the same time, trying counselling and everything. But another problem you find with the African societies is that they don’t believe in counselling. So they think that counselling is either for crazies or weak people. If you are tough, you don’t need counselling. You can handle it on your own. So all the counselling I went for actually came to nothing because I didn’t keep it up long enough. I’d start and 3, 6 months later, I’d quit. So it was just a waste. I’d start somewhere else and the same thing happens. So I saw numerous counsellors, and none of them really did anything for me. EB: And you kept coming back to the drugs. I kept going back on the drug. That is the most painful part because I really realised what the drug has been doing to me, and I can see the changes in me, even the mental changes. I can see my memory slipping. I can see all the things that are happening, and yet I’d really love to quit and I still don’t know how to quit. I’ve been on it for 12 years, but I still don’t know how to stop.

Dr. Odongo of the Ministry of Health admits that trying to rehabilitate drug addicts is a major problem that the government is only now beginning to address. In the past, drug addicts were placed in mental hospitals, but they weren’t equipped to deal with drug addiction. In addition, admits Dr. Odongo, there’s a great stigma attached to mental illness and mental institutions in African society.

This has not been successful because most of the time, they relapse. Therefore it is eminent that we require treatment and rehab centres which are specifically for drug addicts. The government is doing something on this and sooner we hope that one or two may come up. The approach that we are trying to take is that we should develop centres which are community centred and they can be supported by the community so that there is that assurance of sustainability.

Because, as with many things in Africa, there simply isn’t enough funding to provide drug rehabilitation programmes. Those who do succeed in kicking the habit still face a difficult future. If they don’t find a job, they’re likely to remain in crime or prostitution and to start taking drugs again. One local non-governmental organisation is now providing alternative employment to some former addicts. The Mobile Youth Programme for Drugs offers tailoring classes to make the addicts self -reliant and create jobs in poor districts. Luango Olo, the group’s programme coordinator, took me to the outskirts of Nairobi where the Mobile Youth Programme for Drugs runs a shop which makes and sells clothes.

The reason why we choose tailoring is an easy course which anybody, even if he doesn’t go to school, he can catch up with the instruction which is being given by the instructor.

Julia is 21. She took the tailoring course two years ago and is now working in this shop. She was a drug addict.

For almost 3 years. EB: Was it difficult to stop? Yes, it was difficult. EB: How did you stop? I was just convinced and then I stopped. EB: Convinced by whom? By these people. There was reasons because i found the life was very much difficult. EB: Did you have a job at the time? No. EB: Is that why you were using bang? Yes. EB: Do you also have children? Yes, I do. EB: How many children? Three. EB: Are you married? Yes. EB: Was your husband also a drug addict? Yes. EB: Is he still using drugs? No. EB: Are you happy with the work that you’re doing now? Very much. EB: Do you earn a rather good living? Yes.

The purpose of starting this shop of showing clothes and table clothes is to promote the drug abuse awareness because those who are doing this work have been involved in drug abuse. In fact, it has really been assisting the youth who have been in drugs. EB: How many drug addicts have you helped in this way? We have 20 of them. We cannot afford to accommodate a big number because no funds and some other facilities. You can see this place is too small to accommodate them. In future, if we can get enough funds, we can make it to be a sort of tailoring school and also hall where we can be counselling for them.

The Mobile Youth Programme for Drugs would like to offer courses in carpentry and shoe-making to former addicts, but this too depends on additional funding. A lack of funds is also hampering efforts to stop the drugs trade. Law enforcement officials are poorly paid and, says George King of the UNDCP, they simply don’t have the necessary training to stop the traffickers.

Within a sea port or an airport, you have to have a knowledge of international trade, of international travelling, movements of people, movements of goods, things like that. The police forces have never really had the ability to deal with this. It’s not their fault. They’ve never had any training in dealing with this, unlike in European countries and in North America where the customs services plays a major part in drug law enforcement. In this part of the world, they play practically no part in drug law enforcement. Their principle job is to collect revenue for the government, and customs revenue in many, many countries constitutes over 50% of the government’s revenue. So until there is a complete policy change by customs services, our attitude is we have to encourage the police to do the customs job.

The UNDCP is now providing training to police forces and customs officials in many African countries like Kenya, and the results are beginning to show. The Kenyan authorities have made several big seizures in recent months, whereas only a year ago, the drugs would have gone through undetected. The UNDCP is also trying to increase the powers of law enforcement authorities by writing modern legislation to ensure that the penalties are harsh enough that the traffickers don’t get off with a slap on the wrist. In addition, it’s providing modern equipment to improve forensic labs and drug identification. These steps go hand in hand with attempts to provide alternative crops to farmers in the producing countries. The challenge which drugs pose to Africa is considerable, says Roy Sethna, the UNDCP’s regional director, but it’s not insurmountable.

 I think the potential exists for drugs to become a serious problem in some countries. I wouldn’t say across the board that there would be a problem everywhere, but certainly in some countries it could become a very serious problem. In South Africa, for example, there has always – even before the present government came into power and have started to work on the problem – there has always been a major problem of alcoholism. This coupled with the abuse of Mandrax and cannabis, which has been enormously popular in that country, is creating the basis for the abuse of heroin, cocaine. LSD has made a huge comeback in South Africa. So, it could be a major problem in that country. It could be a problem in this country, and so we just have to be very watchful and keep reminding people, advocating to the government that policies have to bear this in mind. Otherwise we will have a major problem on our hands.

The problem may not have yet reached alarming proportions, but Bjorn Fransen of the UNDCP says drugs are ravaging communities, which are already having trouble coping.

You know as well as I do just after a couple of days reading the newspapers how many violent crimes are committed every day in this country. Of course, many of them are done under the influence of drugs. I know from working out in several slum areas how the women out there are frustrated by the drug abuse situation. They are trying hard to earn a living, selling vegetables  or something, and then their husbands take the money away and use it for drugs. When they are drugged, the men beat up the women. It’s a very vicious circle.

In a country like Kenya where half the population is under the age of 15, Mr. Gatheru of the Kenyan Street Children’s organisation is particularly concerned about the effects the drugs trade will have on young people.

If we don’t do anything about this, it is quite challenging to this country because we are developing a dangerous group who are supposed to develop and be productive for this nation. But if they are wasted in the drugs, then we shall have no alternative other than to have criminals who can do nothing for this development.

There are many who have died along the way, many, many addicts. I can think of at least 40 that have died since 1990. Maybe they just gave up. They didn’t get their chance. But I hope we don’t have to witness that too much in the future. I really hope that the government with the NGOs and the UNDCP will be able to do something for the addicts. EB: Do you think you’re going to be able to lick this? I honestly have to be able to believe that I am going to lick it because if I thought otherwise I’d give up. So I’m going to lick it.

The African Connection was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Floris van Hoorn. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.