Business Maverick

Galloping Horse

Heroin is seeping into the veins of east and southern Africa’s political economy 

Heroin is seeping into the veins of east and southern Africa’s political economy 
Iranian heroin smugglers set fire to dhow in December in Moz (Photo: Handout)

Heroin consumption is more widespread in eastern/southern Africa than previously acknowledged, according to a new report. Pointedly, against the backdrop of Covid-19 measures in South Africa, the report notes prohibition is not working. 

They come in wooden dhows along the open waters between Asia and Africa, often no doubt following old ivory routes, carrying a new “white gold” that is seeping into the veins of Africa’s body politic: heroin. Porous borders, corruption, and organised crime networks facilitate the flow, which finds ready markets, often in secondary towns that have mushroomed along regional road networks that are blighted by poverty and rampant unemployment. 

A new report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime  uncovers aspects of the murky heroin markets in eastern and southern Africa, which it says are growing and presenting a challenge to regional security. The report focuses on eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“ … [A] shallow flood of heroin has gradually seeped across the region, and this has had a significant impact on the many secondary towns found along the continent’s transcontinental road networks. These places, in turn, have spawned their own small local heroin markets,” says the report, authored by Jason Eligh, who formerly worked in both Asia and Africa for the UN’s drug unit.

“The emerging illicit African drug market environments may represent credible threats to the development and security of the region’s nascent independent state institutions and structures. At the same time, these markets have also presented new and considerable sources of economic livelihood and opportunity for the continent’s ever-expanding population of poor, disenfranchised and vulnerable people. A surrogate ‘drug working class’ has emerged as a socio-economic sequel to more traditional, yet increasingly limited, licit income opportunities.”

Eligh, the report’s author, told Business Maverick that much of the heroin was loaded off the coast of South Asia – the main production point is Afghanistan – onto dhows which then make their way to the east African coast. These are good-sized dhows that can hold up to two tonnes of heroin. These dhows, at the end of their journey, anchor off the African coastline and smaller boats take the illicit cargo to the mainland.

“Some of these routes would have been the ones opened up long ago by the ivory trade… It is almost exclusively maritime from southern Asia. The easiest way to ship a large volume of heroin is by the route,” he said.

The ivory trade was in many ways the “gateway commodity” to the “resource curse” which has afflicted much of Africa. It seems it also served as a gateway to drug use as well. West Africa was the initial gateway for heroin to markets such as Europe, but east and southern Africa are becoming increasingly important. And along its transit routes, domestic markets are establishing themselves as well.

Against the backdrop of South Africa’s experiment with tobacco and alcohol prohibition as blunt health and social tools in the battle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the report also makes a sobering observation. If there is a market, a way will be found to feed it.

South Africa is unsurprisingly the largest consumer heroin market in the region, but it is hardly the only one. But who knew that Eswatini, famed for the quality of its cannabis, had a growing heroin problem?

“The Kingdom of Eswatini has a moderate but growing heroin-consuming population. There is one type of retail heroin that is widely available in Eswatini, commonly referred to as ‘P’, which is supposed to represent ‘pure’ heroin. Its local name is ngcono, meaning ‘good stuff’,” the report says.

Among other things, the report notes the growing threat to human health in a region already burdened with a high HIV/Aids caseload.

“The relationship between regional drug-trafficking routes [and]… a correlated rise in HIV and HCV seroconversion among people who inject drugs has been demonstrably evident yet, in many countries, largely ignored.”

The report does not have estimates for the sheer numbers of heroin users in the region or the size of the market in monetary terms. This remains a work in progress to be fleshed out in future reports expected later this year, and there are reports on the region’s meth-amphetamine and cocaine markets that are also forthcoming, which should provide a fuller picture.

Against the backdrop of South Africa’s experiment with tobacco and alcohol prohibition as blunt health and social tools in the battle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the report also makes a sobering observation. If there is a market, a way will be found to feed it.

“The results [of the research] indicate that the consumer market in the region appears to be much larger than previously acknowledged, particularly as indicated by government officials. But they also confirm that the picture is substantially more complicated than previously believed. The research findings from these nine countries… suggest that when it comes to these domestic market structures and their distribution systems, there are few fixed flows of heroin that can be identified and blocked using conventional, prohibition-style interdiction strategies and techniques.” DM/BM 

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz