This, our second of two reports on narcotics trafficking in Niger, looks at the growth in the market for tramadol, a more recent entrant into the regional drugs economy.

While the trafficking of drugs like cocaine and cannabis resin has tended to catch the attention of analysts who follow flows of narcotics in the Sahel, trafficking and consumption of synthetic opioids in the region, and specifically the analgesic tramadol, have grown exponentially in recent years.

A December 2017 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, for example, found that ‘yearly seizures of tramadol in sub-Saharan Africa have risen from 300 kg to over 3 tons since 2013’.

Within this context, Niger has emerged as a key gateway for tramadol trafficked from Nigeria, where it is readily available and fuelling a widespread addiction crisis, partly due to the country’s lax monitoring of pharmaceuticals. From Nigeria, consignments of tramadol are trafficked mainly to consumer markets in Libya and, now, to a lesser extent, Niger and Mali.

During recent fieldwork carried about the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, interlocutors in northern Niger – including individuals involved in the transport of tramadol into Libya – indicated that the proliferation of tramadol trafficking is a result of its increased availability (barriers to the tramadol market are considerably lower than the closed circuits that move high-value products like cocaine), the ease with which it can be hidden and its increasing demand for use within the region.

Several transporters (who were directly involved with migrant smuggling) told the Global Initiative that they had started to traffic tramadol, in part to make up for lost income, but also because there is a growing regional market. Those involved in smuggling and trafficking of licit and illicit goods from Niger to Libya, and vice versa, are increasingly adding tramadol to their cargo due to the growth of the tramadol economy.

According to two smugglers who transport tramadol procured in Nigeria from Agadez to the town of Sebha, in southern Libya, the price of Tramadol increases as the product moves further north. One smuggler, who is primarily based in southern Libya, said that a quantity that can be procured for about €300 in northern Nigeria can easily sell for €4.500 in Sebha. Prices fluctuate, however, depending on availability in a given area, with shortages or delays in the supply chain in northern Nigeria influencing prices all along the route to market in Libya.

Understanding the supply chain and how the networks that move tramadol through Niger remains under-analyzed and under-researched. However, according to those who have transported tramadol, and to well-placed interlocutors familiar with certain networks, the towns of Maradi and Zinder, in southern Niger, have emerged as consolidation points for tramadol smuggled out of northern Nigeria. Some interviewees spoke of how motorbike taxis are used to smuggle small quantities across the border, for consolidation once in Niger. Others, including Nigerien law-enforcement officials, indicated that couriers, often Nigerian women travelling to Libya, are paid to carry small quantities on public transport.

In and around Agadez, another main consolidation point for onward transport into southern Libya, tramadol may be repackaged to look like another product; it is then shipped in larger trucks or 4×4 pick-ups. Several interviewees said that a prominent businessman based near Agadez, who oversees a supply chain that stretches from northern Nigeria to Agadez, pays traffickers from Libya to drive 4x4s full of repackaged tramadol. Upon completion of several trips, the trafficker is allowed to keep the vehicle as part of his payment.

Much of the information about these operations was gathered during a period in northern Niger when illicit economies, of all sorts, were in flux. If anything, today, the tramadol market in Niger is one for the taking, and given its growth and the profits to be made, it is only a matter of time that this market will become enmeshed within formal and informal political structures. Researchers, analysts and policymakers, therefore, would do well to start developing frameworks that aim to provide a better understanding of the broader political economy of tramadol trafficking in Niger.

This blog draws on interviews conducted by the author in Agadez and Niamey in December 2017.

© photo [Cooper Inveen/Al Jazeera]