African viewpoint: Highs and lows

Ivory Coast drug enforcement gendarmes watch as bags of seized cannabis burns (June, 2009) Some drugs are caught and destroyed but some shipments still get through

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Zimbabwean filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers Africa's drug addiction.

We hear too often that the African continent is the last frontier for business, the great undiscovered cauldron of talent and opportunity.

Start Quote

The developing world faces a looming crisis that would enslave millions to the misery of drug dependence”

End Quote Antonio Maria Costas UNODC

The emerging economies - China, Brazil, India - are all charming us to death.

Our limitless resources are the talk of the industrial world; mobile phone companies are networking every remote village to their grids; our health professionals are in demand far and wide.

But the phrase "drug-trafficking" has been shooting its way to the top of the list of African headlines, with no real follow up or understanding of what this new devil in our midst means.

Increasingly, in any given year on any day or month, an African is caught somewhere on the planet smuggling drugs.

Gone are the days when a hit of marijuana was the height of delinquency, now the world is awash with new mind-altering drugs which erase a man or a woman's sense of purpose, kills their ambition and replaces all moral nuances with deep delusions and reckless selfishness - and that's just the addicts.

For the traffickers, the promise of quick cash returns on a continent synonymous with want and poverty is just too tempting.

A Namibian woman was sentenced to five years by a Lusaka court just the other day for swallowing pellets of cocaine and inserting yet more in her body and the Zambian Drug Enforcement Commission says there were more than 370 arrests of women traffickers at Lusaka airport in 2009 but that figure is likely to be eclipsed in 2010.

A dog sniffs for drugs at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport in May in a training exercise (May 2010) South African air crew have been caught smuggling cocaine in recent years

In the Far East - Singapore, Malaysia, China - Africans are facing firing squads and hanging for a few hundred grams of hard drugs found on their person. And while the Zambian authorities fight to have their citizens extradited so they can spend their life in regret and prison, it is a certainty that many Africans are ending their days alone, miles from home, and at the end of a rope in their pursuit of getting rich quick or dying trying.

Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency says the nation is being flooded with drugs coming through her sea ports, citing a container that had come from China laced with hard narcotics for sale on Nigeria's streets.

And then the traffic goes the other way. Several air hostesses from South Africa's national airline have been nabbed at Heathrow.

The Gambian authorities displayed more than two tonnes of cocaine seized in Banjul earlier in the year en route to Europe, and arrested several individuals mainly of South American origin, after the discovery of a haul worth more than $1bn (£640m) on the streets of Western capitals.

Cracking a habit

Even as Guinea-Bissau's President Malam Bacai Sanha pleads with the world that "we are not animals, but human beings who know what they want…" a short history of coups, presidential assassinations, a reputation as a narco-state and the filtering down of new hard drugs to an under-developed population on Bissau's streets all say he protests too much.

Start Quote

I explored the city with a former crack addict who had just celebrated being clean of his addiction for two years”

End Quote

The scourge of drugs has arrived and it is difficult to see how, with his country's resources, he intends to stem it. Mr Sanha has requested 600 troops to help keep the peace from current Ecowas chairman and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, but surely he will need more than that?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime periodically dispatch their spokesmen to warn us of the biggest threat to African societies in the 21st Century, and its Executive Chairman, Antonio Maria Costas, will sometimes leave his Geneva headquarters to be photographed with the latest haul of drugs in Liberia or Senegal.

In his 2010 Drugs Report he warned of a far more insidious war lurking in the shadows - the threat of drug addiction itself increasing to levels we have not seen before.

"The developing world faces a looming crisis that would enslave millions to the misery of drug dependence," he said, and claimed there is a serious lack of drug treatment facilities around the world, where the rich can afford to be weaned off their dependency whereas the poor cannot.

And so in Johannesburg the other week as I explored the city with a former crack addict who had just celebrated being clean of his addiction for two years, I visited an addiction centre with my host and marvelled at its pristine cleanliness.

The walls were adorned with brass plaques featuring the names of clinical psychologists, behavioural scientists, doctors - and the 40 young men and women sitting in a circle talking of their fight with drugs had paid 55,000 rand per person (about $7,500, £5,000) for the privilege of two weeks of detoxification and soul searching.

Teenagers loyal to the Liberian army smoke marijuana in Monrovia in July 2003 Teenage fighters in Africa's war zones often become addicts

And should such rehab centres sprout in Bissau or Freetown or Monrovia, as they have in Johannesburg, who could afford them?

My host drove me around the streets of Hillbrow and pointed to former crack dens where young men like himself often left their passports, their shoes, their car keys, so desperate were they for another hit on a crack pipe.

