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Security Sector Reform Now!

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Today is one year since the record catch of more than two tons of cocaine was made in the small Gambian village of Bonto on 3rd June 2010 and there are still widespread speculations among people here that part of the catch may be recycled to the market. If anything, the name of the Gambian president came up several times in a host of cocaine-related cases currently being heard in Gambian courts. In fact just weeks before June 3rd one prosecution witness, Silaba Samateh, while being cross-examined by defense lawyer, Borry Touray, was asked if    he had not told another witnessed that President Jammeh had tons of cocaine inside the country and that he was trafficking some of it for the Gambian leader. This at a time when the executive director of the National Drug Enforcement Agency, NDEA,  his deputy and several other top officials were, and are still being tried for selling cocaine exhibits meant for destruction in their custody. So the speculations surrounding the June 3rd were not that far fetched and off the mark after all. And it was not only that.


Nine accused nationals of foreign countries are being tried in court for possession and distribution of the catch but most people have lost interest in the case. This lack of interest is not only because all the accused persons are foreigners, and without any close relatives around, but because most Gambians believe the authorities are not telling them all they know about the case. Many Gambians believe leading members of the government were involved in that particular case. How could a group of foreigners, without any local support structure, risk bringing in over a billion US dollar worth of any illegal substance and stockpiling it in a village just about 45 kilometers outside Banjul? It certainly does not sound sensible that such a group of South Americans, speaking little English and none of the local languages, would get themselves in the business of importing, stockpiling and distributing such huge quantity of cocaine without any support base among the locals, especially those in powerful and influential government positions. Even in neighboring Guinea Bissau where both the linguistic and cultural settings would have been better managed by the South Americans, they needed local support base within the security forces, powerful government circles and influential politicians. The west African sub-region has now being identified as an important hub, transit point and stockpiling warehouse for South American cocaine destined for Europe, but no where have the South American operated without local partners.


As early as 2004 signs of West Africa as new route for the international cocaine trade had been emerging. According to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, UNODC, annual cocaine seizures in Africa as a whole averaged about 0.6 metric tons between 1998 and 2003. This represented only a minute portion of the global seizures of cocaine.

However, since 2004, African seizures have been above 2.5 metric tons, almost five times more than before. In July 2005, the Spanish navy seized over 3 metric tons of cocaine in a Ghanaian ship, representing almost 40% more than the total West African cocaine seizures of the previous year. According to the same UNODC sources in 2006, two seizures in Western Africa, one made in Ghana (1.9 mt) and one Guinea-Bissau (0.6 mt), accounted for 90% of all seizures reported on the continent. Out of the 5.7 tons of cocaine seized in 2007, 99% were reported from Western African countries: 2.4 mt were seized in Senegal in June, almost 1.5 mt were seized in Mauritania between May and August, 0.6 mt in Guinea-Bissau in April, 0.5 mt in Cape Verde in March, 0.4 mt in Benin in August and 0.2 mt in Guinea. Despite the doubling and redoubling of quantities of the narcotic drug seized in the sub-region, many experts suspected this was just the tip of the iceberg. Lack of seizure reports from countries like The Gambia did not necessarily mean the absence of trafficking in these countries, but more likely the deficiency of law enforcement capacities, or worst, complicity of influential government officials.


The growing use of Western Africa as a large cocaine stockpiling location was further confirmed by seizures made by European and Latin American countries of cocaine shipments bound to Africa.


In June 2007, a cocaine trafficking network was dismantled at Brussels airport. The network had been active for about two years, trafficking cocaine from Gambia and Sierra Leone. That same June 2007, Venezuelan authorities seized two and a half tons of cocaine on a private plane that was about to take off for Sierra Leone.


Intensified American war against the cocaine trafficking had forced the South American cartels to shift market to Europe where markets were growing even more lucrative but increased law enforcement successes in the Caribbean and in Europe compelled the cartels to look for alternative routes for the trafficking of the drugs to the European market. Traditionally, South American traffickers smuggled cocaine via Central America and the Caribbean to the United States and across the Atlantic to Europe. But with declining markets and tighter law-enforcement in North America and higher demand and wholesale prices in Western Europe, traffickers sought ways to step up supply to Europeans and found in West Africa a new and safer channel to this fast-growing market. By 2005, Guinea-Bissau had become a hub, and cocaine seizures in the region grew more than twenty times since 2005. Spain is the main entry point of cocaine into Europe and traffickers exploit Spain’s historic and linguistic ties with Latin America, as well as its long coastline. In 2005, Spain’s seizures of 48 metric tons of cocaine accounted for 45 per cent of all cocaine seizures made in Europe, and rose by almost half from 2004 to 2005 after Spanish enforcement agencies intensified their control along the northern coast. According to official Spanish sources up to 70% of Spanish cocaine seizures is made at sea.


Holland is another traditional entry point for cocaine into Europe but by 2005 the authorities there tightened control, enforcing a 100% controls policy on flights from specific Latin American countries. Many believe it is all this that prompted some traffickers to find alternative channels through Africa. The continent’s geographical location made it an attractive staging post from South America to the growing cocaine market in Europe. Drug enforcement authorities believe that most cocaine shipment destined to Europe is transited through Venezuela and Brazil, the South American sub-region closest to West Africa. Incidentally West African countries provide the most permissive working environment for

Drug traffickers due to widespread corruption and poor law enforcement structures. Many countries here have weak states and unstable regimes faced with difficulties of controlling their territories, maintaining law and order and administering justice. The archipelagoes of Guinea Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands alone have hundreds of uninhabited islands where even the semblance of law and order are unknown, providing idyllic setting for all sorts of smugglers. Without such geographic physical features that can provide cover for the narcotic business that both the Cape Verde Islands and Guinea Bissau have, The Gambia’s competitiveness in offering sanctuary for such criminal activities, appeared to lie in the complicity of its authorities, a monolithic support, unmarred by the violent rivalries of the fractious and volatile authorities in Bissau. Many South American drug cartels preferred a safe haven in a country under one-man rule to the contending multiple contending centers of power that obtains in Bissau. With president Jammeh’s totalitarian grip over almost everything, the cartels wish for a predictable local partnership looked more assured in The Gambia than in Bissau where there was fractious tumult within the government system or, say Dakar, where there still are pockets of incorruptible sections in government administration.  


Rumors of President Yahya Jammeh’s involvement in the cocaine business began circulating when Guinea Bissau navy chief, Rear-Admiral Bubo Na Tchuto, fled from alleged coup-plot related house arrest in Bissau to take refuge under the Gambian leader’s protection in Kerr Serigne, just outside Banjul. Since then the rumors of Jammeh’s involvement in the cocaine trade have increased not diminished. Tchuto’s name is among top Bissau-Guineans under US sanctions for alleged involvement in the narcotic business.

Now, a year since the June 3rd cocaine seizure perhaps it is time we bother less about President Jammeh culpability and more on what we should about saving the country from becoming a narco-state by calling for security service sector reform. With the former Inspector General of police in court facing over sixty count charges, among them about twelve of them cocaine-related, a man who shortly before earned the explicit endorsement of President Jammeh; the whole top echelon of the NDEA on the dock for cocaine trafficking, among other things and dozens of other drug cases involvement men in the security services, that sector sure does need urgent reform. In the words of Yahya Jammeh himself, Gambians have lived under a police chief who was possibly an armed robber. We therefore cry, SECURITY SECTOR REFORM NOW!


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