Can cocaine seizures act as indicators of political instability in West Africa?

The number and volume of recorded cocaine seizures in West Africa spiked in 2019 and, barring a drop in 2020 (most likely the effect of operating restrictions from COVID-19), have remained unprecedentedly high since: over 25 tonnes of cocaine were seized in 2022. This glut aligns with global trends of increased seizures in the post-COVID period.1

Although this surge in seizures occurs alongside record-breaking levels of global cocaine supply,2 it is recognized that seizures are unreliable indicators of product supply, and more accurately reflect the efficacy of law enforcement agencies.3 Less explored, however, is how seizures – and in particular clusters of material seizures – may be able to provide insight into current and forthcoming political instability.

As is characteristic of high-value transit criminal economies, cocaine trafficking in certain West African countries has sustained organized protection infrastructures that can often be traced to the higher echelons of the state and its security apparatus.4 Precedent has shown that periods of political fracture or conflict in the region can be correlated to clusters of large cocaine seizures, representing cracks in the political protection complex, which (for a fee) enables trafficking to occur unimpeded.5

Recent analysis suggests that seizures tend to cluster in periods when the political system is damaged, and law enforcement agencies are able to operate with greater independence. Seizures would also appear to act as a barometer of pending instability resulting from power struggles or fracturing political systems.

We consider the contrasting cases of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Ghana to explore how seizure patterns can provide insight into political instability in West Africa.

Guinea: More political instability?

Guinea has long played a central role in the transit of cocaine through West Africa en route to Europe. Nevertheless, the country’s criminal economy has received limited scrutiny, with the spotlight typically shone on its more infamous neighbour, Guinea-Bissau. Supply and retail indicators suggest that Guinea’s cocaine economy is currently in a phase of rapid expansion.6

Guinea’s cocaine economy has been characterized by a small number of long-standing, high-level Guinean players exerting significant influence over the market with close links to the state. At least three major players started operating during President Lansana Conté’s regime in the early 2000s, faced court proceedings in 2010 under Dadis Camara (who led the military coup that displaced Conté), and appeared to continue operations under Alpha Condé: Sidiki Mara, Mamady Kallo and Moussa Traoré.7 Whether these figures are still central to Guinea’s current cocaine dynamics is disputed.

Cocaine seizures in Guinea and West Africa, 1990–2023.

Figure 1 Cocaine seizures in Guinea and West Africa, 1990–2023.

Note: 2023 figures as of May.
Source: Data collated by the GI-TOC from various sources, including UNODC, media publications and confidential sources

As shown in Figure 1, there has been an unprecedented spike in seizures in Guinea since 2022. Notably, this spike has largely been driven by seizures of large maritime consignments – 299 kilograms in February 2022; 2.6 tonnes in September; and 1.5 tonnes in April 2023. This is uncharacteristic, as large maritime drug shipments usually enjoy a higher level of operational protection than smaller consignments trafficked by air.

This cluster of bulk seizures began shortly after the 2021 coup that dislodged Condé and ushered Mamadi Doumbouya into power. It also disrupted the existing political infrastructure: not only were senior political incumbents overturned, but over 40 officers in the military, which has long been a key node in elite protection of the country’s cocaine trade, were moved into forced retirement, while several senior military posts were reshuffled.8 This is likely to have created fissures in the established, well-oiled, protection systems, resulting in the seizures by law enforcement since the new regime came to power.

This recent spate of seizures would appear to suggest that although cocaine continues to transit Guinea, the protection system that has facilitated it – and perhaps the broader system of criminal entrepreneurs – is more fragmented than it was under Condé. This has left more space for law enforcement intervention, granting novel insights into the opaque criminal cocaine economy.

The second element of the hypothesis – seizures as a forerunner of political instability – is, of course, difficult to confirm. Figure 2 tracks Guinea’s political stability, as measured by the World Bank Governance Indicators, against recorded cocaine seizures. The data clearly shows that the surge in seizures immediately preceded a dramatic deterioration in Guinea’s stability in the wake of the 2021 coup.

Political stability and cocaine seizures in Guinea.

Figure 2 Political stability and cocaine seizures in Guinea.

