Regional Composition

For the purposes of IDPC’s regional work, the Sub-Saharan Africa region includes:

Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Swaziland, Togo, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Drug Situation

Data on the prevalence of illicit drug use and drug trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa remain vague at best and usually only offer loose estimations. The data and trends outlined in this text, aim to reflect the best available estimates, but should be interpreted with these methodological challenges in mind.


In Sub-Saharan Africa, cannabis and khat are the two main cultivated drug crops. They have been grown for centuries for ritual, medical and recreational purposes (especially in eastern, western and southern Africa for cannabis, in eastern Africa for khat). Cannabis and khat production rose significantly in the 1970s and the 1980s because of the economic crisis and the structural adjustments that were implemented in Africa, at a great cost for its population. At the time, cannabis and khat appeared as ‘compensation crops’ of prime importance.

Khat is currently cultivated intensively in Ethiopia and Kenya – and is legal in these two countries, a status that can be explained by the substantial economic role khat is playing for farmers: cash income per hectare for khat growers is three times that of cereal growers (read more).

survey carried out by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that in 2005, cannabis was grown in at least 43 countries on the African continent (including North Africa) (read more). While North Africa is the main area where cannabis resin is largely produced and exported (in particular Morocco), Sub-Saharan countries also grow cannabis herb varieties that meet a huge demand internationally (such as Durban Poison or Malawi Gold). Cannabis production and trade is integrated into the economies of several southern African countries such as Lesotho, South Africa, Malawi, Swaziland and Mozambique.

Cannabis and khat grown in Sub-Saharan Africa are destined both for internal trade and consumption in Africa, and for exportation to Western Europe.

The synthetic drugs manufactured in Sub-Saharan Africa are mostly amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) (mainly methamphetamine and methcathinone). While they used to be manufactured in North Africa, production recently emerged in West African countries (notably in Nigeria) and South Africa (where it is called “tik”). The main market for West African-produced methamphetamines is East Asia, and to a lesser extent, South Africa.


WACD report, June 2014

The idea conveyed in the 1990s by international officials, including the UN institutions, that the production and trafficking of drugs is a new phenomenon in Africa is erroneous. For instance, the earliest evidence of exportation of kola nut (fruit of the kola tree that is native to tropical rainforests in Central and Western Africa and is used widely in West African countries, particularly in Nigeria) from Africa to Europe was recorded in the 19th century. Africa’s role in the global drugs trade changed in the 20th century. Currently it mainly involves the trafficking of cannabis, cocaine, heroin and ATS.

The emergence of West Africa as a transit point in the 1970s and 1980s is linked to shifts in the global markets for heroin and cocaine (their global demand increased in the 1970s) and in global drug policy – law enforcement actions increased in key producing, transit and consumer countries, leading traffickers to move towards West Africa, which appeared as a less risky transit hub and partly replaced the traditional trading routes of cocaine from Latin America through the Caribbean and of heroin from Asia through Balkans to Europe. This trend became more marked in the 1990s and 2000s: in 2009, between 46 and 300 tons of South American cocaine were estimated to transit through West Africa towards Europe (read more).

By the 1990s, the transit of heroin and cocaine had strengthened and expanded from a few commercial centres in West Africa, such as Nigeria, to other countries in West and East Africa such as Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya. Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry have been particularly used to avoid law enforcement operations. South Africa became a new trafficking hub at the end of the Apartheid in 1994, West African drug smugglers taking advantage of its good transport infrastructures for cocaine shipments from South America to Europe and for heroin shipments from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe.

Much of the cocaine smuggled by West Africa comes from Brazil where traffickers (mainly Nigerians) export it to Africa and Europe. In 2012, Algeria in particular registered a spike in cocaine seizures, reporting that cocaine transited through countries in West and Central Africa prior to seizure, and identifying trafficking by air as the main mode of transportation.  East Africa, on the other hand, has become a port of entry and transhipment for the opiate trade from the Golden Triangle (read more).

Overall, the estimated volume of the African trade continues to be minor compared to other major smuggling routes: according to the vague estimations currently available, the whole African continent accounted for a mere 0.1% of global seizures of cocaine in 2009 and for less than 1% of global seizures for heroin in 1996.[ii] 

Finally, a similar trend occurred around ATS trafficking in Africa. While until recently ATS were manufactured and smuggled from West Africa (Nigeria and other West African countries such as Guinea and Senegal), South Africa and East Africa (notably Ethiopia and Kenya) has been increasingly used as manufacturing and transit countries. East Asia (mainly Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand) are the main importers of African ATS.


