In February, over 800 kg of cocaine was confiscated from a Gambian fishing boat in Senegalese waters. The narcotics had been transferred from a larger ship in the open sea and were destined for onward distribution in Europe. In 2021, Gambian authorities seized 118 bags of cocaine weighing almost three tonnes, which had been hidden in a shipment of industrial salt from Ecuador.
The 2021 Africa Organised Crime Index reports that The Gambia is one of the key transit points for South American cocaine being smuggled to Europe. In 2020, the government admitted: ‘The Gambia continues to be used as transit/storage for cocaine, heroin and cannabis originating from source countries and the sub-region entering the country through the sea, land, and air borders.’
A police officer with the Drug Law Enforcement Agency, The Gambia (DLEAG), who requested anonymity, told ENACT that the rise in maritime cocaine smuggling in the country could be traced back to the early 2000s. At that time, along with the opening of global markets, traffickers began using West Africa as a transit point for cocaine shipments from South America to Europe.
The country’s 200 km coastline and limited resources to effectively police its maritime domain make it an attractive location and practical transit point for cocaine trafficking. Transnational organised criminal groups have also capitalised on the limited law enforcement capacity at the country’s ports.
Michael Davies, executive director of Public-Private Integrity, an anti-corruption civil society organisation, told ENACT: ‘Under the Yahya Jammeh era, the government faced substantial challenges in investigating and prosecuting drug crimes, primarily stemming from inadequate case management, a shortage of staff in the judicial sector and court overload, and the criminals knew that.’ The country’s former leaders and institutions have also been implicated in drug trafficking.
In recent years, however, The Gambia has been fighting back to address many of these challenges.
Ismaila Sow, a police officer with DLEAG, told ENACT that the current administration was working with regional and international partners to share intelligence, participate in joint operations, train law enforcement and improve its capacity to detect and intercept drug trafficking boats. He cites The Gambia’s 2021 memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Nigeria as an indication of its appetite and willingness to fight maritime drugs.
The Gambia has also made improvements to its legal framework. The amended National Drug Control Council Act (NDCC) (2005) established the National Drug Enforcement Agency (NDEA). This was an independent security entity responsible for the enforcement, regulation, coordination and control of all matters related to illicit drug trafficking and abuse in The Gambia.
The NDCC Act underwent subsequent amendments in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013, which were aimed at enhancing enforcement capabilities and strengthening compliance mechanisms. In 2014, the NDEA was reconstituted as the DLEAG to ensure compliance with international standards and requirements.
These advances, along with increased investment in law enforcement agencies, have resulted in more drug seizures, as well as drug-related arrests and prosecutions. QTV reports that from January 2021 to April 2023, the DLEAG recorded 1 629 cases involving 1 665 accused. Speaking on World Drug Day 2023, Minister of Interior Seyaka Sonkoh expressed the government’s determination to ‘dismantle any organised crime network in our jurisdiction’.
Most recently, The Gambia signed an MoU with the Seaport Cooperation Project (SEACOP) in January 2023. SEACOP is a European Union-funded project with a track record of working with countries to disrupt and prevent illicit maritime trafficking. The project’s main implementing partner, Expertise France, aims to build capacities and strengthen cooperation against maritime trafficking in countries on the trans-Atlantic cocaine route. Akizi-Egnim Akala, SEACOP’s deputy regional coordinator for West Africa, told ENACT that the SEACOP MoU would build on the ‘good work the current administration is doing to take the fight to the criminals’.
For the MoU to be meaningful, however, The Gambia must prioritise improved information sharing, intelligence gathering and joint operations between relevant agencies, such as law enforcement, customs and port authorities, as called for by the MoU.
A specialised maritime unit or task force focused on combatting maritime drug trafficking must also be established, comprising members of various security agencies, including the police, navy and customs. This unit should be equipped with the necessary resources and training to investigate and apprehend drug traffickers.
Akala said the project would provide The Gambia’s drug enforcement agencies with equipment and training in October. In addition, SEACOP’s emphasis on the use of intelligence-driven approaches and technology to identify high-risk containers and detect illicit goods will provide The Gambia’s government with access to advanced technologies, such as container scanning equipment and data analysis tools. This will significantly improve its capabilities in identifying and intercepting trafficked items.
Combatting maritime drug trafficking also requires coordination and collaboration with neighbouring countries. The Gambia shares borders with Senegal, a major transit point for drug traffickers, and its maritime security is linked to regional security in the Gulf of Guinea, a major hotspot for piracy and other crimes.
Any efforts to strengthen maritime security and combat drug trafficking must consider the broader regional context and involve regional partners. This includes coordinated joint operations and patrols with partners in the sub-region, and harmonising legal and legislative frameworks with regional norms and standards.
Importantly, The Gambia also needs to contribute to the development and implementation of a regional maritime security strategy, as called for by the Yaoundé Code of Conduct – the backbone of maritime security for West and Central Africa.
Feyi Ogunade, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator, West Africa