Note: Percentile rank indicates the country’s rank among all countries regarding perceptions of political stability and absence of violence/terrorism, with 0 corresponding to the lowest rank and 100 indicating the highest rank.
Source: GI-TOC, World Bank

Looking to the future, there have been doubts about Doumbouya’s grip on power since the coup, and while he has been able to withstand clashes with senior officials of the ruling military junta, his support base is by no means consolidated. Although Doumbouya is a member of the Guinean Special Forces, he is seen as relatively young and spent several years overseas. As a result, elements of the influential military old guard reportedly still perceive him as an outsider. The current political dynamics in Guinea are extremely fragile – the military junta seems fractured, focused on muzzling freedom of expression and providing little clarity on a path towards democracy. The recent spate of bulk seizures do indeed appear to presage yet more political instability in Guinea.9

Guinea-Bissau: The protection system slides back into place

Two bumper cocaine seizures in 2019 (789 kilograms and 1 869 kilograms) underscored Guinea-Bissau’s ongoing prominence as a transhipment point in global cocaine trafficking routes. The timing of these cocaine imports – which happened immediately before the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively – tells a revelatory story.

Firstly, the seizures are widely believed to have been dictated by the need to fund electoral campaigning.10 Secondly, they occurred during a period in the run-up to elections that was shrouded in political uncertainty. The country’s Judicial Police service were operating with independence, unfettered by the executive and supported by senior officials, including the prime minister and justice minister.

Shortly after these seizures, the political system was once again shaken to its roots: the elections closed with military forces occupying state buildings in March 2020, breaking a six-year period of military non-interference in the affairs of the state. Notably, two indicators used to compose the Fragile States Index show a marked increase in fragility since 2020.11 Looking back through Guinea-Bissau’s history, the previous cluster of recorded seizures in 2006 also shortly preceded convulsions in the political system, marked by coups and a string of political assassinations.

In the wake of the power transition, the number of seizures diminished once more. Shortly after coming to power in February 2020, President Embaló publicly stated to international media that his inauguration as president had ‘closed a chapter’ in Guinea-Bissau’s history, referring to the country’s long-running reputation as a cocaine trafficking hub.12

The seizures may have declined, but well-positioned sources state there was an increase in cocaine trafficking over this period.13 Intelligence from national and international law enforcement authorities point to the continued, and escalating, discharge of cocaine from mother ships in Bissau-Guinean territorial waters, transhipped onto smaller vessels for unloading at points along the coastline.14

Cocaine seizures, coups and political events in Guinea-Bissau, 1996–2022.

Figure 3 Cocaine seizures, coups and political events in Guinea-Bissau, 1996–2022.

Note: Percentile rank indicates the country’s rank among all countries regarding perceptions of political stability and absence of violence/terrorism, with 0 corresponding to the lowest rank and 100 indicating the highest rank.
Source: GI-TOC, World Bank

Stakeholders close to investigations into cocaine seizures in the territorial waters and ports of neighbouring countries, most prominently Senegal and Gambia, repeatedly pointed to Guinea-Bissau as the intended destination of consignments.15 For example, the 2 026 kilograms of cocaine seized on the vessel La Rosa off Dakar in October 2021 is believed to have been en route to Guinea-Bissau.16 And according to people who use drugs (PWUD) in Bissau, the price of powder cocaine is currently lower than previously. The fall in the price of cocaine suggests no current shortage of supply.17

Consequently, the marked decline in seizures in Guinea-Bissau since early 2020 appears to be an indication of the system protecting cocaine operations snapping back into place, and dramatically diminished operational freedoms among the criminal justice infrastructure, most notably of the Judicial Police.18 While 2022 saw numerous indicators of political instability – an alleged failed coup attempt, the redeployment of ECOWAS peacekeeping troops and the dissolution of the National Assembly by the president on grounds of ‘political emergency’ – many stakeholders in Guinea-Bissau do not believe presidential power is under serious threat. Instead, the political protection system appears to have re-consolidated, with growing concentration of power in the hands of the president.

Ghana has long operated as a transit point for cocaine destined for Europe. However, seizures in the country dropped after 2013 and have remained low ever since. The UNODC’s drug monitoring platform has tracked only one seizure in the country over 100 kilograms since 2014.19 This dearth is occurring against a backdrop of escalating seizures across West African coastal states. What is driving it?

