360° Analysis

Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa


September 11, 2013 19:39 EDT

Organized crime in West Africa is more than a problem of terrorism and law enforcement.

The crisis in Mali has sharpened European awareness of the dangers posed by transnational organized crime in West Africa. The UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) set up in July 2013, will find itself confronted with the issue as well. But the problem of organized crime reaches far beyond the Sahel, and affects many coastal states in West Africa. Nor can it be reduced to the “crime-terror nexus” and the drug trade. Transnational criminal activities in the region are more diverse than that, the challenges more complex: from piracy in the Gulf of Guinea to illegal extraction of natural resources, cybercrime and human trafficking. Europe is directly affected by these developments as a market and target, and, moreover, has a strong interest in West African stability. So there are various reasons for addressing the problem. However, existing efforts by the European Union and other actors to improve law enforcement will fall short if they remain isolated.

Organized crime in West Africa has acquired a new order of magnitude over the past decade. Precise figures are by nature hard to come by, but the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that since about 2005, cocaine smuggling from South America to Europe via West Africa has expanded to such an extent that it has come to endanger the stability and development of entire states. And indeed, the crisis in Mali and the 2012 coup in Guinea-Bissau are both partly connected with the drugs trade, especially in terms of the involvement of state actors.

Organized Crime in West Africa and European Interests

Although seizures of cocaine have fallen in recent years, according to official figures, most West African states remain affected by drug smuggling, which also includes the trafficking of heroin and the trade in larger quantities of cannabis for the local market. Moreover, in many places, natural resources are illegally exploited and traded, such as gold from Ghana, and diamonds, rubber and timber from Sierra Leone. The practice of stealing oil from pipelines for sale (“oil bunkering”) is prevalent in the Niger Delta.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea originally centered on Nigerian waters, but in 2011, shifted to Benin and later to Togo. West Africa is also a source, transit region and destination for human trafficking for coerced labor and sexual exploitation, while smugglers using extensive regional networks and various routes via the Sahara or Senegal convey tens of thousands of migrants seeking to reach Europe every year. Alongside Central Africa, West Africa is additionally the continent’s biggest source of illegal financial outflows.

Yet the depth and breadth of criminal activity as such are not the only cause for concern. Organized crime is intricately interwoven into the political, economic and social fabric of West African countries. For two main reasons, Europe cannot ignore the associated challenges. Firstly, as a major market, Europe is inexorably bound up with the problem of transnational organized crime in its “neighborhood.” But most of all, German and European interventions in fragile and conflict-affected states are directly confronted with the problem without being systematically prepared to deal with it.

Fragility and Gray Areas for Organized Crime

The intensity of transnational organized crime in West Africa stems from an interaction of various factors. Alongside growing integration in the global (shadow) economy and a generally noted internationalization of criminal networks, specific aspects also play a role. These include West Africa’s geographical location and regional economic integration in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as well as the underdeveloped regulatory capacities, weak law enforcement, permeable borders and high rates of corruption that create incentives for criminal actors in many of the region’s countries.

Yet the relationship between state fragility and organized crime is very complex, with smaller fragile states frequently functioning as transit zones while economically more solid neighbors with major urban centers, like Ghana or Nigeria, often serve as bases for organized crime operations like cyber-fraud (including advance fee fraud, “419 scams”) and favored places to invest the profits of crime. The harm caused is not restricted to the loss of state revenue; rather organized crime has repercussions on state and society as a whole.

Three gray areas are especially pronounced in fragile states. Firstly, it is hardly possible to distinguish “state” and “non-state” spheres in many places. Patronage and clientelism are widespread in West Africa, public offices often entangled with private interests. The importance of personal relationships and informal networks gives rise to hybrid forms of governance that facilitate the corruption or infiltration of state institutions by criminal actors. Incidents of direct participation by state actors or persons close to them are also regularly uncovered; one notable case being Ousmane Conté, arrested in 2009 shortly after the death of his father, the Guinean president, and named a “drug kingpin” by the United States in 2010.

A second gray area arises at the inter-section of war and peace. As the 2011 World Development Report emphasizes, many “post-conflict” states find themselves confronted with repeated cycles of political and criminal violence. Most West African countries have experienced armed conflict since the 1990s, and the concomitant war economies have often transformed after the official ending of hostilities, rather than completely disappearing. A civil war also leaves arms circulating uncontrolled and many ex-combatants lacking employment prospects. Transnational organized crime networks can exploit such unstable “post-conflict” phases to gain a foothold and become another source of violence. Cocaine smuggling in West Africa has not to date involved the levels of violence seen in Latin America, but political acts of violence like the 2009 assassination of the president and the armed forces chief of staff in Guinea-Bissau are certainly linked to the drugs trade.

