The Continent of Drug Tourism

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Have you ever heard of Iboga?

I had never heard of this root until my current visit in Gabon, where some believe it comes directly from the Garden of Eden while others classify it as a dangerous drug.

With Lam Shang Leen’s commission of inquiry hogging headlines every day, it is interesting to take stock of what is happening in Africa – the continent to which we belong and that we compete with to be a gateway (to licit and illicit flows).

An increasing number of so-called ‘medical tourists’ fly to Central Africa to sample Iboga as part of an ancestral rite called Bwiti. These tourists are either struggling with other addictions (LSD, cocaine, heroin, alcohol) or are simply seeking to ‘see more clearly’. Bwiti is quite intriguing: it is a mystical combination of ancient forest spirits coupled with some version of Christianity. The rite involves ingesting the psychoactive root, Iboga, which has a similar effect to amphetamines.

Iboga was once the preserve of discrete tribes in Central Africa, particularly in Gabon’s heavily forested northwest. The naturally- occurring psychoactive drug has been used in healing ceremonies for centuries by followers of the Bwiti religion. However, modern research into the drug’s effects has caused Iboga to overcome its esoteric nature, attracting a growing number of drug tourists, many of whom are unaware of the drug’s possible deadly side effects.

For many Gabonese, yet, Iboga is sacred and should not be classified as a dangerous drug and put on the same level as heroin and cocaine – which are currently devastating West and Central Africa. According to them, Iboga should be considered a natural and soft drug, like marijuana (which, if properly monitored, can turn out to be a lucrative business for states).

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In spite of considerable efforts to fight transnational drug trafficking, illicit flows in Africa have grown exponentially in recent years and have made the continent increasingly vulnerable. Several regions, not only in West Africa, are now experiencing what experts refer to as the simultaneous globalisation of crime and terror – that are both facilitated by corruption. The combination of the three factors (crime, terror and corruption) has given rise to a new phenomenon that requires a new multi-pronged strategy. It has also been demonstrated that irregular nonstate threats sustain black markets that are often linked to state corruption, and sometimes at the highest level of government.

Even global superpowers like the US and Canada have been fighting and losing a crippling and expensive war on drugs for decades now. Back in 2010, the Associated Press reported that the US had spent $1 trillion to fight drugs over 40 years, without meeting any of its goals.

On top of that, it is demand from these countries that has fuelled a sophisticated network of drug dealers from Latin America. Rising crime rates in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico are living signals of where Africa could find itself, if a concerted and united action is not taken. There is already growing concern that that terrorist groups are facilitating the drug trade in Africa with their knowledge of desert routes and porous borders along with their weapons and means of transportation.

As a result, addressing transnational drug trafficking requires more than dealing with the social, political and economic environment sustaining it. There needs to be an exploration of causality between crime and corruption as well as a threat assessment to human security – complicated by sparse and unreliable data – across Central and West Africa.

We’ve seen it in Mauritius: organised crime has the ability to corrupt and undermine already weak institutions by penetrating the highest level of political leadership and generating a collusion that keeps illicit activities shrouded in secrecy and beyond accountability.

Research has shown that only an assault on poverty, a proper drug policy framework, supported by effective intelligence and policing, and followed by justified legal actions, can really provide a genuine sense of security. This remains a gargantuan challenge for Africa and for the rest of the world and calls for wider cooperation and understanding of drug issues, across borders.

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