Growing concern about the extent to which organized crime is
undermining stability and prosperity on the African continent is galvanizing a
search for analytical tools and a clamour for more research to understand the
contextual forces at play and how best to undermine them.

Whereas debates on organized crime primarily centered on the developed world,
and then on Latin America and Central Asia, the focus has shifted to Africa.
“Where analysts once questioned the relevance of organized crime as an issue in
Africa, it is now increasingly being perceived as a quintessentially African
concern,” reads a report, Unholy Alliances: Organized Crime in Southern
Africa,put out by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime
and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, based on discussions by a panel of experts earlier
this year. The report notes that
of the growing number of mentions and
resolutions made by the UN Security Council over the past eight years, 80
percent related to Africa.

Experts at the panel noted that there should be no “finger pointing” at the
continent or its states and that “the most developed states in the world have
roots in corruption and organized crime”. Furthermore, when trying to find
solutions, “the role of Western countries and companies as exploiters and
consumers in Africa must sit in the foreground.”

The focus on Africa has largely coincided with the accompanying realization over
the last decade that not only does organized crime threaten development but
that development-orientated solutions are necessary to combat it.

Organized crime on the continent is part of the “narrative of independence and
statehood” reads the report. The end of the Cold War and reductions in
development aid opened the space for criminal financing of state structures.
Furthermore, “multi-party democracy and the need to finance electoral processes
have presented a particularly vulnerable point for networks to gain influence
and legitimacy.”

Growing demand in Asia and the Middle East for both licit and illicit goods has
fuelled trade in Africa. “The burgeoning market for recreational drugs and
wildlife products has caused criminal networks in Africa to grow and become
increasingly professional and militarized. At the same time, demand for
recreational drugs in the Gulf, coupled with instability across North Africa,
has pulled trafficking flows eastwards,” reads the report. The rise in
amphetamine use in emerging markets in the Gulf and Asia means that drug
production is no longer confined to specific geographical areas. In southern
Africa, weapons smuggling routes from the liberation wars are now being used to
traffic wildlife products and other illicit goods.

Director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime Mark
Shaw says beyond a few examples such as the gangs of the Western Cape in South
Africa, or patterns of organized crime in Nigeria, classic definitions of
organized crime do not in his view apply to Africa. “It’s not something you can
confine to a box that occurs separately from the state and commercial
institutions. On the continent, organized crime is much more clearly linked to
these institutions.”

“Protection economy”

Shaw invokes the notion of a “protection economy” to illustrate how the various
players intersect in countries where the state’s capacity is weak. He
identifies three key components that comprise a protection economy: firstly,
provision of violence or “the people with guns” to secure the movement of
contraband, which can vary from elements in the security forces themselves to
militia, to gangs, to private security companies; secondly, corruption –
involving payment to key government officials; thirdly, criminal investment in
the communities themselves to ensure legitimacy and smooth operation, such as
payment to political parties, or financing of local facilities.

“This is a better way to understand organized crime in a particular context
where the state is weak or unable to offer protection. It allows you to look at
the whole range of state, business, criminal and community actors and
understand how they are interrelated,” adds Shaw, who believes that every major
criminal network operating on the continent contains these three elements in
varying degrees. Where the state is particularly weak “the protection economy
is most pronounced,” he says.

While the protection economy phenomenon is hardly unique to Africa it is in
evidence in many of its countries. The extent to which the state is involved
varies across the spectrum. Guinea Bissau has seen full state involvement in
the protection economy, while in Mali local players in organized crime have had
links to the state. In Libya, where there are large swathes of ungoverned
territory “protection is sold by private brokers, often with ties to certain

Where such overlaps between crime, state and politics occur, traditional law
and order responses – such as seizure of contraband and locking up culprits
(usually those at the lower levels) – won’t solve the problems, comments
Stephen Ellis, researcher at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the

