Experts and ministers on drug control, health and population from over 20 African countries met in Cairo, Egypt from 29th July to 2nd August for the 3rd Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Specialized Technical Committee on Health, Population and Drug Control (AU-STC-HPDC).  

As part of the general deliberations, the drug control meeting sought to appraise and review the implementation of the current AU Plan of Action on Drug Control 2013-2017 (which was later extended to 2019), and to adopt its successor, the AU Plan of Action on Drug Control and Crime Prevention (2019-2023).

Among the participants, there were 25 civil society representatives, the highest number of civil society representatives to participate in such a meeting. Through the support of the PITCH project, IDPC, Youth RISE Nigeria and the UNODC Civil Society Team, we were able to bring African civil society delegates to the meeting and facilitate a week of interaction – to ensure that CSOs had the space to engage with each other, and more importantly to take part in the thematic discussions with member states. The first three days were also spent reviewing various documents including the AU Plan of Action and an African Civil Society Common Position on Drugs, as well as looking at the next steps post the 2019 UN Ministerial Declaration that was adopted in March 2019 in Vienna.

In all, we had CSOs from Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, ensuring that most of Africa was represented. Having had the opportunity to comment on an earlier draft of the AU Plan of Action at the SA Drug Policy Week in October 2018, it was fulfilling to see the Plan finally adopted by member states on Friday, 2nd August. It was significant because for the first time, the words ‘harm reduction’ were kept in the document, and more importantly ‘alternatives to punishment’ were also mentioned throughout. There is even mention in the Plan to supporting ‘the local production of controlled substances and plants for scientific and medical use, in line with the international drug conventions’.

Governments within the continent have always made efforts to address the drug situation through the adoption of various methods and strategies over the years. The African Union continues to demonstrate strong commitment to addressing the drug situation in the region by facilitating the availability of a wide range of evidence-based treatment options, including opioid substitution therapy (OST). The new AU Plan of Action also calls for harm reduction services to be made available, which is a great step taken by AU member states. It also includes a commitment to review and collate drug policies across the region and continuous support of the epidemiology network and its research across the region.

Now the hope is that this Plan of Action will pave the way for member states to adopt a different stance away from punitive approaches, which have consistently failed and exacerbated problems related to drug use by creating a system that marginalises already vulnerable communities. The real work begins now, to convince member states to follow the Plan of Action they have ratified by formulating local national drug master plans that will follow the recommendations that have been laid out.

The energy and passion felt during last week in Egypt, being among African civil society representatives who are committed to pushing for drug policy reform, was nothing but amazing. It is safe to say Africa does not have only one voice, it has many. But we are ready to unite to advocate for changes that can and will benefit citizens all over the continent.