In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 17 2018, a policeman searches a suspect during a raid on a known drug house in Mannenburg,…
FILE - In this photo taken Aug. 17 2018, a policeman searches a suspect during a raid on a known drug house in Mannenburg, Cape Town, South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG - Africa’s activity as a global illicit drug hub continues, authorities say, even as many of the continent’s biggest economies have imposed restrictions on movement to try to stop the spread of coronavirus. American drug enforcement officials say they’re especially concerned about what appears to be the rising incidence of drug use on the continent — indicating that Africa is not just a transit point, but increasingly, a market of its own. 

Coronavirus lockdowns across Africa have seriously battered formal economies, with economic giant Nigeria losing an estimated $18 billion during its five-week lockdown from March to April, according to data from the International Food Policy Research Institute. 

FILE - Kenyan officials display narcotics seized by anti-narcotics detectives in Mombasa in 2016, prior to the destruction at the Directorate of Criminal Investigation in Nairobi, Nov. 6, 2019.

But still, says a top American anti-drug official, drugs — and other illegal goods —are still finding a way both through the continent and to consumers in Africa. In the midst of South Africa’s extremely strict lockdown, police seized a consignment of cocaine worth more than 1.8 million dollars.    

Several of Africa’s largest countries imposed travel and economic restrictions in a bid to stop coronavirus, a move that should have also put a damper on the illicit drug trade.  

Instead, says Heather Merritt, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the traffickers adapted. For example, in recent months, her bureau has seen an increase in illicit online drug trade in Africa and an increase in local drug labs. She also worries that ailing economies could push desperate people into illegal trade.  

“Some of the emergency funding measures that governments have enacted to respond to the pandemic, or even new influx of foreign assistance to help respond to the pandemic, can create new opportunities, sadly, for corruption, either in procurement or fraud. …. over the medium to long term, the socio-economic disruptions we're seeing may lead to increases in criminal activity as some are pushed out of legitimate work due to economic downturn. And we see that illicit economies may be advantaged when there are prolonged supply chain disruptions. So it may create new black markets for goods,” she said.

FILE - Drug users inject heroin at a construction site in Stone Town Zanzibar, Dec. 22, 2009.

For years, international drug enforcement agencies have seen this continent as a hub for illegal goods, with ports in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania being used to ship drugs to Europe or the U.S. But increasingly, Merritt says, Africa’s own appetite for drugs is growing. 

“Unfortunately, drug use trends in Africa, drug use is rising.," she said. "The U.N. estimated that 6 million people in Africa abuse opioids, this is in a 2020 report, and that about 1.9 percent of adults in West Africa are suffering from substance use disorder. And in Nigeria, the numbers are even worse. I learned when I was in Nigeria last fall what a terrible problem it is and how the Buhari administration is incredibly concerned about drug use in the Nigerian population.”  

A staggering 4.7 percent of adults in Nigeria, she said, are non-medical users of opioids. And so, Merritt said, even as countries try to stop the virus from moving, the traffickers will still find a way to move their product.