There is a tangled trafficking web that has been woven across the Sahel, which spans almost 6.000 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and is home to more than 300 million people in 10 countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.
Fake or substandard antimalarial medicines kill as many as 267,000 sub-Saharan Africans every year. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS
This is how several international specialised bodies, mainly the United Nations, depict the aggravated situation in this already highly fragile African region, which the UN describes as aregion in crisis, as those living there are prey to “chronic insecurity, climate shocks, conflict, coups, and the rise of criminal and terrorist networks.”
The Sahel criminal web deals with an unimaginable range of ‘commodities’, from chilli peppers and fake medicine, to fuel, gold, and guns, through humans and more which are being trafficked via millennia-old trade routes crisscrossing the Sahel, according to a 20 May 2023 report.
The US-led military intervention
Security has long been an issue in the region, “but the situation markedly degraded in 2011, following the NATO-led military intervention in Libya, which led to the ongoing destabilisation of the country,” explains the United Nations.
On 19 March 2011, a US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition (31 Western member-countries) launched a military intervention in Libya, with coordinated naval and air forces attacks mainly by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada, among others.
“Substandard or fake medicines, like contraband baby cough syrup, are killing almost half a million sub-Saharan Africans every year, according to a threat assessment report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.”
Since then the big oil producer Libya has been the stage of growing instability and chaos, let alone a hub of human trafficking, smuggling and slavery.
Humans, weapons, oil…
Such “ensuing chaos, and porous borders stymied efforts to stem illicit flows, and traffickers transporting looted Libyan firearms rode into the Sahel on the coattails of insurgency and the spread of terrorism,” reports the UN.
Fuel is another commodity trafficked by the main players – terrorist groups, criminal networks, and local militias.
“Armed groups now control swathes of Libya, which has become a trafficking hub.”
In fact, in addition to massive human trafficking and migrant smuggling,markets across the Sahel can be found openly selling a wide range of contraband goods, from fake medicines to AK-style assault rifles.
… And medicines that kill
“From ineffective hand sanitiser to fake antimalarial pills, an illicit trade that grew during theCOVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is being meticulously dismantled by the UN and partner countries in Africa’s Sahel region.”
Substandard or fake medicines, like contraband baby cough syrup, are killing almost half a million sub-Saharan Africans every year, according to a threat assessment report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Trafficking medication is often deadly; in just one case, 70 Gambian children died in 2022 after ingesting smuggled cough syrup.
According to the UN, health care is scarce in the region, which has among the world’s highest incidences of malaria and where infectious diseases are one of the leading causes of death.
“This disparity between the supply of and demand for medical care is at least partly filled by medicines supplied from the illegal market to treat self-diagnosed diseases or symptoms,” the report says.
It further explains that street markets and unauthorised sellers, especially in rural or conflict-affected areas, are sometimes the only sources of medicines and pharmaceutical products.
The study shows that the cost of the illegal medicine trade is high, in terms of health care and human lives.
“Fake or substandard antimalarial medicines kill as many as 267,000 sub-Saharan Africans every year. Nearly 170,000 sub-Saharan African children die every year from unauthorised antibiotics used to treat severe pneumonia.”
In the summer of 2022, 70 Gambian babies and young children died from kidney failure after ingesting cough syrup spooned out by their caregivers.
Caring for people who have used falsified or substandard medical products for malaria treatment in sub-Saharan Africa costs up to 44.7 million US dollars every year, according to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates.
Corruption is one of the main reasons the trade is allowed to flourish.
About 40% of substandard and falsified medical products reported in Sahelian countries between 2013 and 2021 land in the regulated supply chain, the report showed.
“Products diverted from the legal supply chain typically come from such exporting nations as Belgium, China, France, and India. Some end up on pharmacy shelves.”
“The perpetrators are employees of pharmaceutical companies, public officials, law enforcement officers, health agency workers and street vendors, all motivated by potential financial gain,” the report found.
Traffickers are finding ever more sophisticated routes, from working with pharmacists to taking their crimes online, according to a UNODC research brief on the issue.
While terrorist groups and non-State armed groups are commonly associated with trafficking in medical products in the Sahel, this mainly revolves around consuming medicines or levying “taxes” on shipments in areas under their control.
Far beyond the Sahel and Africa
Fighting organised crime is a central pillar in the wider battle to deal with the security crisis in the region, which UN Secretary-General, António Guterres says, poses a global threat.
“If nothing is done, the effects of terrorism, violent extremism, and organised crime will be felt far beyond the [Sahel]region and the African continent,” Guterres already warned in 2022.
Apart from repeated proposals for action and solution, evidence shows that very little has been done, if anything, to halt those merchants of death.
Who benefits from such a horrid destabilisation of 10 African countries which already rank among the poorest ones on Earth?
Baher Kamal, a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is an Egyptian-born, Spanish national, secular journalist, with over 45 years of professional experience — from reporter to special envoy to chief editor of national dailies and an international news agency. Baher is former Senior Advisor to the Director General of the international news agency IPS (Inter Press Service) and he also contributed to prestigious magazines such as TRANSCEND Media Service, GEO, Muy Interesante, and Natura, Spain. He is also publisher and editor of Human Wrongs Watch.