VIENNA, 15 April 2008 (UNODC) - A number of Ministers from West and Central Africa gathered in Vienna today, in conjunction with the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, to discuss the growing threat of drugs and crime across the centre of Africa.
"The Sahel has become a major transit route for illicit activity", warned the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa. Trafficking of cocaine, heroin and hashish are becoming common along routes traditionally used to smuggle cigarettes, arms and illegal migrants. Kidnapping and banditry are rife. Criminals are also exploiting the region's rich natural resources. This is a windfall for criminal groups, and a lucrative source of funding for rebels, anti-government forces, and terrorists. UNODC is currently working on a report on the situation.
Not only is this a threat to security, it is a drain on development. Badly-needed resources are being shifted away from education and healthcare into security in order to contain the threat posed by criminal activity. In one country alone, resources spent on border security and crime fighting last year were equivalent to those needed to build 600 schools and health centres. "These countries are being targeted by smugglers because they are vulnerable, and criminal activity is making them even more vulnerable - we must break this vicious circle", said Mr. Costa.
The Sahel is a vast, inhospitable, and remote area that stretches across the width of Africa. For centuries, nomads and traders have freely moved back and forth across borders. Some countries, like Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have thousands of kilometers of almost open frontiers. "Policing such terrain is a challenge for any country, made even greater when resources are limited", said Mr. Costa. Furthermore, border controls have been abolished within the Economic Community of Southwest African States (ECOWAS).
"The call for technical assistance was loud and clear at this meeting. The international community must act to prevent a further deterioration of the situation that could destabilize the entire region, and have a dangerous spill-over effect", said Mr. Costa. "Countries where these goods are headed should also do more to reduce the demand that is fuelling this dangerous trade".
Among the needs identified for technical assistance were counter-narcotics, criminal justice reform, anti-corruption, border management, sharing of intelligence, terrorism prevention, and stopping the illicit trade in small arms.
Participants called for an intensification of regional efforts and international support. UNODC will enhance its cooperation with affected countries through its regional office in Dakar. It will also work with partners, including ECOWAS, to intensify the delivering of technical assistance and attract badly needed funding.
Countries represented at the meeting (predominantly Ministers of Justice and Security) included Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.