A thriving cigarette black market is depleting West African economies of tax dollars, fueling corruption, and possibly funding insurgencies, according to a report released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“West Africa has everything that criminals need: resources, a strategic location, weak governance, and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime,” said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa. The report identifies various illicit flows including humans, counterfeit medicine, toxic waste, and arms.
Annual revenue from cigarette smuggling — $774 million — is greater than Gambia’s entire national output. (Other startling facts: Trafficking in anti-malarial tablets exceeds Guinea-Bissau’s GDP and oil smuggling rivals Sierra Leone’s GDP.)
Ships from China and Eastern Europe dock in major West African ports carrying containers of smokes that lack legible invoices and serial numbers, according to the report. From these hubs, cigarettes are both sold regionally and also smuggled through the Sahara into higher-tax markets in North Africa and Europe.
The route north is largely controlled by smugglers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Islamic extremist group widely believed to have been backed by Osama bin Laden. The Center detailed terrorism financing as part of its year-long investigation of the illicit trade.