East African sea-based drug trade undermines democracy

Photo: Jacqueline Cochrane/ISS

The East African coast plays an increasingly significant role in the global heroin trade. Heroin is shipped from Afghanistan via a network of maritime routes stretching along East and Southern Africa.

Known as the ‘southern route’, this trade corridor is increasingly used by drug traffickers as a route for illicit shipment to Western Europe.

Sea routes to East Africa are considerably harder to police, and illegal drug flows via these networks are on the rise. This expansion of the heroin trade has also been driven by the rapid growth of opium production in Afghanistan: resulting in a perfect storm of supply and demand.

A new ENACT research paper analyses how this illicit trade has become embedded in societies along the southern route. The paper was launched at a series of regional seminars in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi on 2 and 3 July.

‘Up to now, much of the focus has been on how heroin shipped along the southern route reaches Europe. This perspective tends to downplay the impact of the trade on transit countries in Africa,’ says Simone Haysom, one of the co-authors of the paper titled The heroin coast: a political economy along the eastern African seaboard.

The East African heroin market is best understood as an integrated regional criminal economy based on the transit of heroin from Afghanistan to the West. Reliant on the protection of political elites, it has been shaped by, and in turn, shapes politics across the region.

The impact is far-reaching and severe. The heroin trade feeds a system of criminal governance in each country along the coast, tying political figures, their parties and prospects for democracy to the illicit economy.

There is also a substantial and growing domestic heroin consumer market. The World Drug Report 2017 found that Africa is currently experiencing the sharpest increase in heroin use globally. This fuels violence and has important public health impacts, which are easily overlooked and not often prioritised.

The ENACT research paper shows how the heroin trade also sustains undemocratic political figures and parties; and makes key ports permeable. Compromised borders and ports further facilitate other forms of transnational organised crime and trafficking.

New policy approaches are urgently called for, and the relationship between politics, business and organised crime must be adequately understood and addressed. This points to a need for innovative research that can fill the gaps in the collection of key data.

A second ENACT research paper, also launched at the seminars, uses media monitoring to help illustrate trends in drug trafficking in East Africa.

By analysing drug-related incidents reported in the media over the past decade, this paper provides insights into the different drug types in circulation across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; the quantities and trafficking methods used; as well as the origin, transit, and destination hubs.

‘Our findings showed interesting patterns not only in the drug trade, but also in the reporting of major harmful drugs in the region,’ says Ciara Aucoin, author of the paper titled Analysing drug trafficking in East Africa: a media-monitoring approach.

‘Media reporting is a key and necessary source of public information, but a number of challenges limit the quantity and quality of coverage on the topic of drug trafficking. This, in turn, limits the pressure that the public can exert on governments to respond to the illicit drug trade.’

If countries along the southern route are serious about tackling the drug trade, there is a need for greater press freedom, training and increased financial support for investigative journalism.

Equally, there is also an urgent need to enhance maritime security in combatting the trafficking of narcotics, people, firearms and other illicit goods. Speaking at the ENACT seminar, ISS senior researcher and maritime expert, Timothy Walker, described how a common, cross-border response is key in disrupting maritime crimes.

‘States are now exploring ways of dealing with these threats in a comprehensive manner. But this is complicated by limitations on the capacity to respond, and significant differences in how states prioritise maritime security,’ said Walker. ‘The creation of a regional maritime security architecture that can tackle all crimes is, for instance, being anchored in international efforts such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct and its Jeddah Amendments.’

The code of conduct brings together an impressive range of Western Indian Ocean states and stakeholders, including the International Maritime Organisation, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the African Union, regional economic communities, European Union and INTERPOL. ‘By examining the new measures being implemented by states and partners, we can begin to discern the most effective way for tackling problems of piracy, drug trafficking and illegal fishing,’ says Walker.


ENACT is funded by the European Union. The project builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime. ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in affiliation with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. For more, visit www.enact.africa.