Start Quote

Will it be enough for them to utter sanctimoniously that these new drugs are "un-African" as they do with homosexuality and women in trousers?”

End Quote

Once, in Zanzibar, young men hooked on heroin told me they would gladly follow anyone who could take them away from their habit, even al-Qaeda, and that seemed an ominous admission.

In Cape Town, a mother strangled her own son because his dependency on methamphetamine, known in South Africa as "tik", threatened to end her own life.

And so a generation of presidents, whose biggest fear was once that their young people would follow too closely the likes of Bob Marley singing "I need kaya [marijuana] now", must surely see far more serious problems as Namibian women are jailed, Nigerians are hanged in Singapore and the whole 50-year-old fabric of our independence is faced with an illness of the mind never seen by generations of our forefathers.

And being so schooled on missionary sentiment, what will they make of the 21st Century kids desperate to join a popular culture that includes synthetic drugs?

Will it be enough for them to utter sanctimoniously that these new drugs are "un-African" as they do with homosexuality and women in trousers?

No risk, no rewards?

Then again, it could all be about commerce - supply and demand.

It is as if there is a no-man's land of moral ambiguity in which risk is everything - no risk, no rewards.

Business, as Africa has learned the hard way over many centuries, is an entity of shifting morality.

When the West wanted slaves, we delivered and sold our own kith and kin.

When they wanted gold, we perished in the bowels of the earth and enriched them not us.

When they wanted diamonds, wars raged and models were given dirty pebbles and not much came our way.

And now, reasons the drug-trafficker, they want drugs - so why can't we make a profit?

The trafficker sees a gap in the market, and heads to the source of the narcotics to supply the demand.

The governments, knowing how easily assistance will flow from Washington, will display the odd tonne as a show of commitment in the war against drugs and let another couple of tonnes through so everyone can get paid.

The rehab centres, seeing the rising human fall-out of addiction, will set up more and more centres to serve a need and turn a profit.

Meanwhile, it is the poor addicts in the African streets, their minds unhinged, who may well kill for their next fix in a neighbourhood near you.

Thank you for your comments. A selection of them are published below.

In response to Malcolm's comments; taking drugs affects more than just the drug user - it affects the neighborhood, community and even an entire nation. Some drugs can be taken off the list of banned drugs, but not all drugs. And even then, access and prices must be regulated to ensure that society is safe from drug abuse. If cocaine was legalised and deregulated, it could lead to an epidemic of mental disease and a proliferation of orphaned children.

Kibet, Oxford, UK

Farai, is Africa the first continent that comes to your mind when talk of drug abuse?

Henry Ajenu,

Youth addiction to drugs can be examined in the context of the absence of sound parental values for children, access to peddlers, and the increasing erosion of family structures due to strife and other factors. African states do not need assistance to deal with drug addiction problems. Farai's clarion call is timely, because a way to kill a nation is to destroy its future leaders.

Eze Monye, US

Do the custom and police officers really report such cases when they seize drugs? I visited a village one time and a young man was caught with some marijuana. A security personnel was called and all he did was collect the marijuana from the man and he didn't say anything about it. If such people are to help reduce drug addiction, how is it going to work out? If proper attention is not paid on this drug issue, a time will come that we will end up having more than 50% of our young energetic youth on our streets. And at the end of it all, we will even say that such individuals have been "bewitched".

Elizabeth, Accra, Ghana

Very interesting article, I think it's a measure of the traffickers' desperation that the reward outweighs the risk. An end to prohibition would of course curb the phenomenon of ordinary, impoverished Africans smuggling drugs into Europe for a small cash payment; but even with a mass legalisation of drugs, I believe there would always be a criminal element involved. It would appear to me that the issue of drug addiction amongst Africans must be one that applies to the middle class urban areas of the larger African towns. It is fair to say that those Africans faced with extreme poverty are unable to afford adequate clothing and food for their families, let alone a hit of crack or meth. The current approach to the war on drugs is not working; that much is clear. With this in mind, something else must be done in order to counter drug addiction, surely it can't get much worse?

Sam, London, UK

My heart cringes at our repeated errors, never learning from our past mistakes. I don't know about legalising drugs. If the prices aren't competitive for an addicts' pockets they'll still purchase the drugs from the black market and the use of drug mules and poor slave farmers in South America won't stop - it'll get worse to ensure the drug gangs make a profit. Besides, as we know well, even legalising drugs won't mean Africa will get the genuine product. We'll get cast-offs of quality inspections that companies sold off to dubious buyers to sell to African markets.