Recorded cocaine seizures in Ghana, 2000–2023.

Figure 4 Recorded cocaine seizures in Ghana, 2000–2023.

Note: 2023 figures as of May.
Source: Data collated by GI-TOC from various sources, including UNODC, media publications and confidential sources

Some international and national stakeholders have suggested that enhanced security systems at ports of entry – most prominently Tema, the largest maritime port in the country and the primary entry point for cocaine – have made it more difficult for traffickers to import cocaine, leading to displacement of the trade to other countries.20 This approach uses decreased numbers of seizures as evidence of volumes. However, this is an unreliable analytical approach.21

Others working in the criminal justice system and beyond disagree with these conclusions.22 Instead, they suggest that high-level protection of cocaine trafficking, which has been long documented, means the trade is able to continue uninterrupted by the arm of the law.23 In parallel, growing intimidation of journalists has led to increased self-censorship and little coverage of the politically sensitive cocaine trade.24

Data supports this second hypothesis, namely that the seizure drought is due to uninterrupted protection. Firstly, transhipment from mother ships onto smaller vessels in the high seas, with disembarkation at coastal entry points outside official maritime ports, is common across West Africa. This form of shipping drugs to land is unaffected by enhanced screening in official ports. Secondly, there have been a number of recent large seizures in Brazil, a key export point to West Africa, of cocaine destined for Ghana.25

Thirdly, retail prices for crack cocaine in Accra, 30 kilometres from Tema, have, according to PWUD, remained the same in nominal terms – at around 10 Ghanaian Cedis per ball – between 2017 and 2023 (equivalent to €1.9 in 2017, €0.8 in 2023).26 PWUD in Accra in 2023 also report that the purity of crack cocaine has remained broadly stable since around 2015.27 Dealer testimonies indicated no change in the ease with which they purchase powder cocaine from wholesale retailers.28

Taking into account inflation, the price of crack cocaine dropped by over 60% between 2017 and 2023.29 Notably, data tracking the affordability of cocaine in European retail markets, the destination for most of the cocaine transiting Ghana, points to a 38% increase in ‘affordability’ of cocaine on European retail markets between 2015 and 2020.30

The drop in price in real terms, alongside reportedly stable purity,31 would suggest that there is more, not less, powder cocaine feeding Ghana’s crack cocaine markets. Ghana’s established consumption market has long been supplied through overspill from the transit flow of cocaine through the country, rather than primarily as a destination country in its own right. This suggests the bulk transit flow of cocaine through Ghana remains stable, or has increased, since the mid 2010s, aligning with broader regional trends. While some is likely to be entering through land borders, a proportion is likely to be imported through Ghana’s coastal areas.

The lack of disruption to retail markets, alongside ongoing seizures destined for Ghana at key export points, would appear to suggest the second analysis – pointing to a seamless protection system – may underpin Ghana’s seizure drought. The political protection system has shown little sign of fracture, even during the closely contested 2016 elections, which triggered a change in powerholders, bringing the National Patriotic Party into power.

Cocaine seizures as a tool for analyzing and predicting political instability

Analysis of illicit economies is, broadly speaking, hampered by a lack of reliable data. Seizures, whether of cocaine or other commodities, have long offered rare insights into these opaque operations. In the case of cocaine – where the nature of the trafficking market means that it is often protected by high-level elements in the state – these insights offer clues not only into the operations of the trafficking market itself, but also into the provision of protection, and in some cases the high-level political system. Strategic application of this analytical lens to cocaine seizures may hold promise for analyzing, and perhaps foretelling, political instability in transit states of West Africa and beyond.


  1. Global report on cocaine, 2023: Local dynamics, global challenges, UNODC, March 2023,

  2. Ibid. 

  3. For an overview of the use of seizure data to measure the scope and scale of organized crime, see Fiona M. Underwood, Using seizure data to measure the scope and scale of organized crime, Global Organized Crime Index – Discussion papers, GI-TOC, April 2023,

  4. Mark Shaw, ‘We pay, you pay’: Protection economies, financial flows, and violence, in Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic (eds), Beyond Convergence, World Without Order. Washington, DC: Center for Complex Operations, 2016, pp 235–250. 