Blurring of frontiers between legitimate and illegitimate enterprise

He cites failed efforts to combat the drug trade in West Africa, as an example.
There is a widespread sense among law and order contingents, he says, that they
cannot adequately address organized crime because “they don’t have the right
tools. The nature of the problem has changed but in ways that are not easy to
understand,” he adds, noting a blurring of the frontiers between legitimate and
illegitimate enterprise, particularly in so-called failed or failing states.
“The notion of a ‘failed state’ is not a term I like,” adds Ellis, “because it
does not necessarily correspond to what is happening on the ground.” However,
it is a useful tool to identify those countries where the state does not have a
monopoly on violence, he says. According to Foreign Policy’s index of
50 failed states, 32 are located in Africa.

“The work of traffickers … is facilitated by a wide range of
people, which can include business executives, politicians, members of the
security forces and the judiciary, clergymen, traditional leaders and youth”

“Many people involved in activities that are illegal may
have a high level of legitimacy locally,” says Ellis. “They may be people who
have played a formal role in politics, particularly in an era of one-party

A recent report by the West African Commission on Drugs notes that
“the work of traffickers in the region is facilitated by a wide range of
people, which can include business executives, politicians, members of the
security forces and the judiciary, clergymen, traditional leaders and youth.”
Because elections are privately funded in most parts of this region, they are
easily co-opted by drug money.

Examples of the involvement of the state and political actors in organized
crime across the continent abound – from elephant poaching and ivory trade that
implicates many countries, including Zimbabwe, Sudan, DRC, Tanzania,
Mozambique; to diamond mining in Zimbabwe; to the arms deal in South Africa; to
rhino horn trafficking (South Africa and Mozambique); to smuggling, arms and
drugs trafficking in Libya and the Sahel; to trafficking of drugs and logging
in Guinea Bissau; to trafficking of ivory, gold and diamonds in the Central
African Republic. The list goes on.

Shaw believes that the “protection economy” tool allows one to “cost protection
economies and to measure progress against them”. According to the Global
Initiative report, “consideration of the protection economy and how it operates
is an analytical tool that prompts the consideration of a broader spectrum of
issues and actors, and thus arguably can increase the likelihood of improved
interventions.” One can increase the protection costs of engaging in organized
crime by making the risk of exposure greater through dogged media
investigation, for example, says Shaw, or by helping communities become more
resilient to penetration by crime groups through successful development

A dangerous area for journalists

Investigating organized crime is easier said than done. Research by the Committee
to Protect Journalists shows that 35 percent of all journalists killed
since 1992 were covering organized crime and corruption, often more dangerous
beats for journalists than covering conflict. Furthermore, when the “the lines
between political and criminal groups are blurred in many nations” the risk for
reporters goes up.

According to the CPJ, “criminal groups are operating increasingly like armed
political forces, and armed political groups are operating increasingly as
for-profit, criminal bands. Journalists have been attacked while reporting on
collusion between crime figures and government officials, and they have been
targeted while pursuing crime or corruption stories during times of both peace
and war.”

Increasingly, development actors are
being forced to engage with the phenomenon
of organized crime as they recognize the extent to which it is enmeshed in all
levels of society and feeds off poor communities, subverting development
agendas. In the Sahel, for example, communities rely on the proceeds of
organized crime, in the same way as those in Somalia came to depend on the
proceeds of piracy, or the villagers in Mozambique on the money from rhino horn
poaching. Without alternatives, poor communities will continue to be the foot
soldiers of organized crime.

A recent Safer World report, Identifying approaches and measuring impacts
of programs focused on Transnational Organized Crime describes transnational
organized crime (TOC) as fast becoming a key development issue and notes an
increase in developmental approaches to tackling it. “TOC is largely driven by
the demand for illicit goods in rich, developed nations. However, the impacts
are felt most keenly by communities in poorer countries with weak
institutions.” According to the report, the “existence of linkages between the
various levels of the system within which TOC operates also suggest that
holistic strategies which draw on different approaches are likely to have a
higher impact.”

Source: IRIN


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