Transnational security threats to states and people have brought much violent conflict and instability to Africa, and must be urgently and effectively addressed if the continent is to be independent, united, and prosperous, thereby achieve the peace needed for development.

In the past two decades, threats have manifested in the form of border disputes, interstate conflicts, the emergence of radicalized and extremist groups, and the largely unhindered movement of mercenaries and armed groups across borders, as well as transnational organized criminal activities involving narcotics, small arms, and human trafficking. Intrastate conflicts have arisen from pent-up grievances linked to the marginalization of certain groups in governance and decision-making, exploitation of natural resources and unequal distribution of wealth, ethnic and religious differences, and post-election violence.

This article will illustrate the scope and magnitude of threats within Africa by focusing on drug- trafficking, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW), and terrorism and will offer suggestions for effectively combating them and promoting peace and security within the continent.

Drug Trafficking

The trafficking and use of drugs, according to the African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control in Africa,1See African Union, “AU Plan of Action on Drug Control in Africa (2013–2017),” October 12, 2012, (accessed August 6, 2013). pose major threats to peace and security on the continent. Illicit drug use results in negative health consequences for both residents and drug users, undermines productivity, and imposes costs associated with drug-related crime. Drug-related deaths account for approximately 1 in 150 Africans between the ages of fifteen and sixty-four.2As compared to 1 in 100 deaths in Asia, 1 in 110 in Europe, and 1 in 200 in South America; see United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Recent Statistics and Trend Analysis of Illicit Drug Markets,” in UN World Drug Report 2012, June 2012, (accessed May 27, 2013) The growth of drug trafficking throughout Africa also poses new challenges to the crisis-prone continent, particularly in West Africa, and facilitates the emergence of new types of threats to international security. The danger lies, especially, in the nexus among drug-trafficking cartels, corrupt government officials, and suspected terrorist elements in the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa.3Ibid

Cocaine found in Benin, photo by Dulue Mbachu

The drug trade on the continent involves countries in West, Central, and East Africa that serve mainly as transit points for drugs from South America and Asia on their way to consumers in Europe and North America, although some drugs are retained as payment for middlemen and for internal consumers or markets. According to United Nations estimates, at least fifty tons of cocaine move through Africa annually, heading north to European cities where it is worth almost $2 billion on the streets.4See UNODC, “West Coast Initiative,” 2013, (accessed January 18, 2013). In 2008, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that about twenty tons—14 percent of Europe’s cocaine, amounting to a wholesale value of $1 billion there—was transported through West Africa alone.5See UNODC, “Drug Trafficking as a Security Threat in West Africa,”  p.4, 2008, (accessed August 23, 2013). Evidence from several seizures suggests heroin originating in Asia is also being trafficked, primarily through East Africa, en route to its final destinations in Europe and North America.6 UNODC, Op cit.

Violence emerging from the drug trade in Africa has in most cases erupted, according to Aning and Pokoo, owing “to government and military officials vying for access to drug-related rents”, as in the case of Guinea Bissau, where a series of assassinations and arrests in 2009 and 2010 involving the army chief of staff and the president are believed to have been directly linked to struggles over control of trafficking.7Kwesi Aning and John Pokoo, “Threats to National and Regional Security in West Africa,” West African Commission on Drugs Background Paper No. 1, Accra, Ghana, January 31, 2013, (accessed August 12, 2013). In the past couple of years, Northern Mali has also experienced drug-related violence involving different extremist groups operating in the region.8Ibid.

Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW)

According to authoritative sources, highly violent conflicts increased in Africa in 2012, becoming more frequent than at any time since 1945.9See Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Internal Displacement in Africa,” 2012, (accessed May 28, 2013). The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported a sharp rise in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) during the same period, to over 10.4 million in the 18 sub-Saharan countries it monitored—an increase linked to worsening violence throughout the region—and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported the presence of more than 13 million refugees on the continent.10 See UNHCR, “Country Operations Profile—Africa,” 2013, (accessed May 28, 2013).

 As of 2006, half a billion small arms were estimated to be in circulation around the world and were the cause of death for 300,000 to 500,000 people each year, representing 90 percent of civilian casualties in conflicts.11Anup Shah, “Small Arms—They Cause 90 Percent of Civilian Casualties,” Global Issues on Small Arms, January 21, 2006, at (accessed August 6, 2013).
 Of those weapons, an estimated 100 million were said to be in Africa in 201212W. Rumoke Ahmad, “Armed Conflicts Cost Africa $18 Billion Annually,” 2012,, cited by West African Insight, “Confronting the Challenges of Small Arms and Light Weapons,” Centre for Democratic Development in West Africa, Abuja, Nigeria, (accessed August 12, 2013). and their trafficking in the western, northern, central, and eastern regions have contributed to the violence on the continent by providing arms and financing for communal conflict, civil wars, organized crime, and armed robberies. In conflicts in West Africa, for example, 60 to 90 percent of deaths were linked to the illegal sale and proliferation of small arms and light weapons.13Ibid The civil wars in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan further exemplify the widespread destruction of lives and property associated with small arms and the resulting displacement of populations.


