Africa con­fused, con­flicted over drug con­trol

The African - - HIS­TORY - BY MARIA-GORETTI ANE

As govern­ment del­e­gates and civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions from all over the world gath­ered at the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly Spe­cial Ses­sion (UN­GASS) in New York last month, many hoped for a sober re­flec­tion of the world drug prob­lem and an hon­est as­sess­ment of what has not worked over the years. Un­for­tu­nately, how­ever, this hope was not en­tirely met.

The drug prob­lem and its re­lated “harms” tran­scend bor­ders and af­fect peo­ple across Africa and the world as a whole. Hence, in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion is be­lieved to be the way to­wards an in­te­grated and bal­anced strat­egy, and the United Na­tions places a lot of em­pha­sis and en­ergy into the achieve­ment of a “global con­sen­sus”.

The Spe­cial Ses­sion in New York saw more 20 African coun­tries (Al­ge­ria, An­gola, Benin, Burk­ina Faso, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Niger, Nige­ria, South Africa, Sene­gal, Su­dan, Tan­za­nia, Togo, Tu­nisia, Uganda and Zam­bia) par­tic­i­pate in this very im­por­tant dis­cus­sion. These coun­tries had the op­por­tu­nity to make their state­ments and con­trib­uted to the de­bate on the world drug prob­lem.

Right from the very on­set, the UN­GASS prepa­ra­tions in the re­gion did not be­gin in a spirit of “con­sen­sus”. In var­i­ous speeches through­out the de­bates, govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives stood up and con­tra­dicted one an­other on the core premises of drug con­trol.

These con­tra­dic­tions were not sur­pris­ing be­cause, be­fore UN­GASS, Africa’s en­gage­ment in the global dis­cus­sions was very low - point­ing to a broader is­sue about the en­gage­ment of African gov­ern­ments in the in­ter­na­tional drug pol­icy de­bates in Vi­enna, where all the UN­GASS prepa­ra­tions took place.

A large num­ber of African coun­tries have no per­ma­nent diplo­matic pres­ence in Vi­enna, and hence, they were largely ab­sent and unaware of the dis­cus­sions be­ing held there. In­stead, a small group of African am­bas­sadors has dom­i­nated pro­ceed­ings on be­half of the ‘Africa Group’.

Coun­tries such as Tan­za­nia, Ghana, Sene­gal and Cape Verde felt that puni­tive drug poli­cies have not worked, hence the need to move to­wards more hu­mane and ev­i­dence-based poli­cies. These few voices ar­tic­u­lated calls for peo­ple who use drugs to have ac­cess to life-sav­ing harm re­duc­tion pro­grams.

On the other hand, there were those who sought to strengthen the sta­tus quo ‘zero tol­er­ance’ ap­proach: for ex­am­ple, Egypt, Al­ge­ria and South Africa. This di­vide was best demon­strated in the con­fu­sion and con­tra­dic­tions be­tween the UN­GASS sub­mis­sions from the Africa Group in Vi­enna ver­sus the Africa Union in Ad­dis Ababa.

For those sup­port­ing harm re­duc­tion re­sponses, re­duc­ing the trans­mis­sion of HIV and hep­ati­tis would be one of the main ben­e­fits of such an ap­proach. This is a par­tic­u­larly a big is­sue for Africa, where peo­ple who use drugs are widely crim­i­nal­ized and where there are very few harm re­duc­tion pro­grammes (such as pro­vid­ing ster­ile nee­dles and sy­ringes or opi­ate sub­sti­tu­tion ther­apy) which have been proven to pre­vent HIV trans­mis­sion.

As the de­bates en­sued, the few pro­gres­sive African gov­ern­ments called for Mem­ber States to em­brace dig­nity, hu­man­ity, sci­ence, medicine and ev­i­dence-based treat­ment. The per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Repub­lic of Cape Verde, Fer­nando Wah­non Fer­reira, called for the UN­GASS to en­sure that all gov­ern­ments re­spect the fun­da­men­tal right to health, which is a great step in the right di­rec­tion.

It was re­fresh­ing to hear rel­a­tively pro­gres­sive voices from the con­ti­nent, as­sess­ing the real sit­u­a­tion and call­ing for a re­think­ing of our drug laws.

On the is­sue of de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion, some felt that the con­ti­nent is not ready in terms of in­fra­struc­ture and re­sources to han­dle this ap­proach while oth­ers be­lieved that we need to com­mit our ex­ist­ing re­sources into the health sec­tor to ad­dress this prob­lem in­stead. Out­side of Africa, a num­ber of prom­i­nent re­formist voices called for the UN­GASS to ac­knowl­edge that the old meth­ods have not worked.

Sev­eral coun­tries were also gravely con­cerned at the in­ad­e­quate ac­cess to con­trolled medicines for pal­lia­tive care, pain re­lief, and drug treat­ment. Ghana es­ti­mated that over 90% of their can­cer and AIDS pa­tients can­not be treated ad­e­quately with the cur­rent lev­els of mor­phine sup­ply - a sim­i­lar pic­ture across the re­gion. They called for a part­ner­ship be­tween civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions and Mem­ber States within the re­gion to in­te­grate ef­fec­tive pain re­lief and pal­lia­tive care into pub­lic health sys­tems.

What is the way for­ward for Africa re­gard­ing drug pol­icy re­forms?

While we might not see rad­i­cal changes like de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of drug use tak­ing place in many African coun­tries, there is hope for a con­tin­ued shift away from puni­tive ap­proaches and to­wards ap­proaches founded on pub­lic health and hu­man rights.

To main­tain this mo­men­tum, it is nec­es­sary for the con­ti­nent as a whole to use the Africa Union plat­form to dis­cuss openly the dif­fer­ent ap­proaches that will be of ben­e­fit to our cit­i­zens. Some African gov­ern­ments were com­pletely unaware of the UN­GASS dis­cus­sions be­ing held, so we must call on our gov­ern­ments to be more proac­tive on these im­por­tant is­sues. This also re­quires civil so­ci­ety en­gage­ment and part­ner­ship at the na­tional level.

In my opin­ion, I see re­form tak­ing place but at a slow pace, be­gin­ning with some coun­tries such as Ghana, Tan­za­nia, and Sene­gal cham­pi­oning the agenda and rup­tur­ing the pre­vi­ously-held con­sen­sus per­pet­u­ated by a small num­ber of vo­cal and re­gres­sive African coun­tries in Vi­enna, such as Egypt and South Africa.

To build a new par­a­digm in Africa, it calls for con­sul­ta­tion, in­clu­sive­ness, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion - in­clud­ing the mean­ing­ful par­tic­i­pa­tion of peo­ple who are most af­fected by these poli­cies.

Most del­e­gates and speak­ers at UN­GASS recog­nised that the sup­posed in­ter­na­tional “con­sen­sus” in favour of drug pro­hi­bi­tion is cur­rently crum­bling - and one won­ders if it can sur­vive the next UN high-level meet­ing on this is­sue, sched­uled for 2019.

The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed and, de­spite the best ef­forts of the ob­struc­tion­ists in Africa and else­where, the tide is turn­ing strongly in fa­vor of ev­i­dence-based and hu­mane ap­proaches to drug pol­icy re­form: Sup­port Don’t Pun­ish!

Africa may not be lead­ing this drive for re­form, but it has the po­ten­tial to play an im­por­tant role as we look for­ward.

• Maria-Goretti Ane IDPC Con­sul­tant for Africa. is

FLASH­BACK 2014: Seizure of heroin at Julius Ny­erere In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

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