WikiLeaks XXII: Once a Beacon of Freedom to Africa, Ghana Now Corrupted by Drug Trafficking

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-second in the series.

It’s no secret that West Africa has become a major transport hub for Latin American cocaine in recent years as American authorities choke off trafficking routes in the Caribbean. Most frequently, attention is focused on the weak states in the region, particularly Guinea-Bissau, where law gets sold out to the highest bidder, and order is nowhere to be found. Yet it’s become increasingly clear that traffickers are enjoying a healthy presence in the region’s stronger states as well, a fact that friends and contacts hammered home to me on a recent trip to Senegal. But new cables released by WikiLeaks this week add new depth to just how problematic the situation has become. In a series of embassy dispatches from Accra, American officials report that drug traffickers have so thoroughly corrupted the state in Ghana that the country’s president himself suspects his inner circle of advisors to be in on the act. A cable from late 2007 sets the scene:

Ghana is increasingly becoming a significant transshipment point for cocaine from South America and heroin from Southwest Asia. The majority of the narcotics flow is to Europe, although seizures have occurred on flights to the U.S. The GOG [government of Ghana] does not have a handle on the issue and lacks an overarching strategy to deal with the problem.

Worse still,

The GOG seems to focus more on small time dealers and couriers and it does not typically carry out long term investigations that result in the arrest of major drug traffickers. For example, GOG contacts in both the police Service and the President’s office have said they know the identities of the major barons, but they have not said why they have not chosen to arrest them. A Police Service contact told us the GOG does not have the political will to go after the barons. This official and other others close to the President have also told us that they cannot trust anyone when it comes to narcotics. Corruption is endemic in Ghana and pervades all aspects of society. Although difficult to measure, corruption almost certainly impacts the law enforcement organizations charged with counternarcotics efforts.

As part of an internationally coordinated effort to stem the flow of drugs through Ghana to points West, Great Britain established the Westbridge interdiction program. A cable from 2008 notes that while the program had experienced a measure of success, it also revealed the extent to which drug traffickers had penetrated Ghana’s security forces to help lubricate the flow of drugs through the country. One British anti-narcotics agent

observed NACOB [Ghana’s narcotics control board] agents at the airport (particularly Ghana Police Service officers on loan to NACOB) directing passengers away from flights receiving extra interdiction scrutiny. On one occasion, he returned unexpectedly to the airport at 4 a.m. to screen a flight. An arrested trafficker told the UK official that the trafficker had been told that Westbridge was not operating that night. A test by Westbridge officials of the cell phone SIM card of a trafficker found the phone numbers of senior NACOB officials.

For the embassy’s Charges d’Affaires, Sue Brown, this was old news.The Project Westbridge team’s concerns over the integrity of NACOB personnel at the airport are neither new nor surprising,” she comments at the end of the cable. But what follows in a report from a year later must have raised her eyebrows a bit more. Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, seemingly intent on taking charge of the fight against drug trafficking in the country,

had expressed interest in acquiring itemizers for the Presidential suite at the airport in order to screen his entourage for drugs before boarding any departing flight. According to O’Hagan, Mills wants these officials to be checked in the privacy of his suite to avoid any surprises if they are caught carrying drugs. The itemizers, similar to those provided several years ago by the U.S. Embassy through INL funding, would be sensitive, portable screening devices that can detect the drug content in minuscule drops of human sweat after recent external contact or for up to three weeks after ingestion.

Mills also asked that screeners be assigned to airport government VIP lounges to search first- and business-class travelers leaving the country. According to the cable,

NACOB believes that the VVIP lounge at the airport has been a source of drugs leaving the country. Passengers leaving the lounge are driven directly to the plane and are not searched before departure. NACOB placed two officers in the lounge to screen departing passengers, and the number of passengers using the VVIP lounge has decreased.

The only trouble seems to be that the itemizers in question are in continual need of very expensive maintenance and protection against sabotage. Nevertheless, the cable concludes that help could come from the airlines themselves which

might be willing to pay for the itemizers to be repaired, and specifically mentioned KLM and Delta…the cost of maintenance on the itemizers is less than the cost of diverting flights on which passengers suffer drug overdoses. Within the last few months…KLM has diverted to Spain two flights from Accra to Amsterdam because passengers started vomiting drugs. In both cases, the passenger died.

Once again, the timing of the cables release by WikiLeaks couldn’t be better. Just over a week ago, Ghana’s minister of the interior released a detailed statement celebrating the country’s recent success in fighting the drug trade, noting that “drug trafficking is efficiently and effectively being controlled” by authorities in Accra. And to the country’s credit, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has ceased its practice of officially labeling Ghana the “Cocaine Coast,” which must surely be a good sign.

But then again, as the Guardian’s coverage of Ghana’s unfolding WikiLeaks embarrassment highlights, taking a government’s word for things doesn’t always lead one to an accurate sense of reality. While British officials were complaining in private about Ghana’s out-of-control drug trafficking problems and their own inability to stop it, in public they were all smiles. The British Home Office, responsible for overseeing UK interdiction efforts in Ghana, publicly lauded its efforts as “‘a very good example’ of how to tackle the cocaine trade, while in a written statement, the Home Office said ‘these operations meet our drugs strategy commitment to intercept drugs and drugs couriers before they reach the UK.’”