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Drugs Seen as Root of Instability in West Africa - 2004-07-27

Law enforcement officials in West Africa say civil wars in the region are both a cause and consequence of increased drug trafficking.

The international police agency Interpol has brought together law enforcement agents from 11 West African countries for a one-week workshop in this beachside town to help them stop drug traffickers.

Interpol says regional drug trafficking has been on the rise in the last decade. Analysts say South American drugs destined for Europe are increasingly coming via West Africa because of a crackdown in the United States.

An official from Nigeria's national drug law enforcement agency, Samuel Gadzama, says unfortunately, some of these drugs are sold before getting to Europe and, during the recent wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, were used by fighters.

"Someone who is probably under his normal senses will not just want to come and go to the war front," said Mr. Gadzama. "But somebody who is under the influence of cocaine or heroin may not really bother with that. That fear of being hurt or that fear of being killed will probably be enveloped or be encapsulated by the drug that is in the system. Drugs have a lot to do with the instabilities and the conflicts we've had in the Africa sub-region."

Some of the child soldiers were known to have cocaine stuffed into their wounds.

Mr. Gadzama says law enforcement agents at the conference are trying to fine tune a system called West Africa Joint Operation which aims to implement tighter border controls.

"There was an operation code-named Operation Tiger which was carried out simultaneously in all the West Africa sub-regions and as a result of that operation we made a seizure of 93.5 kilograms of cocaine in the republic of Benin in April this year," he said. "We're also receiving reports from other West African countries on seizures of drugs."

The seizures include that of a Togolese tugboat which authorities say was intercepted this month off the coast of Ghana with more than two tons of cocaine.

But there are also reports that a weapons for drugs trade is flourishing along the border between Liberia, where disarmament is underway, and Ivory Coast, which remains split between rebel and government areas.

An Africa expert for Interpol, Patrice Toure Disso, says during civil wars security forces can't focus on border regions because they have to protect the central government. He says drug trading has gone up noticeably since the start of the civil war in Ivory Coast in late 2002.

One of the aims of the conference is to establish a seven-day, 24-hour shared and secured internet database for the region's national security services to replace an existing, but antiquated, electronic message board.

This will allow police to exchange images, data, even digital fingerprints, instantaneously.

Progress in the fight against the drug trade is also being used to reduce other cross-border criminal activity, such as illegal logging, child trafficking, and prostitution.