Terrorism continues to pose considerable threats to the African continent, with the main perpetrators being the transnational Islamic fundamentalists linked to al-Qaeda. Major targets have been Western interests, symbols of state power, public buildings, bars, and churches. Indeed, according to S. J. Morrison and P. N. Lyman, “The threat of terror to U.S. interests in Africa is concrete, rising, and discernible.”14S. J. Morrison and P. N. Lyman, “Countering the Terrorist Threat in Africa,” in Rising U.S. Stakes in Africa: Seven Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Africa Policy: A Report of the Africa Policy Advisory Panel (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2004), 104.

Among the terrorist groups operating in Africa are Al Shaabab militias in the Somali crisis, the “Boko Haram” (which means “Western education is an abomination”) in Nigeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates in Algeria and Mali, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).15For further reading on this, see Wolfram Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region,” Carnegie Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 13, 2012, (accessed July 24, 2013). According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2003 report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” Africa suffered 6,177 casualties from 296 acts of terror between 1990 and 2000, making it the continent with the second highest number of terrorist acts after Asia. In 2011, Africa experienced 978 attacks, an 11 percent increase over 2010.16U.S. Department of State, National Counterterrorism Center, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2011,” July 31, 2012, (accessed May 29, 2013).
This was attributed in large measure to more aggressive attacks conducted by Boko Haram, which also increased in number from 31 in 2010 to 136 in 2011.17Ibid.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Notably, laws, structures, and mechanisms are already in place at the continental and subregional levels to address transnational threats to Africa, and they were buttressed by the Communiqué of the 360th Meeting of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC), held on March 22, 2013, on issues of preventive diplomacy.18See AU PSC “Communiqué of the 360th Meeting” March 23, 2013, In it, the PSC noted the significant reduction in conflicts in Africa based on the collective efforts of the union, with support from its international partners.

More importantly, the PSC stressed that “the immediate priority for the AU should no longer be to adopt additional instruments but, rather, to implement the existing ones.” The council welcomed “the progress made in operationalizing the relevant provisions of the Peace and Security Council Protocol, including those pertaining to the [Continental Early Warning Systems (CEWS)] and the Panel of the Wise (PoW),” and called for “renewed efforts from all concerned to ensure effective use of them.” The council further called for “the strict observance by member states of AU’s instruments on governance, human rights, and other related issues in order to reduce the risk of conflicts and violence on the continent.”19See African Union vision statement at (accessed 20 August 2013)

The AU’s vision of “an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in global arena”,20Ibid can only be realized through the commitment and dedication of governments, their citizens, and their international partners. The current transnational security threats, however, remain a major challenge to this objective, particularly as the continent prepares a post-2015 development agenda. Addressing such threats in Africa requires major commitments and collaboration among AU member states, regional economic communities (RECs), and the AU, with support from the UN and other international organizations, and, for their efforts to be effective, certain measures must be adopted.

First, credible governance and security institutions are required, both nationally and regionally, to collaborate and fight the ongoing transnational criminal activities across the continent. Any positive change would, first and foremost, have to come from the member states of the AU and the various RECs. Their commitment and determination, facilitated by the global and regional bodies, as well as international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society organizations (CSOs), would go a long way toward minimizing identified threats.

Second, effective responses to these threats would have to be guided by the implementation of inclusive democratic governance policies, based on practices geared toward the equitable distribution of state wealth and resources, respect for the rule of law and human rights, and the assurance of transparency and accountability in the application of international instruments, strategies, and mechanisms. This would prevent problems of marginalization, exclusion, nepotism, corruption, and authoritarianism.

Third, operationally effective security agencies with adequate training and resources, coupled with appropriate oversight institutions, are needed to promote, to a greater extent, the professional conduct of security personnel and enhance their capacity and will to combat transnational threats in a coordinated, holistic, and patriotic manner.

Fourth, security agencies in the affected states and neighboring subregions must coordinate efforts to set realistic targets, come up with indicators, and design specific monitoring and evaluation strategies to review performance, as well as reinforce collective efforts toward addressing these threats.

Fifth, ongoing subregional and regional security initiatives must be reinforced through regional plans of action. These include the West African Coast Initiative (WACI), the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, and the plans of various regional counterterrorism partnerships, such as the East Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative (EACTI), West Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative (WACTI), South Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative (SACTI), and North Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative (NACTI). Such plans of action will require resources, collaboration, coordination, and coherent efforts to achieve goals and objectives. The WACI program within ECOWAS remains a credible example that should be emulated by other regions, as member states have the opportunity to pool resources to combat transnational security threats. The success of these programs will depend on prioritizing immediate, medium-term, and long-term threats, and on the level of commitment from participating member states.

Finally, African states must address the root causes of the violent conflicts on the continent that contribute to the spread of transnational crimes. Equally important, they must effectively address high levels of poverty, the marginalization of political, ethnic, religious, and social minorities, and the volatile aspects of electoral politics and governance. Sustainable peace and security will depend on meeting the hopes and aspirations of the citizenry, and will lay a firm basis for equitable and meaningful economic development.

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