Tuiweni, Lilongwe, Malawi

Because Drug cartels will always have an endless supply of ready cash for wages, bribery and equipment, no amount of tax money, police powers, weaponry, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safe again. Only an end to prohibition can do that. How much longer are we willing to foolishly risk our own survival by continuing to ignore the obvious, historically confirmed solution? Why on earth does anyone think it's acceptable to want to control certain behaviors, such as the bedroom habits or choice of poison of fully grown adults? Isn't it high time we evolved enough to get past this? Debating whether a particular drug is harmless or not is missing the whole point. Are drugs dangerous? I simply don't care. If another adult wants to destroy their lives with drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, heroin or meth that's their business, not anybody else's. Their lives aren't ours to direct.

Malcolm, Swansea, UK

The reason Africa has a problem with drugs is because of poverty. I believe depression and social discomfort has to do with why people take drugs but even so, the problem with drug abuse in Africa is not as bad as it is in the UK and America.

Eayiya, London, UK

Farai, thanks for the article. You have touched on some of the stories I have read and heard on the news... from the seizure of drugs in Gambia to the imprisonment and execution of some Nigerians in Asia. The sad reality is that until it becomes an epidemic, not a lot of African countries will not do anything about drug related issues. This will no doubt compound the already bad economic problems Africa is facing. Apart from South Africa, I don't know of any other African country that has detox facilities. It's only the rich who can afford it.

Omorodion, Boston, US

Some people are more genetically inclined to crave drugs and their 'hit' than others (two of my cousins also died of drug overdoses). A percentage then go on to become lifelong addicts. Like alcoholism, it then becomes a disease, with everything - self respect, work, family relationships - subsumed in search of cash for the next hit. Addiction affects ALL of society: medical costs, crime in inner cities, family breakdowns, car crashes. I, for one, would like to see many more detox facilities, to wean people off. And yes, they need to be affordable! But then, the recovering addicts often needs to get away from their neighbourhoods because their former 'friends' want to see them back on the habit again. It's a complex problem. I have many friends in Ethiopia and South Africa. Quat (or chat), the narcotic leaves, are openly sold in street markets in large Ethiopian cities, and it's exported to other countries, especially the Middle East and latterly, the UK where it can often be found in African and Middle East stores. With advances in medical science, I hope some day there will be a widely available, low cost genetic testing for addiction, so that young teenagers can be forewarned of their likelihood to become addicts. We brought up our son to be aware of the dangers of drugs and the addiction gene, and consequently he avoids them (although he did experiment with marijuana). There's nothing like suicide or overdoses to teach life lessons - unfortunately.

Annette, Buckingham, UK

I REALLY ENJOYED THE ARTICLE HOWEVER THE RICH RESOURCES THAT AFRICA HAS IS TRULY A CURSE FOR THE NATIVES. i WAIT FOR THE DAY WHEN JEHOVAH WILL RUIN THOSE WHO ARE RUINING THE EARTH FOR THE MONETARY BENIFIT OF THE WEST AND EUROPE.

EBONY, USA

I believe the writer is mixing up 2 complex problems..Drug trafficking and drug addiction Class A drugs i.e cocaine and heroine have to be transported from South America to Europe and other high consumption countries and that's where the drug mules from Africa come in. In countries where 60% of the population live on less than a dollar a day, offering someone 20,000 dollars for a one off risk is always going to be worth the risk to some people. Nigeria even introduced the bar beach show during the Buhari/Idiagbon regime..the shooting to death of drug mules on one of the most popular beaches in Lagos. Until the governments of EU countries change their laws, their citizens will continue to require illegal substances which will be supplied through illegal meanns. The 'drug' of choice for most Africans however is Cannabis, which, is totally different to the cannabis sold in UK and other European countries. This should be legalised. Heroin and Cocaine are drugs more in use in South Africa which has a higher income than its African counterparts. Their is a generational gap between the government and the governed in Africa, so, the powers that be are not yet aware about how widespread the problem is.

Funbee, London,Nigeria

I think the article was interesting but, you know for example that Mexico is now struggling with drug trafficking and it has led to a unimaginable violence throughout the country, and this efforts on making drugs disappear will not have any effects unless the US authorities just begin to do something to struggle with it along with Mexican authorities. I think that's also how African and European authorities must work together and make this problem disappear.

Carlos Franco, Pachuca, Mexico

I agree with a number of comments here that legalization might actually help in alleviating the problem. The legalization of illegal substances however needs to be gradual, well regulated and controlled e.g. the way it's been done in the Netherlands. That said, the bigger picture here is that of poverty and the need for economic emancipation. African governments need to step up their ability to profit from natural resources, develop skilled manpower and manage their economies much better. I for one will be engaging in an entrepreneurial venture in Africa in the next year and I can attest to the fact that the biggest hurdle has been government corruption and interference. Things need to change and change rapidly.

Sura Mbaya, Ukraine

The war against Drugs is a tough one but if all our leaders and their Anti-Drug-Agencies/Commandos were not corrupt I think it would have been possible to cut down the Drug supply by more than 50%. Most African police will let anyone through who "spices his pocket" with just 500-1000$. And that's just nothing for the traffickers. Are we sure the Latin American and US Secret services are not able to locate Drug plantations and labs in South America or South east Asia? Why can these plantations not be destroyed? PS: I think the far way bigger addiction problem in Africa is Alcohol not Drugs.

Fula, Bonn, Germany

I spent the last 2 years in southern Africa and am frightened by the implications the drug trade and addiction has toward STI and HIV incidence and prevalence in the region. As with the alcohol, drug use and addiction will lower sexual inhibitions, make the user/abuser forget the use of condoms leading to an explosion of new STI and HIV infections. Good luck to all involved.

Keri, Honolulu, USA

Drug trafficking, as with many "easy moneymaking schemes" in Africa is a deadly cycle. Due to the amount of corruption within many African countries, Africans are resorting to doing anything for a quick buck. Almost always, it's to benefit their families, not for the greed of themselves. And wouldn't you? For anyone who believes that there are higher drug problems in other countries, take a look at the big picture: Narcotics don't only include expensive drugs such as cocaine and meth. And the category certainly expands past minor ones such as marijuana. What about glue? Paint thinner? These are inexpensive mind alterers which I have seen many an African child give food up for. And that is when it really starts to make an impact. Many of these children come from the streets, and have grown up doing drugs like this. They never even had a chance. And what happens to a nation when all of the children have gone wild?

Ruby, Canada

I'm surprised at some of the comments on this excellent piece. This is a huge issue for the African continent, and should not be swept under the carpet because a) it brings bad publicity to a continent so badly covered by the Western media and b) it makes misguided African patriots uncomfortable. When the realities of the drug century hit African shores, I hope the place does not see the disintegration of urban societies prevalent in American cities nor the bloody gun battles between African law enforcement officers and drug cartels all too common in Mexico. A timely warning.

Sal Faber-Greene, London, England

I think that this is a very interesting article. Having recently visted a childrens charity and speaking to the workers, it is evident that there is a serious problem with drug additction and whilst the charities are doing all they can to work with parents and children in relation to this, they limited because of funding. The poverty is so bad in some parts of Africa, that I imagine for some the drug addiction is a release. There is no infra structure to support people who become mentally unwell because of the drug addiction, no support mechanism that the really poor people can access. I know that in UK there are groups, NHS provide a lot of support, groups and medical intervention as required.

Cherril, Maputo, Mozambique

I for one believe that addiction in and of it self is fuelled by a need to escape. That this addiction "gene" as some have put it is not really a gene and more of a need of some people to escape mental or physical problems generated by past experiences or fears. As long as the majority want to push people and their addictions into the closet and deem their drugs illegal then truly you will continue to see the drug addicts lining the streets scalping everything they own for their next hit. Because to these people who have no help, can afford no help, the only aid they will ever receive is from their addiction. Their escape. If humans can somehow come together and understand that outright prohibition of drugs isn't the answer, that locking meth or heavy drug addicts in prison does nothing for them, they will relapse as soon as they hit the street Drug addicts need medical help and a healthy pro-active environment to have a chance of becoming clean. People need to understand that the addicts aren't just filthy criminals looking to waste their life away, they are human beings just like you or I who had no other escape to their problems. Indeed the true criminals in this case are the people profiting off of their demise.

Justin, New York

This is a very serious issue that must be tackle with vigour. I once visited a certain community where I stayed with my parents as a little boy, only to discover that 80 percent of young people I met there are on drug of all kinds. Only God knows the amount of evil activities going on among those young men to the extent that my elder brother has to warn me to be very careful else they may kidnap me and demand for ransom. Some thing has to be done about drug addiction among African youths. Also in one community where I spent over 1 year in south south Nigeria. You can make a head count of young people who are drug free. Our law enforcement agents are contributors to this menace, because I have seen a lot of them sitting with their uniform sharing drugs with those they suppose to have arrested for drug use.

Wisdom Davidson, Uyo, Nigeria

Yes apart from South Africa, I don't know of any other country in Africa that has detox facilities. It's only the rich who can afford it. Most problems facing an average African are alcohol and marijuana with the government should consider well, I can tell you that 85% of the crime committed everyday in all African nations is marijuana and alcohol. The government should look into this.

Don, Accra, Ghana

Drug trafficking and use affect all humanity in one way or another. However, execution of humans for the fact that they trafficked or use one class of drug or another is inhuman and those governments who are in the habit of doing that should have a rethinking.

George, Indonesia

More on This Story

Letter from Africa

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Africa stories

RSS

Features

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.