Drug trafficking in East Africa: trends revealed by media reports


The incident monitoring component of the ENACT project systematically records instances of transnational organised crime in Africa. By doing this, it aims to broaden the evidence base of the scale and nature of the phenomenon. The pilot phase of the monitoring project focused on wildlife crime in Southern Africa, while the second phase focused on drug incidents in East Africa, specifically between 2008 and 2017.

The database of reports coded from the pilot and second phase combined comprises over 2 500 incidents, sourced from African and international news articles. To be included in the database, articles must have three key pieces of information: an incident date, a sub-national location, and a description of an illegal activity such as transportation, possession, or mixing or processing of illegal goods. Verification is carried out by cross-checking and, as much as possible, supplemental country-specific searches for incidents reported in reputable NGO, multilateral and government-led studies and reports.

East Africa is a key gateway for drug consumer and production markets across the globe

Initial analysis of results of the second phase shows that heroin and cocaine trafficking are rife in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and that the East African region is a key gateway for consumer and production markets in Asia, Europe and the United States (US).

Heroin is the drug most frequently reported on by the media, followed by cannabis and cocaine. Reported incidents of drug activity were highest in 2014 and 2015, concurrent with the spike in UNODC-reported volumes of heroin and cocaine production, and the period when trafficking through East African is believed to have peaked.

The findings show that about 10 different drug types are in circulation in East Africa and that most reports of seizures involved amounts under 5kg. Of the large-scale incidents (50kg or over of a substance), heroin was the most common drug reported on.

Between 2008 and 2017, there were more reports on incidents related to illicit drugs in Kenya, followed by Tanzania and Uganda. News articles more frequently reported on the destination, rather than the origin, of the illegal drugs in question. Some of the most popular destinations for drugs trafficked through East Africa were (in descending order) the US, United Kingdom, Italy, Hong Kong and Japan, while some of the most popular origins of illegal drugs in East Africa were Brazil, Pakistan and India.

Reported incidents of drug activity in East Africa was highest in 2014 and 2015

African news houses were the most common source of reports on drugs in the region; and incidents involving cannabis and khat are almost exclusively reported on by African media. Where the foreign press did cover illegal drug trafficking in Africa, the focus was often solely on cocaine and heroin.

Analysis of the language used in reporting reveals that heroin and cocaine are frequently trafficked through the region in ‘pellets’ and ‘sachets’ (small packets typically weighing a couple of grams), while cannabis is mostly found in ‘rolls’ (cannabis cigarettes). The data also covers numerous other variables including responses by police and other government bodies.

A full report analysing the findings of the second phase of the ENACT incident monitoring work will be launched and released on the ENACT website in April 2018.

Ciara Aucoin, Research consultant, ENACT, ISS

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ENACT is funded by the European Union
ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in
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