The Pardee Papers, No. 9, March 2010

Pardee_Paper #9 coverNarcotics Trafficking in West Africa: A Governance Challenge

By Peter L. McGuire

March 2010 (39 pages)
IBSN 978-0-9825683-3-0
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West Africa is one of the most impoverished, underdeveloped, and instability-prone regions in the world. Many of the nation-states in the region are empirically weak: they lack the capacity to deliver public goods and services to their citizens, do not claim effective control over their territories, are marked by high levels of official corruption and are plagued by political instability and violent conflict. Since 2004, the region has faced an unprecedented surge in illicit narcotics (primarily cocaine) trafficking, raising fears within the international community that foreign (largely South American) trafficking groups would engender escalated corruption and violence across the region. This paper examines the effect that the surge in narcotics trafficking has had on governance and security in the region, paying particular attention to the experience of Guinea-Bissau and neighboring Republic of Guinea (Guinea-Conakry), two West African states that have been particularly affected by the illicit trade. The central argument presented is that narcotics trafficking is only one facet of the overall challenge of state weakness and fragility in the region. The profound weakness of many West African states has enabled foreign trafficking groups to develop West Africa into an entrepôt for cocaine destined for the large and profitable European market, sometimes with the active facilitation of high-level state actors. Thus, simply implementing counter-narcotics initiatives in the region will have a limited impact without a long-term commitment to strengthening state capacity, improving political transparency and accountability, and tackling poverty alleviation and underdevelopment. Without addressing the root issues that allowed for the penetration of trafficking groups into the states of the region in the first place, West Africa will remain susceptible to similar situations in the future, undermining the region’s nascent progress in the realms of governance, security and development.

Peter L. McGuire graduated from Boston University in 2010 with a master’s degree in International Relations, with a certificate in African Studies. His current research interests include armed conflict, political corruption, and state failure in sub-Saharan Africa. Peter wrote “Narcotics Trafficking in West Africa: A Governance Challenge” while he was a 2009 Pardee Center Graduate Summer Fellow.

This paper is part of the Africa 2060 Project, a Pardee Center program of research, publications, and symposia exploring African futures in various aspects related to development on continental and regional scales. For more information, visit