A three day conference on fighting drug trafficking and abuse in Africa was due to end in Harare on Thursday with officials warning the continent's stability was at stake if leaders didn't act to control the problem.
Olawale Maiyegun, head of social affairs at the African Union Commission, said drug abuse was likely to become "the next major problem for Africa" and the vast sums of money made from drug trafficking and other organized crime "were starting to pervert democracy and good governance and to affect elections."
The AU official, who attended the Harare conference, told DW the recent shopping mall attack in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, was proof that organized crime was a huge challenge threatening the continent's stability.
Maiyegun, a Nigerian national, is backing efforts to implement the AU plan of action on Drug Control and Drug Prevention (2013-2017), which aims to reduce illicit drug use, trafficking and associated crimes. The plan acknowledges that drug profits were distorting the economies of many African countries and in some of the poorer states, the value of trafficked drugs exceeded the country's gross national income.
Drugs for Europe
Maiyegun said criminals were taking advantage of African nations' porous borders and the high level of poverty. Drugs destined for Europe and elsewhere were passing through Africa.
"Cocaine from South America is coming mainly through West Africa, but also through southern Africa," Malyegun said. "Heroin from Afghanistan is coming through East Africa," he added.
There are a number of fragile post-conflict states in Africa that are being used as transit countries by drug-traffickers and some of their illegal merchandise is left behind in those countries.
Officials point to a connection between drugs and terrorism in Africa. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said earlier in the year he was "alarmed" by the rise of groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria and other organizations. He said there were clear links between crime syndicates trafficking drugs and militants in the Sahel.
Ehab Salah Ahmed heads the United Nations Office on Drugs (UNODC) in southern Africa. He told the Harare conference that his organization wanted to utilize the experience it had acquired fighting drug abuse and trafficking in other parts of the world to help Africa combat the problem. He said the UNODC was aware that African nations already faced development challenges such as health, economic growth and education. But "drug use in Africa is expanding at a rapid rate, particularly among young people," he warned.
Political will could increase
The UNODC says it provides technical help to member states wanting to enhance their capacity to combat drug use, trafficking, corruption and terrorism. Technical experts from different government ministries across Africa, who also took part in the Harare meeting, said they hoped to come up with practical initiatives to reduce the supply of illegal drugs.
Alastair Reid, risk analyst with AKE Group, told DW that not only drug use but also drug production in some West African countries was increasing and cited "crystal meth laboratories in Nigeria" as an example. Reid believes African politicians will start to take more notice of the problem. "As it becomes more and more of an African issue with African users then I think the domestic will within Africa will increase," he said.