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Jun 2, 2017 | Commentary

Since the 2011 World Development Report, fragile and conflict-affected states have been understood to be a breeding ground for organised crime (as well as other security threats). This has been particularly the case for organised crime in Africa, and has resulted in a number of assumptions on how organised crime manifests on the continent.

First, organised crime is generally viewed as a phenomenon driven by outside organised crime groups (OCGs), using parts of the continent as a transit hub. This is linked to the establishment of West Africa as a hub for cocaine traffickers originating in South America. Second, this view has resulted in the assumed linkage between crime and terrorism – with groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabaab linked to different types of illicit flows, whether ivory, cocaine or cigarettes. Third, the focus on fragile and conflict-affected states has created a perception that organised crime groups active in Africa are opportunists that are filling governance vacuums and providing services to communities in areas under their control.

These assumptions are not necessarily incorrect, but they focus on organised crime emerging under particular conditions – conditions which are not present across all of Africa. Africa as a continent is increasingly diversifying, with different countries following different trajectories of democracy, violence and economic growth. Organised crime is also diversifying and it functions differently in stable countries than it does in fragile and conflict-affected states, with various implications for how organised crime is, or should be, addressed.


East African Organised Crime Increasingly Sophisticated

There are a wide range of commodities being trafficked throughout East Africa, from heroin and cocaine, to people, ivory and arms. Few of these commodities are connected however, as they have significantly different embarkation and disembarkation points. Heroin is arriving in Dar es Salaam and Mombasa on dhows departing the Makran Coast; cocaine is primarily arriving via air, such as the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Sao Paolo to Addis Ababa. Smugglers used to move people towards Yemen and the Gulf States. Now Ethiopia and Sudan are jump off points for flows through Libya and across the Mediterranean to Europe. Ivory from the region is moving into Kenya and Tanzania, before being shipped to East Asian ports.

Despite widespread instability in the region, such as Somalia, Burundi and the Sudans, Kenya and Tanzania have emerged as key hubs. Both countries have effective logistics networks in place, including good roads, sea and airports, efficient communication and enough corrupt or corruptible officials to allow goods to move reasonably freely.

Although groups involved in criminality in the region still tend to specialise, they are increasingly sharing or using the same logistics and transportation networks. Links to corrupt officials and money laundering conduits can also be used across multiple commodities even if they move in different directions and to/from different points. The sharing of these resources has fostered an evolution in how OCGs function.

Previously, much organised crime had been driven by foreign OCGs. For example, the movement of heroin was heavily controlled by Afghani and Pakistani groups, and the ivory trade was managed by East Asian syndicates with local criminals acting as agents and middle men. Local groups have started taking on more powerful roles however. For instance, the ivory trade is now overwhelmingly controlled by East African OCGs to. As these groups have taken more responsibility, they have also become more closely linked. The linkage between the Akasha family, who controlled the heroin trade in the region, and Faisal Ali, arrested for ivory smuggling, has received the most speculation.

These trends suggest that in East Africa criminality is becoming increasingly organised and business-like, the opposite of how organised crime in fragile and conflict-affected states is viewed.


West African Organised Crime Matures

Discussions of organised crime in West Africa often focuses on the growth of cocaine trafficking in the 1990s and 2000s. Although this period witnessed a resurgence in drug flows, Ghanaian and Nigerian smuggling has been traced back much further.

As a result of this history, Nigerian organised crime groups are much more business-like than other groups operating in the region. However, because Nigeria has consistently experienced some form of conflict since independence, there is an expectation that at least some criminal activity is linked to fragility and conflict.

Boko Haram has indicated a willingness to engage with organised crime groups, most notably when the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau threatened to sell the girls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 to human traffickers. Despite linkages with other violent extremist groups, the clandestine nature of Boko Haram isolates the group from global illicit flows. The pattern of ‘peaks and valleys’ of Boko Haram attacks also means the group is an unpredictable partner, which is only exacerbated by its cell-based structure.

While organised crime groups will supply the group, whether with drugs or weapons, Boko Haram and its cells will not be relied upon to facilitate global flows. As a result, criminality is more localised – an opportunistic protection economy reinforced by violence, where all goods moving through Boko Haram territory are taxed.

This also occurs where the majority of illicit flows do not gain any strategic advantage from passing through conflict-affected areas. Drug trafficking relies on sea and air routes for instance, and other activities like credit card and advanced fee fraud rely on the technological capabilities found in the major cities.

The Niger Delta is an exception. Global demand for oil means the region is more closely linked to global illicit flows. As a result, a symbiotic relationship has emerged between criminal groups, new militant groups that are emerging in the region, such as the Niger Delta Avengers, and political actors – where each is using the other to maximise opportunities for profit.

The difference though, in both the Delta and northeast Nigeria, is that none of the groups engaged in criminal activity seek to fill a governance vacuum, which has become a common modality in other fragile and conflict-affected regions. They may take advantage of the governance vacuum for economic motives, but there are few strategic motives.


Implications for Responses

African organised crime is often considered a business opportunity. Groups are exploiting the blurred line between formal and informal economies to create employment opportunities and services, becoming a quasi-state actor. This is not the case in stable countries. In this context, criminal groups resemble more traditional forms of organised crime – they are driven by a profit motive and are strategic in identifying opportunities.

Although state fragility remains a key factor in fostering criminality in parts of Africa, stable countries are becoming increasingly important as hubs where logistics and transportation networks operate relatively smoothly. Criminal operations in these countries rely on corrupting officials, which means that the standard response to organised crime – law enforcement-based solutions – are redundant. For example, in Ghana, the European Commission has invested in capacity building of key institutions fighting organised crime through the Cocaine Route Programme. The result was well-trained and effective institutions that are unable to operate because of high-level corruption.

The need for a comprehensive approach that engages with multiple factors that influence criminality has been recognised, but we are still not very good at putting it into practice. Tools developed as part of a comprehensive approach have also taken fragile and conflict-affected states as their focus. As a result, it’s not clear what a comprehensive approach looks like in stable African countries. But if we don’t respond, these groups, with their experience and networks, are well placed to move into new areas. Across Africa, water is going to become increasingly scarce, which makes it ripe for exploitation by criminal groups.


Sasha Jesperson is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery at St Mary’s University Twickenham.

Before coming to St Mary’s, Sasha was leading research on organised crime at the Royal United Services Institute, working closely with government departments to ensure that research is useful for strengthening policymaking on organised crime. Her research background is on organised crime and particularly the role of development is preventing and responding to criminal activity, and the intersection of crime and conflict.

Sasha completed her PhD at the London School of Economics. Her research examined international initiatives to address organised crime through peace building missions under the framework of the security-development nexus, comparing examples from Sierra Leone and Bosnia. Sasha also completed an MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and worked for Amnesty International for three years, primarily focusing on human rights in conflict and post-conflict contexts.

Feature Photo: Flickr/Paul Saad