slaves to drugs

How Nigeria has become key transit hub for global cocaine trafficking

By Pius Adeleye

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Posted on June 16, 2023 09:54

Cocaine is displayed to journalists after being seized by Guinea-Bissau’s judicial police in the capital Bissau
Cocaine is displayed to journalists after being seized by Guinea-Bissau’s judicial police in the capital Bissau, March 21, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Penney (GUINEA-BISSAU – Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY) – LR1E8CK13QURR

Recent years have seen a boom in cocaine consumption in Europe. Nigeria is becoming one of the main transit routes for the drug in the Gulf of Guinea, growing partnerships with South and Central American drug trafficking syndicates.

Drug trafficking syndicates in Nigeria have become more active in Europe. Four members of Nigeria’s Black Axe mafia were arrested in Italy in 2022, for example, while Castel Volturno in Southern Italy, near Naples, has been turned into a hub for Nigerian organised crime.

Studies have found that student fraternities in Nigerian universities provide willing recruits for these gangs, who provide the infrastructure for transit and distribution for drug cartels in South America.

So, how did we get here?

The 1980s brought global oil shocks and recession. While the attention of leaders was drawn to recovery, South and Central American drug trafficking syndicates – like the Guadalajara, Norte del Valle, Medellin and Cali cartels, among others – exploited the region’s downturn, increased operations and smuggled more cocaine into the US via the Caribbean–Florida route. 

The US has a long history of cocaine demand and consumption but before the end of the 20th century, the heightened effort of drug enforcement agencies cracked down on the South American–US air and maritime routes used by drug traffickers, and the flow of cocaine to the US began to fall. 

Cocaine traffickers turned to Europe, where demand grew rapidly during the early 1990s. According to Insight Crime, despite the low supplies of cocaine taken to the European region, it was more profitable than the US market and countries like Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and England increasingly became the preferred destination and hub of the South American drug lords – a legacy of Pablo Escobar. 

By the mid-1990s, European law and drug enforcement officials had responded aggressively to the air and maritime routes that linked the South American Andes mountains-Amazon lowland cocaine bases to the European region. The traffickers then turned to the infamous, weak and well-plundered South American-West Africa route to build a link to Europe for cocaine supply. 

“West Africa, and the Gulf of Guinea in particular, has long been regarded as a global maritime security hotspot – particularly regarding piracy. Piracy and drug smuggling are inevitably linked to socio-economic factors in every country which makes counter-narcotics a difficult task. The world’s seas are vast beyond most people’s comprehension and port logistics are incredibly complicated, which smugglers take advantage of,” Cormac Mc Garry, a maritime security analyst at Control Risks, tells The Africa Report.  

Highway 10 slave route

Towards the end of the 1990s, when the South-American drug traffickers indirectly gained control of the South-American–West Africa route for passage to Europe, the drug trafficking market flourished and the increasing European demands for cocaine were met. By 2006, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that about 40 tonnes of cocaine worth $1.8bn traversed the West African paths to Europe.  

The South-American–West Africa route is known to experts, scholars and maritime officials as Highway 10, the transatlantic route, which became infamous during the 16th-19th centuries when millions of (West) Africans were shipped as slaves to the South American region. 

“It makes logistical sense that anyone transporting legal or illegal products, or trafficking people would look at this route first. The route between West Africa and South America is around the 10th parallel North of latitude – it is the shortest route for a ship to take,” says Cormac Mc Garry. 

On 16 March, the UNODC reported that there is a boom in the global cocaine supply. The UN agency said there is also an emergence of new hubs for cocaine trafficking in West Africa that have been used as key transit zones to Europe and the Middle East. 

It found that Nigeria is a major trafficking hub in Africa in the “consolidation of cocaine entering the sub-region and distribution to other countries, both within the sub-region and beyond”.

“It is clear that Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), one of the largest criminal groups in Brazil, plays a key role in supplying cocaine which transits through West Africa. There are clear alliances between the PCC and Nigerian trafficking groups in Brazil,” Lucia Bird, the director at West Africa Observatory of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (WEA-Obs), tells The Africa Report. 

The study shows that from the 1970s drug traffickers along the West African coast – especially Nigeria, Senegal and Mali – were involved in the small-scale inter-continental shipment of other illicit drugs such as heroine and cannabis. But the partnership with South-American cocaine cartels and the surge in the street value of cocaine in the following decade increased West African players in the global cocaine market. 

Who are the middlemen?

