Lifting the lid on the drug trade through West Africa

A trial that has just got under way in New York looks likely to provide some interesting insights into how South American drug traffickers are going about their business in West Africa, which for several years now (as detailed here and here) has been used as a transit point on the cocaine route to Europe and the US.

A prosecution witness in the trial has claimed that Fumbah Sirleaf, son of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former director of Liberia’s National Security Agency, agreed to pose as a corrupt official (not too difficult a disguise for most West African politicians) to help the US Drug Enforcement Agency in a sting operation.

As the Canadian Press reports, Sirleaf and a colleague allegedly met a pair of Colombians representing a South American drug trafficking organisation, and extracted from them a promise to give them $1m and 50 kilos of cocaine in return for letting them use Liberia as a hub. ‘What these defendants did not know,’ said the witness, a DEA agent, ‘was that Liberian officials had not put their country up for sale. The Liberians had been pretending to be corrupt.’ Sirleaf recorded the conversations with the Colombians, and handed the tapes to the DEA. Defence lawyers say their clients were entrapped. Watch this space for updates.

Gaddafi: ‘Championing a United Africa’

This piece from yesterday’s Africa Review contains much that is spurious. That coalition forces are ‘taking their lead from the US,’ that Libya will become ‘a basket country’ after Gaddafi goes, that African leaders see Gaddafi as a ‘benevolent godfather,’ and that in the Ivory Coast there is ‘little difference’ between Gbagbo and Ouattara are all at the very least arguable.

But these claims pale into insignificance compared with the article’s overarching point, which is that the West wants to remove Gaddafi because he is a ‘dangerous African likely to cause a united front against neo-colonialism in Africa.’ According to the Africa Review, the kindly dictator ‘identified himself with sub-Saharan Africa, championing a united Africa and showing the continent how if they formulated a collective vision, they would be able to stand on their own feet.’

The basis for this claim is unclear, for when one thinks of Gaddafi and sub-Saharan Africa, unity and self-reliance are very far from the first things that spring to mind. Was Gaddafi championing a united Africa when he armed Charles Taylor in Liberia and Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone, enabling them to kill tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans and maim, rape and torture many more (even Taylor’s defence lawyer at the Hague has asked why Gaddafi is not in the dock)? Was he formulating a collective vision when he sent Libyan troops to help the mad cannibal Idi Amin crush a popular uprising, or when he gave Amin arms to massacre sub-Saharan Africans in northern Uganda? Was he helping Africans stand on their own feet when he sent weapons to a rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is now on trial for war crimes? The list goes on and on; with friends like these, as sub-Saharan Africans reading the Africa Review must surely be asking themselves as they splutter over this morning’s cornflakes, who needs enemies?

Will West’s attacks on Libya help Al Qaeda recruit West Africans?

Last week, a pro-Gaddafi protest in predominantly-Muslim Guinea was banned. This week, a similar event in Niger has been outlawed, with the head of the apparently moderate Islamic Association of Niger describing the attacks as a ‘crusade against the Islamic world.’

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – the terrorist organisation’s West African branch – is already gaining strength thanks to ransom payments it has received in return for releasing Western hostages. There must be a risk that what is happening in Libya will push new recruits into its arms.

What price democracy in the Ivory Coast?

I have never visited the Ivory Coast and do not feel well qualified, therefore, to comment on the situation developing there. But as an observer from afar of the post-election crisis which has seen the country move to the brink of either civil war or invasion by troops from other West African countries, I cannot help wondering whether the country would be better off if it allowed Laurent Gbagbo, the man who lost the election and who is clinging on grimly to the presidency, to remain in power.

Gbagbo’s strategy from an early stage, no doubt drawing on lessons learned from Kenya and Zimbabwe in recent years, seems to have been to angle for a power-sharing agreement with the election winner, Alassane Ouattara. Early on in the crisis, he predicted that there would not be a war over the succession, and asked his opponent to ‘sit down and talk.’ Ouattara rejected the invitation, buoyed by the impressive array of international leaders who have queued up to call for the president to step down. The Ivory Coast’s West African neighbours, the United Nations, America, France and Britain have been united in condemning Gbagbo and in threatening to use force to evict him.

This show of strength, however, particularly when combined with the threat that the International Criminal Court might be waiting for Gbagbo if he resigns (as alluded to by Chris Blattman in an interesting discussion on his blog), has forced the incumbent into a corner. He may now feel he has little choice but to dig in. Losing power in West Africa means you and the many people who rely on you for jobs, money and influence instantly lose everything. But the threat of violence or arrest adds a new dimension; now, you and those close to you not only lose money and status, but potentially your freedom or your life too. I remember a friend in Sierra Leone last year telling me that the reason so few of his continent’s leaders exit power peacefully is because ‘in Africa, they come after you.’ The insistence by the West, West Africa and Ouattara himself that the democratic process be respected could result in many thousands of Ivorian deaths. The alternative is unsatisfactory and unpalatable, but wouldn’t a power-sharing deal, followed by renewed efforts to strengthen political and civil society institutions so that such chaos doesn’t happen again, be preferable to carnage?