“Consumption of psychoactive substances in Africa is not just a function of Africa’s recent role as entrepôt for the hard drugs trade, but an age-old practice that is just as ingrained into society as elsewhere in the world” (click here). Indeed, there are numerous reports proving that khat, cannabis and other psychoactive plants (such as Iboga in Gabon for instance) have been used for medical, ceremonial or recreational purposes for centuries in Africa. Overall, experts from African States noticed a substantial increase in illicit drugs use in Sub-Saharan Africa after 2005 (read more).

Cannabis is the most widely consumed illicit psychoactive substance on the subcontinent. Cannabis use prevalence in Africa is much higher than the global average (5.2-13.5% of the population aged 15-64). Cannabis use increased in the 1960s and became a widespread phenomenon in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, being very popular among young people.

Khat is legal in countries where it is widely used, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, but has become illegal in most other African countries. Khat use prevalence is particularly high in eastern African countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia, Somaliland, Uganda and Madagascar). In those countries, it has played an important social role as it is consumed among groups of users in homes or public places and is incorporated into a wide range of social, ceremonial and cultural contexts. In Ethiopia, khat is used during weddings, mourning, religious ceremonies and in everyday life (read more).

However, the growing role of Sub-Saharan Africa as a producer and a smuggler of illegal substances had a “spill-over” effect: it led to an increasing use of “new” drugs that were not available until then in this region, such as cocaine and heroin. In Nigeria, while heroin and cocaine were not available in the 1970s, those substances began to be increasingly used from the mid-1980s.In Kenya, heroin started to be consumed in the cities that were used as transit points (such as Mombassa) before spreading to other regions of the country and to Nairobi. In South Africa, the introduction of heroin and cocaine goes back to the mid-1990s when the country abolished Apartheid and reintegrated in the global market, thus becoming a transit point.

Specific drug use trends have appeared: cocaine use is particularly high in West, Central Africa and Southern Africa whereas heroin consumption seems to be concentrated along the East African coast (particularly in Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles and the United Republic of Tanzania). The increasing practice of injecting heroin is an alarming trend in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in East Africa, where harm reduction services continue to be underdeveloped (for more details, see the section about public health).

In South Africa, Mandrax is widely used, crushed and mixed in a pipe with cannabis, because of its low-cost and easy availability. When South Africa became a transit point for illicit drugs, crack cocaine and methamphetamine supplanted Mandrax. Methamphetamine use increased significantly in the 2000s. In 2008, 6.9% of young people of secondary/high school age reported ever having used methamphetamine in South Africa. There are signs that the use of ATS is spreading to other areas of Africa such as Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

Regional Drug Policies

Drug Policy is not uniform in Sub-Saharan Africa. States in this region adopted very different approaches, going from “neglect of the trade, through complicity, to the enactment of oppressively harsh punitive measures” (read more). Most of these repressive drug policies led to gross human rights violations and greater drug-related harms, and failed to significantly reduce the scale of illicit market. Moreover, in this region, very few actions have been implemented so far to address the health harms associated with drug use.

In response to those harsh and ineffective drug policies, a broad range of policy and operational responses have been adopted to better respond to drug trafficking in Africa and more particularly in West Africa.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - Responsible for setting policy guidance and delivering responses to drug trafficking, ECOWAS has undertaken important steps in developing a coherent architecture to respond to drug trafficking and its impact, namely through the adoption of the Political Declaration on the Prevention of Drug Abuse, Illicit Drug Trafficking and Organised Crime in West Africa – the Abuja Declaration- and an accompanying Regional Action Plan. A critical, yet complex, aspect of ECOWAS’s work has been to ensure the responsibility of each individual state of implementing the Action Plan, which is centred on five thematic areas, including public health.

The African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control (2013-2017) - The African Union adopted its new Plan of Action on Drug Control for 2013-2017. Whereas previous strategies focused almost exclusively on supply reduction and law enforcement, the new Plan of Action represents a significant turning point for the continent – providing instead a balanced approach that comprises supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction measures, including a direct mention of the UN ‘comprehensive package on HIV prevention, treatment and care among injecting and non-injecting drug users’ (read more). Although the Plan of Action is technically a non-binding document, it nonetheless represents a positive development in the region.

The West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) - Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan launched the West Africa Commission on Drugs in January 2013. The 10-member commission comprises distinguished West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary. The Commission aims to mobilise public awareness and political commitment on the impact of drug trafficking and also to inform and advise political leaders and the public on effective and humane ways to tackle drug dependency through policy recommendations. The commission also seeks to strengthen local and regional capacities to deal with drug trafficking and dependency issues. In June 2014, the WACD released a ground breaking report on drug policy in the region. While highlighting the failure of the war on drugs and the harms it has caused in the region, the members presented a series of recommendations on drug policy reform in West Africa, including the treatment of drug use as a public health issue, the decriminalisation of drug use and low-level drug offenders, and the demilitarisation of drug policy in the region. 

Commission on the Impact of Drug Trafficking on Governance, Security, and Development in West Africa, with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN and Dr Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Head of the Regional Capacity Development Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

Public health

Drug injection has become more and more prevalent in the 1990s, especially in East Africa (in Kenya, Tanzania and Mauritius) and southern Africa (Mozambique and South Africa) and is also increasing in other Sub-Saharan countries (read more). It is estimated that there are around 1,778,500 people who inject drugs in Sub-Saharan Africa today. Among them, an estimated 221,000 may be living with HIV.

The spread of HIV in Africa has traditionally been driven by sexual transmission. However, drug injection has been playing an increasingly significant role in HIV transmission, especially among young people. In several countries in sub-Saharan Africa including Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, a new wave of HIV infections due to drug injecting was reported in recent years (read more). Available estimates of HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs in Sub-Sahara Africa range from 4.2% in Nigeria to 51.6% in Mauritius. Data from Kenya shows that HIV prevalence is higher among women who inject drugs (44.5% of whom living with HIV), than among their male counterparts (where the prevalence is at 16%). It is highly likely that an epidemic of hepatitis C is also spreading fast among people who inject drugs. Other health harms also include infections by tuberculosis, as well as abscesses and high risks of overdoses.

Global State of Harm Reduction, 2012.

Despite this alarming health situation, many countries in the region have continued to focus on supply reduction and rely on law enforcement and the criminalisation of drug use rather than implementing public health approaches.

Current legislations, harsh law enforcement measures and punishment, as well as social stigma, have contributed to exacerbating drug-related harms among people who use drugs in Sub-Saharan Africa. In general, when health services exist, they are of very poor quality and most of them are limited to abstinence-based drug dependence treatment facilities, such as in Ethiopia for instance where these facilities reportedly provide limited and generally inadequate support for people who use drugs (read more).

To date, out of 45 countries, only Tanzania, Kenya, Mauritius, Senegal and South Africa have started to provide key harm reduction interventions for people who use drugs. Although successful, coverage of these interventions remains very limited and restricted to a few cities – it has been estimated that less than 1% of people who inject drugs in sub-Saharan Africa have access to needle and syringe programmes (NSPs) and/or opioid substitution therapy (OST), while less than 1% of HIV positive people who inject drugs are under antiretroviral therapy. In addition, most existing harm reduction services only rely on international funding, creating problems for their sustainability. Finally, their positive impact is undermined by national legislation that continues to criminalise people who use drugs and the possession of injecting paraphernalia and law enforcement efforts that continuously harass people who use drugs, as well as outreach workers.

In Kenya, there are now efforts being made to involve relevant stakeholders (including government ministries, departments and agencies, development partners, faith-based organisations, civil society, affected populations, etc. in the development of key documents on harm reduction. Worryingly, in the field of drug policy, Tanzania seems to be taking a step back. The government is currently proposing a new drug control policy to review and strengthen a drug-free approach in the Drugs and Prevention of Illicit Traffic in Drugs Act, rather than seeking to integrate the success story of Tanzania’s harm reduction programmes in the country’s national drug control policy.


In Nigeria, available services are limited to targeted information, education and communication, condom distribution and hepatitis C treatment, but there are discussions on developing a national harm reduction strategy. However, in most Sub-Saharan African states (except Tanzania, Mauritius and Kenya), debates on the value of harm reduction simply do not exist. Considering the absence of governmental support for harm reduction, local and regional civil society organisations and international donors remain the main advocates for harm reduction.

Criminal justice and human rights

The overall trend is the implementation repressive policies to suppress drug production and trade through harsh law enforcement measures and drug demand through hard hitting education and prevention and the identification and punishment of people who use drugs. However, recently, some countries have started to emphasize a health-driven approach toward drug use at the local level (such as Tanzania, see above), while others simply neglected to implement any kind of drug policy, as is the case in Lesotho.

International pressure from UN drug agencies and donor states (such as the USA and the EU) has been placed on Sub-Saharan states for three decades for them to carry out a “war on drugs”. Technical assistance programmes from UN agencies and western countries were developed in the 1980s, particularly in main trafficking countries, such as Nigeria. Their objectives were to strengthen state capacity, border control and judicial reform. However, these efforts led to the implementation of draconian and ineffective polices and serious negative consequences on human rights (for example, lack of due process, the imposition of disproportionate penalties, breaches of the right to health, discrimination in access to healthcare, employment and education, etc.) and public health (including the exacerbation of the HIV and hepatitis C among people who use drugs).

