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Ex-UN chief Kofi Annan said Thursday that drug smuggling in west Africa had aided extremists in a region where Islamists had taken control of northern Mali and risked destabilising other nations.
Annan made the comments as he launched a commission to study the problem in the Ghanaian capital Accra.
Convened by Annan and chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the West African Commission on Drugs will release a report by the end of the year with recommendations for how narcotics trafficking from South American through West Africa can be checked.
"In West Africa there is evidence that drug traffickers have linked up with extremist groups," he said. "All of these developments threaten the stability of our region as we have witnessed so graphically in Mali in recent weeks."
According to Annan, "the linkages between smugglers, criminal gangs and extremists along the coast and all the way through the Sahara is now evident for all to see.
"It's also been clear over the past couple of years there has been hostage-taking in the Sahel, cigarette smuggling and drugs are also involved. So I think what is happening in Mali cannot be seen in isolation. There is a threat to the whole region."
Chronic instability in Guinea-Bissau has made the country an attractive destination for South American druglords seeking a hub to move cocaine into Europe.
Annan said the international community tends to ignore such problems until they spill over into other countries.
"We ignored Somalia for 20 years until it came back to bite us in the form in central piracy," Annan said. "In a way, we are doing the same with Guinea-Bissau ... we've allowed it to fester."
West Africa has long been known to be a trans-shipment point for cocaine and other drugs coming from South America.
Recently however concerns have been raised about whether extremist groups wreaking havoc in the region -- most notably Islamist groups in northern Mali -- may run drugs to pay for their activities.
Obasanjo said drug cartels are now also selling to and producing drugs in west Africa.
"We have ceased to be just a transit zone. We have become a manufacturing zone and a consuming zone," Obasanjo said.