According to the 2023 Global Report On Cocaine, Nigerian cocaine traffickers operate mainly on the mid-level and dealer levels rather than large-scale drug smuggling. These Nigerian middlemen comprise armed cult groups and street gangs who have been identified as the Black Axes, Maphites, Vikings, Eiye and Buccaneers. 

“Youth cultism began as an elite campus society during the earlier times of the University of Ibadan in 1952, when Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and six others founded the [now defunct] Pyrate Confraternity, a society that stood against colonial ideology and subjugation on African students,” says Rotimi Animashaun, a senior lecturer at the Guidance and Counseling department, and a campus cult analyst at the university. 

“Over the following decade, conflict within the group led to a split, leading to more factions and the formation of other campus cult groups. As tertiary institutions developed across the federation, rival campus cult groups increased and the subsequent clashes for superiority resulted in the use of violence and deadly force,” he tells The Africa Report.  

After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, there was frequent political violence and lawlessness, especially in the Old Western Nigeria in 1962 and 1963 when supporters of Chief Ladoke Akintola and Chief Obafemi Awolowo engaged in fatal clashes over differing political ideologies and to claim dominance. 

These old campus cult groups – like the Buccaneers, Black Axes and Eiye – kept their structures after they left their tertiary institutions

“Young political gangs and campus cultists were armed by the early over-ambitious politicians and secret aristocratic societies – and it strengthened the aggressiveness of these cult groups.  

“These old campus cult groups – like the Buccaneers, Black Axes and Eiye – kept their structures after they left their tertiary institutions and they were easily integrated into the narcotic and trafficking network of some powerful politicians and individuals who had clandestine connections with South-American drug cartels,” Animashaun tells The Africa Report. 

Blacklisted organisations – including Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other extremists – in West Africa are also playing key intermediary roles, such as the provision of logistics, storage, collection and delivery of drugs at seaports and airports. 

“We also need to understand that most crime syndicates who are involved in the drug business also engage in other illegal activities such as weapons, smuggling of goods and human trafficking. Law enforcement officials must focus on fighting organised crime in all its facets, including corruption and money laundering,” Maria-Goretti Loglo, Africa consultant at the International Drug Policy Consortium, Ghana, tells The Africa Report. 

The impact of bad governance, corruption and poverty  

Sanni Abacha’s corrupt fascist administration peaked in 1997 as Nigeria’s poverty rate reached a record of 65.5%. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (1997) described Nigeria as a fast-growing “hub of African narcotics trafficking” and a “key player in drug distribution” from strategic locations throughout the world. 

“Drug trafficking provides great financial rewards, thereby attracting people within the region and criminal networks to engage in these activities. Poverty, unemployment and limited financial opportunities in West Africa create a conducive environment where poor people are more susceptible to involvement in drug trafficking as a means of income generation,” Loglo tells The Africa Report. 

Over the years, traffickers have smuggled cocaine into Nigeria through various channels, including bulk carrier vessels and cargoes at major West African seaports. There have also been increased instances of collaboration with officials at international airports and land borders. 

“Profits in the [drug] trade are enormous, so financially it makes sense to use routes through West Africa. Networks also pay protection fees to ensure consignments are not seized,” said Bird. 

Since 2020, West African countries have reached a greater level of unprecedented national debt and high inflation – the extreme poverty rate in the region has risen by nearly 3%. 

In its 2023 March global report, the UNODC documents that there was a 35% increase in coca cultivation in 2020-2021, and these statistics suggest that the economic woes of Nigeria are luring its vulnerable citizens into drug trafficking. 

“The role of Nigeria in drug trafficking is gradually expanding. It used to be a transit point but it now a growing market,” Kingsley Madueke, Nigeria Research Coordinator at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, tells The Africa Report. 


The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Nigeria’s special agency set up to eliminate drug trafficking and illegal drug use, has increased its efforts over the years with several busts, including the giant September 2022 haul.

Nigeria’s political scene, like other drug-transit West African countries, has links to drug trafficking organisations, which undermines the country’s political accountability and transparency. 

Instances of the opaque Nigerian political structure in its fight against drug trafficking include the mysterious demise of Gloria Okon in 1985 and her alleged affinity with Mariam Babangida, wife of Nigeria’s former military head of state, and, recently, the repeated accusations by presidential candidates Peter Obi and Atiku Abubakar that President Bola Tinubu was caught up in drug trafficking in the US following a 1993 judgment and forfeiture of his assets. 

“For West Africa to effectively address its drug trafficking situation, it is crucial to focus on socio-economic development, international cooperation, evidence-based law enforcement efforts and increased anti-corruption measures in the affected regions,” said Logol.

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