The focus of law enforcement authorities on the subcontinent has been on the low-level dealers, consumers and couriers, who are easily replaced with new recruits. Once arrested, they are usually imposed disproportionate prison sentences, whereas most kingpins carry on with drug trade without being affected by any serious threat. In countries, such as Guinea, the option to either fine or imprison those found guilty of drug-related crimes provides a means for drug traffickers to avoid a prison sentence by paying a fine, and also fuels corruption within the judiciary as it favours a situation where the option of fine is frequently applied regardless of the gravity of the case. Such practice also means that the more vulnerable members of society, for whom the law prescribes the same legal punishment, are those who are usually sent to prison since they are unable to pay the fine (read more).

For people who use drugs, this also drives them away from the health services they need to protect them from HIV, hepatitis C or overdose. Such practices also have severe effects on the social reintegration of these drug offenders into society. In Mauritius, for example, an employer will request a “certificate of character” from job applicants – and drug offenders (be they users, low-level dealers or high-level traffickers) are denied this document, making it almost impossible for them to become active members of society.

It is clear today that those harsh policies were unsuccessful to significantly curb drug trafficking and production in the subcontinent. Despite the growing number of seizures and law enforcement actions implemented in West Africa for decades, large scale smuggling of Latin American cocaine operations have become more widespread throughout the 2000s.

Comparatively, very little money is currently spent on supporting underfunded African universities studying drugs and hospitals treating people dependant on drugs by international programmes and national policies.

Drug trafficking, weak institutions and corruption

Corruption has been a rampant problem associated with drug trafficking across the world. This is exacerbated in most Sub-Saharan African countries, where governmental institutions continue to be weak, threatening the stability of these countries and making them a particularly attractive hub for drug traffickers and corruption.

Security – Some African states are ill equipped to stop the trade through their porous borders. Local and international drug smugglers are taking advantage of their limited resources for security forces and borders control like, for example, on the border between Kenya and Somalia where drug smugglers can operate without being detected. At the same time, fears have been expressed that some countries could face an increase of violence, corruption and insecurity – a similar trend to that experienced in Latin America and the Caribbean. Indeed, the drug trade can affect the stability of African states by providing significant income to non-state armed groups or rebels that can take control of part of the territory. “In extreme cases, this can destabilize governments, as competing factions of officials seek to displace one another”. To date, with the exception of Guinea-Bissau and (more recently) Northern Mali, there is limited evidence linking the illicit drug trade to political or urban violence. Nonetheless, organised crime in the form of drug trafficking has made deep inroads into West African states, and sometimes at the highest levels of policy making (read more).

Corruption – Many cases of arrests and seizures in several African countries have recently shed light on how the work of traffickers has been facilitated by a wide range of people, including business executives, politicians, members of the security forces and the judiciary, clergymen, traditional leaders and youth. On a more general level, traffickers connect easily with people of influence and are able to establish and operate informal social networks, allowing them to avoid detection by the more formal security apparatus or co-opt it when it is necessary. Indeed, while weak judicial institutions and political instability facilitate high levels of corruption in the police, airport security, customs and politicians, in Nigeria for example widespread corruption has reached such an extent that the cannabis and cocaine trade is conducted openly and with the knowledge of local police officials. Nigeria’s drug tsar was sentenced in 2010 for the protection he had offered to drug traffickers. Political penetration by drug traffickers is also apparent in West Africa’s electoral systems (read more).  

Money laundering – An increase in drug trafficking in West Africa has –along with other criminal activities – also contributed to a rise of money laundering in the region. Drug money can derive from several sources: local production or sale of imported narcotics; “repatriated drug proceeds”; money from drug couriers; and profits generated by the secondary businesses related to drug trafficking, such as false identity providers, recruiters, or drug packagers. In 2010, the Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA) noted that intensive money laundering took place in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal (read more). 

Key Resources

For more information regarding drug policy in Sub-Saharan Africa, please click here.

Past IDPC Projects in the Region

Disseminating the recommendations of the West Africa Commission on Drugs

With funding from USAID, the Kofi Annan Foundation and IDPC will work alongside the West Africa Commission on Drugs in 2014 and 2015 to disseminate the Commission's report and recommendations, through the organisation of workshops and country visits. 

IDPC Members

For a full list of IDPC members in Sub-Saharan Africa, please click here:

[i] E.Gebissa (2010), Taking the place of Food : Khat in Ethiopia, Trenton, Red Sea Press, p.90

[ii] N.Carrier and G.Klantschnig (2012), Africa and the war on drugs, African Arguments ed.