Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Organised crime is on the rise across the Sahel region of West Africa as traffickers target the ancient trading region’s remote desert routes and cities to move drugs, people and illicit goods across borders and to Europe, officials and analysts warn.
In Niger, where earlier this month twelve men with three container trucks loaded with drugs and guns were arrested, President Mamadou Tandja on Monday evening declared that Niger’s army will step up its policing to stop the country being “entrenched” by drug and arms traffickers who he said pose a “real threat” to Niger.
Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso, the amount of drugs intercepted over the last three months is “astounding”, according to Christophe Compaore, coordinator of the Committee Against Illicit Drug Trafficking in Burkina Faso, who warns of an emerging drug transit road in the west and south west of his country.
49 kg of cocaine worth 5 billion CFA (US $10m) was intercepted by Burkina Faso’s authorities on the border with Mali earlier this month.
And in Mali, Gao, a city in the remote north of Mali, has become a well-known grouping point for migrants hoping to take the overland trans-Sahara route to migrate illegally into Europe. Malian officials last month publicised their interception of 46 boys from Cote d’Ivoire being trafficked to Europe, but experts say thousands more get through unhindered.
The Sahara desert and its fringes from Algeria [in the west] to Mali, Niger and Chad, a vast, desert region that today includes the world's most impoverished countries, have been a major trading route since at least 1000BC.
But according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Dakar that trade today means less of the spices, food and cloth than in the old days than modern vices like cigarettes, arms, drugs and humans.
“In recent months, we have found an increased use of Sahelian countries like Mali and Niger for cocaine trafficking,” said Antonio Razzitelli, West Africa director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Dakar.
According to UNODC, traffickers bring drugs to coastal towns including Guinea Conakry, Dakar, and Lome, then travel to inland capitals like Bamako and Ouagadougou, and continue their trip towards Europe, “in order to divert the attention of law enforcement agencies at the arrivals”.
Highlighting the lawlessness of the region, in another area of Niger also close to the Libyan border news reports recently highlighted groups of wealthy Libyans travelling to Niger to hunt wild animals with automatic weapons. A more light-hearted BBC report this month also noted people collecting precious meteorites in Mauritania, shipping them to the United States and selling the rocks using the online marketplace Ebay.
“The frontiers are impossible to be really controlled because they are in the middle of the desert, so certainly, the geography of the place is a challenge to enforcement,” Razzitelli said.
Burkina Faso’s trafficking expert Compaore said: “There is an urgent need for all national bodies against drug trafficking in the sub-region to meet and cooperate well, to stop this scourge and dismantle the networks,” adding that the weak trans-border cooperation between most Sahelian countries and the poor training of officials in the cash-strapped police and customs forces posed further problems.