Lugard Abila – Afro drug policy activist, public health policy analyst, mostly working on drug policy reform and a champion for Anyone’s Child in Kenya.
“Man is a growth by law, and not a creation by artifice, and cause and effect is as absolute and undeviating in the hidden realm of thought as in the world of visible and material things. A noble and Godlike character is not a thing of favor or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking, the effect of long-cherished association with Godlike thoughts. An ignoble and bestial character, by the same process, is the result of the continued harboring of groveling thoughts.”
By James Allen – (As A Man Thinketh)
Africa has a history of drug use that precedes contact with Europe. From a genesis in pre-colonial times before the scramble for Africa, and before the foundation of drug prohibition was laid, some of these drugs were used as a tool for accessing other psychological, cultural and spiritual dimensions, and they were typically found in the domain of the sacred, other the medical and some for recreation.
Indigenous substances that were found only in Africa such as Iboga, Khat and Kola were restricted to relatively small cultural regions. Iboga, for example, was primarily found in Gabon, as well as a few surrounding countries. The plant’s active ingredient has amazing medicinal properties, and was related with syncretic religion. Alcohol and cannabis also have had various historical trajectories in Africa.
But drugs have played not just a prominent role in the cultural, spiritual, and social development of African civilizations – there is a rich history demonstrating how the use of drugs illuminates the history of humanity and there is a long relationship between mankind and mind-altering substances on other continents too.
Now, khat is found not only in its region of origin, Ethiopia, but also across the Red Sea in southern Arabia and is spreading fast across the world. Cannabis has been used in India since time immemorial to stimulate mental agility and sexual prowess, and is closely linked with the Rastafarian religion. Aristotle’s disciple Theophrastus testifies to the use of datura by the ancient Greeks and further evidence links the rites at Eleusis to the ingestion of a hallucinogen. Similar examples of drugs use and cultural connection can be found in cultures as diverse as the Celts, the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs, in fact indigenous peoples all around the world.
Understanding the patterns of use of these indigenous substances is important both for historical reasons and when it comes to considering current control mechanisms. However, drug use patterns in Africa have been changing, and certainly the globalization of illicit drugs is part of this tale.
For example, ‘tough’ policing in the Caribbean to stop ships and planes carrying cocaine to Europe did not stop the South American cartels selling their drugs. They just decided to move them to Europe via West Africa instead. Drug gangs also move heroin and cannabis to Europe through Africa. Because of this more and more of these drugs ‘leak’ and get used in African countries on the way. But, as this article and much other research effectively demonstrates, this is just a small part of a much more complex and strange secret History.
The existing literature on drugs use, and the analysis showing us the enormous social costs of the war on drugs means it is increasingly coming under fire because people see it is not working. A clear-eyed look is needed at the current happenings in Philippines since Rodrigo Duterte became president four months ago on a pledge to wipe out the illegal drug trade, which has at least 2,446 individuals dead. With an increase of 140 people a week, on average 20 people a day – what an atrocity!
But something is not connecting – or the world would have changed the way we manage drugs to stop people dying, and stop gangs corrupting police and governments – including in Africa – long ago. But we have not, because someone somewhere has kept hidden the strangest secret in the war on drugs. We need to know about the emergence of the control regime and given all can see the harms it causes, understand who are the beneficiaries?
The international drug control system was shaped at a time when African states focused on models of development which were propagated by European imperialism, scientific racism, concepts of moral responsibility and the legacy of colonial legislation. So while in the early 1950s African states were focused on developing their economies and societies, by the 1960s legal arrangements for drugs were inherited from the colonial powers by the newly independent states. Although drugs were originally not an issue, they have since been identified as a ‘development impediment’ for which prohibition is the only answer.
As a result, today, Africa has been described as the most dynamic trafficking zone for drugs but also as the last frontier in the war on drugs. International organisations and development partners are investing heavily in African drug control and regional organisations like the African Union or ECOWAS are also becoming conscious of the need to respond. But often drug control is intertwined with security issues. And it is not always clear what the motivations are.
Two things that we need to admit and make sure people ask; 1) European countries and the US are decriminalising drugs or even legalising cannabis – but they want increased use of penal law as a tool of drug suppression in Africa even when it has not worked in other countries. Why? 2) Why do we have the ratification of the core instruments of prohibition by sovereign African republics when these instruments are being pushed for by powers we fought for independence from?
An effective critique of this strangest secret of the war on drugs should never be politically taboo in African states because questioning a war created by the colonialism Africans overthrew would be upholding the sovereignty of the people in every sovereign republic. We should always be honoring those who heroically struggle to bring freedom and justice to Africa’s land. So African states should be making a devastating challenge to the war on drugs and its apologists but they don’t. The drug war attracts sensationalism and political opportunism rather than rational commentary and debate.
African states must define their will and initiate effective dialogue that challenges the prohibitionist stand and we must enact policies based on a harm–reduction and rights based approach in accordance to the Africa Charter article 20 (3) “All peoples shall have the right to the assistance of the State Parties to the present Charter in their liberation struggle against foreign domination, be it political, economic or cultural.”
The African charter helped to steer Africa from the age of human wrongs into a new age of human rights and that age is now, right here, right now.
The punitive language and narrow mind frames of the World Superpowers and the UN-driven war on drugs must move towards a more nuanced, balanced, research-based and both historically and culturally informed perspective. That would be a breath of fresh air for an arena of contemporary social life dominated by failed policy, preconceived ideas, human rights violations, and lack of rigorous on-the-ground research.
As Africans it is time recognise that Just Say No is not an option but, Knowing is.
As I wind up, I recall this verse in the Holy Book Phil.4:8
We must be sure that what we think on this:
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think of these things.