  5. Mark Shaw, West Africa’s warning flares? Rethinking the significance of cocaine seizures, 8 November 2021, ENACT,

  6. Drug use is reportedly increasing, and government and civil society stakeholders are observing market growth, particularly since 2021. 

  7. Cour d’Appel de Conakry, No.05/1/03/2010; Cour D’Assises de Conakry, No.007/15/09/2010; Cour D’Assises de Conakry, No.007/15/09/2010. 

  8. Africa Intelligence, Game of bluff between Mamady Doumbouya and the army, 7 April 2022,,109766318-art

  9. For more on the deteriorating conditions since 2015, see The Fund for Peace, Fragile States Index annual report 2022, July 2022,, p 24. 

  10. See, for example, Breaking the vicious cycle: Cocaine politics in Guinea-Bissau, Mark Shaw and A Gomes, GI-TOC, May 2020. 

  11. Indicators relating to state legitimacy and public services, Fragile States Index, country data,

  12. Micael Pereira, Até onde vai a rota do narcotráfico que passa na Guiné-Bissau? Veja o vídeo da grande reportagem ‘Na rota da coca’, Expresso, 9 April 2022,–Veja-o-video-da-grande-reportagem-Na-rota-da-coca-00bf5661

  13. Interview with former Minister of Justice for Guinea-Bissau, June 2022, by phone. 

  14. Between March 2020 and December 2021, law enforcement authorities tracked the offloading of at least four large cocaine consignments in Bissau-Guinean territorial waters. Authorities were reportedly unable to act due to high-level political and military protection of the operations. Interviews with sources close to law enforcement authorities in Guinea-Bissau, January to March 2022. 

  15. Interviews with law enforcement officials in Dakar, Senegal and Banjul, Gambia, October–December 2021. 

  16. Interviews with security officials in Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Gambia, October–December 2021. 

  17. Trending at between FCFA 15 000 and FCFA 18 000 (€23–27) per gram in April 2023. Interviews with PWUD in Bissau, April 2023. 

  18. Although there is ample precedence of political influence over criminal justice infrastructure in Guinea-Bissau, it has accelerated since the current administration came to power in early 2020. 

  19. Global report on cocaine, 2023: Local dynamics, global challenges, UNODC, March 2023,

  20. Interviews with law enforcement officers, Narcotics Control Board (NACOB) representatives, Accra, May 2023. 

  21. See Fiona M Underwood, Using seizure data to measure the scope and scale of organized crime, Global Organized Crime Index – Discussion papers, GI-TOC, April 2023,

  22. Interviews with members of Ghanaian judiciary, prosecutors, NACOB representatives, PWUD, Accra, May 2023. 

  23. Not just in transit: Drugs, the state and society in West Africa, West Africa Commission on Drugs, June 2014,

  24. Interview with investigative journalist, Accra, May 2023. Ghana’s ranking in the Reporters without Borders Index, which measures press freedoms, fell in 2022 and 2023 to its worst record in 18 years. See also Press Freedom Index 2023: Ghana, Reporters without Borders,

  25. Including in 2019, 2021. Data from Brazilian Federal Police, cited in

  26. Prices according to PWUD interviews, November 2017, May 2023, Accra; Lucia Bird, Domestic drug use in Ghana: An under-reported phenomenon, 2019, Note: Some PWUD in 2023 noted that crack prices had been lower – at around GHC 6 (€0.83) – in 2021. If this price is used, the real price drop between 2021 and 2023 is 27%. 

  27. Focus group discussions with PWUD (male and female), Accra, May 2023. 

  28. Interview with low-level dealer of crack cocaine, Accra, May 2023. 

  29. Calculated using Consumer Price Index changes between 2017 and 2023. See World Bank, Consumer Price Index (2010 = 100), World Development Indicators,; Statista, Ghana: Inflation rate from 1987 to 2028,

  30. ‘Affordability’ takes into account prevailing economic conditions and purity, and represents ‘what 1 gram of a pure, “uncut” drug costs to buyers in the context of their national standard of living’. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, EU Drug Market, Cocaine (LU: Publications Office, 2022),

  31. No chemical testing was conducted on samples in either 2017 or 2023, meaning purity stability reported by PWUD cannot be confirmed.