The African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control (2013-2017) has continued to provide a solid basis for rethinking drug policy among member states.
This I can further affirm as one of the participants at the continental experts consultation on developing and improving responses to counter drug trafficking and related challenges to human security which took place in Harare from 15-17 October. The meeting proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the majority of member states are beginning to see the failure and inability of repressive policies to cause the desired change. It is usually rare to repeatedly hear law enforcement officers whose primary jurisprudence and interests most often are arrest and interdiction, highlight the need to address the health challenges of drug consumption. Clearly, the impact of drug use on the continent is visible to all. However, despite drug policy positions at the African Union being reasonably progressive, the status quo is still being maintained at the country level where drug control approaches are still dominated through punitive and repressive measures.
Drug trafficking is indeed a threat to development in Africa. It is an organized crime which impacts upon the regions political stability, governance, health and security. The profitability of the trade has also led to the emergence of a political-criminal nexus in which some State parties and political elites are playing an active role. Several reports, including the media, have attempted to reduce drug trafficking in the region especially in the Sahel, West Africa and some East African states to narco-terrorism. Although, terrorist organizations have aided and participated in the trade, it is also important to emphasize that there are state actors whose complicity and active role cannot be ignored. This possibly explains one of the reasons why there are rarely major convictions within the States except outside the region. It has always been, and still is the case that the “big fish” are rarely caught while drug users and the small scale street dealers are the one used to fill the arrest quotas.
Listening to and discussing with some of the law enforcement officers from the member states at the consultation, I drew the following conclusions:
• While there is an acknowledgement that drug policies at the country level are overly focused on supply reduction which has failed to reduce the scale of the trade, the business of law enforcement and the arrest of drug users, in the words of one of the participants ,will continue as long as the laws and policies remain unchanged.
• There are many proposals focusing on aggressive demand reduction, including compulsory treatment for users. This suggestion is a pointer to the fact that it is one thing to acknowledge the health concerns of drug consumption, but it is another thing to respond appropriately. The fact that that member states are increasingly concerned about the health consequences of drug use means there is an urgent need to guide them towards implementing evidence-informed strategies. There is a crucial need to inform key stakeholders that aggressive campaigns and forceful treatment are usually counter-productive.
• Challenging the principle of International Cooperation on drug control within the African region is also an important area that was first raised by Director of Social Affairs in the African Union Commission and on which I responded too. While the support and interventions of International, bilateral and Multi-lateral agencies on drug control in the region is deeply acknowledged and appreciated, it is about time that African governments began to critically ask questions about how much of this support is truly in the interests of the region. For instance, if the UNODC have estimated that about 30% of trafficked drugs through the region are locally consumed, why is it that most funding and capacity building support from international cooperation have focused almost entirely on law enforcement and criminal justice system? African governments in their negotiations for international cooperation should begin to prioritize human development as a basis for drug control. In the same light, the governments should also live up to its responsibility in ensuring the growth and development of its citizens. This is when we can boldly say that Africa is also not a dumping site for failed policies.
In conclusion, the AU plan of action will continue to provide a useful platform for country engagement in the African region and the efforts of independent regional body like the West African Commission on Drugs is expected to provide the catalyst for change at the country level.