Thirdly, the dividing line between informal and criminal business is extremely blurred. The regular and irregular economies are always closely interwoven, but in West Africa, a large slice of economic activity takes place in the informal sector. Thus, commerce largely proceeds without formal state intervention; customary practices and personal (often cross-border) networks define business relations. Here, the step from legal to illegal activity is small and not necessarily perceived as such by those involved. At least, many smuggling activities are legitimate in the eyes of local populations. Transnational organized crime groups also frequently make use of existing networks and routes such as the ancient Tuareg salt route across the Sahara to Algeria. In such contexts, it is particularly hard to identify where informal practices end and (organized) criminal activities begin. These complex manifestations of organized crime in West Africa are not amenable to simplistic isolated solutions.

Isolated Action Is Inadequate

Organized crime amplifies the problems of fragile states, especially as criminal actors usually resort to corruption and violence when necessary to defend their business interests. Important as it is to fight organized crime, isolated measures will not produce results. In some cases, they may even make matters worse. The repercussions of organized crime on peace and security, governance, statehood and socioeconomic development cannot be tackled using the familiar approaches of law enforcement alone. Many lessons can be learned from Latin America in particular, where police and security forces have themselves been involved in criminal activities and pose or posed a security threat in some areas.

In fragile states, criminal activity can also open up access to income and status for certain parts of the population that see few alternatives. Although profits are generally the priority, criminal actors do sometimes seek to accumulate social and political capital by providing services to communities. The Ghanaian politician Eric Amoateng, who was arrested in 2005 in the United States for heroin smuggling and later jailed, is a notorious example. His arrest provoked demonstrations in his constituency, and in 2011, he was honored by local “chiefs” for his contribution to development in the district. He had funded road-building, provided stipends and granted interest-free loans for a community that had been largely isolated and impoverished. Where criminal actors meet a need with such “charity,” they may generate genuine local support.

In West Africa, as elsewhere, the term “organized crime” stands for a plethora of different actor constellations. Professional, flexible transnational groups adapt quickly to changing conditions, for example, if law enforcement is stepped up. Others, such as urban gangs and groups exploiting natural resources in a particular region, are more locally tied, with a “locational advantage” hindering their ability to simply shift their radius of activity. Armed groups also frequently combine political or ideological objectives with profit-seeking, whereby the primary motivation is not always clear and may change over time. Consequently, actor-centered approaches may be problematic and particular routes, commodities or environments may offer better starting points for fighting organized crime.

Challenges for Germany and Europe

Europe has a wealth of experience in dealing with organized crime and its consequences. West Africa can certainly profit from European insights on the possibilities and limits of law enforcement and cross-border collaboration. However, this would also require an exchange of experiences from different policy fields within Germany and Europe to connect expertise on crime-fighting and prevention with operative lessons from various approaches in fragile states.

At the same time, existing programs and strategies must be adapted. Since 2009, the EU’s Cocaine Route Program has been supporting projects to fight international criminal networks in 36 states of Latin America, the Caribbean and (West) Africa. But like many other initiatives, it relies overwhelmingly on law enforcement.

At a conference on the Cocaine Route Program held in May 2013, the European Union itself underlined the necessity of including questions of governance and development as well as regional actors like the African Union. Concretely, that could mean including the issue of organized crime in existing cooperation schemes such as the Joint Africa-EU Strategy of 2007 that provides the framework for partnerships in all relevant fields, above all peace and security, governance and human rights, as well as regional integration. An intercontinental dialogue could further heighten awareness of the dangers emanating from organized crime.

The problem as such is increasingly recognized in the region, as demonstrated by various activities at the level of ECOWAS and the West Africa Commission on Drugs launched in January 2013, and chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. However, it is still early days for these initiatives, and circumstances in the individual countries differ enormously. External actors need to take this into account. Projects and operations must at least avoid side-effects that tend to further stimulate organized crime instead of reducing or containing it.

That means keeping in mind the political economy of conflict and the limited capacity, control and legitimacy of many West African states. So international actors in fragile states must be provided with instruments for adequate analysis, and expertise as well as training with a specific focus on organized crime must be integrated into existing processes. Measures to reform the justice and security sectors, to enhance the rule of law, and to prevent or contain communal violence can also make an important contribution to strengthening the resilience of West African states.

*[This article was originally published by Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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