The Challenges of Drugs, Organised Crime and Terrorism in West and Central Africa

The Challenges of Drugs, Organised Crime and Terrorism in West and Central Africa

Theme: West Africa has become an attractive location for foreign criminal networks, with West Africans as partners, and a particular criminal network model is gradually being built up and exported.[1]

Summary: There are numerous factors that explain the increased importance of West and Central Africa in the world map of transnational organised crime and criminal organisations. The effects of political, economic and social shortcomings are amplified by the concurrence of external factors such as rapid demographic growth, unchecked urbanisation, inefficient administrations and dynamic regional and worldwide diasporas. In this context, well-established foreign transnational criminal networks seeking safe operational bases for their illicit businesses (narcotics, human beings, pirated goods, illegal migration and natural resources) cooperate and cohabit with newly-born and successful West African indigenous criminal networks. The efforts made by national governments in tackling the situation have, so far, been limited mostly to legal frameworks. The situation, if not tackled in a timely and vigorous way, can slow down, if not hijack, any progress made towards the successful rooting of liberal democratic societies.

Analysis: Harsh economic and social conditions, widespread corruption, conflict and post conflict scenarios, porous borders, failing national administrations and a growing culture of impunity feed the development of criminal practices in the region and heighten the profile of the West and Central African regions in international criminal ventures. The inability of State actors to systematically enforce the rule of law and guarantee the security of individuals and economic stakeholders provides the most conducive environment for the development of all manner of criminal enterprises aimed at generating easy profits at the expense of human beings and societal security.

Despite some certainly promising signs, West and Central Africa continue to be a sensitive and volatile region in the world scenario. If calm reins in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea Bissau and, to a lesser extent, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, outbursts of violence marked the development of the internal crisis in the Ivory Coast, in Nigeria’s Delta region and in the Sudan’s Darfur. Turmoil and violence were reported in Guinea, whose political future is as uncertain as the health of its current President. In Togo a quasi-military coup following the sudden death of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma in January 2005 halted political dialogue with the European Union (EU) aimed at ending economic sanctions and justified the call for additional sanctions by both the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In Mauritania, the international community (and the AU in particular) silently welcomed the coup that in August 2005 ousted President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmad Taya, following the jubilation shown by ordinary Mauritanians for the coup and the immediate issuing by the provisional government of a 19-month transition programme.

With varying ethnic conditions, cultural backgrounds and the endowment of natural resources, Central and West African countries share some of the world’s lowest standards of living. Eleven of the fifteen members of ECOWAS[2] and seven of the eleven members of ECCAS[3] are among the 30 countries at the bottom of the 2005 UNDP Human Development index.[4] Wide inequality in the distribution of wealth, unchecked demographic growth associated to rapid –uncontrolled– urbanisation, are all features common to West and Central African societies and factors contributing to the increased importance of crime and criminal activities as an option for individuals to break of the poverty cycle. The very structure of many West and Central African economies, based on the exploitation of natural resources (mining or single-crop export-oriented agriculture), coupled with a patrimonial conception of the State, within which national natural and financial resources ‘belong’ to the individual(s) in power, also contribute to create a conducive environment in which flouting the law and using institutional prerogatives for private goals is not only justified but even considered an indicator of power. All such factors attract unscrupulous economic operators, facilitate the establishment and development of local and transnational criminal networks and promote the rooting of a cultural model in which money can buy everything (including impunity, political power, social consideration and respectability).

West African seashores and ports have become the hub of transatlantic cocaine trafficking. In addition to large cocaine shipments transported by sea, stocked in West Africa and rerouted to final destinations in western countries, hard drugs are smuggled by international criminal networks using ‘disposable’ human carriers with false passports and forged visas. Golden Crescent heroin enters the region mostly by air to be later re-exported to Europe and to a lesser extent the US. Several hundred West and Central Africans languish in the prisons of Thailand, Pakistan and Colombia (just to mention major drug markets) on long drug-related sentences, without mentioning the ‘mules’ killed on their way to destination markets by ruptured drug ovules. Hard drugs are not only trafficked out of the region but increasingly consumed in deadly homemade cocktails: in Liberia child soldiers reported the abuse of locally-made crack cocaine mixed with gunpowder. Cannabis cultivation is widespread for local, regional and to a lesser extent Northern European markets.

Poor security and economic conditions foster the trafficking in –and smuggling of– human beings, which prosper unabated. Children and women from all over West and Central Africa are trafficked for both labour and sexual exploitation within the region and exported to Europe, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. According to newspaper reports, West African locations are emerging as attractive destinations for sexual tourism, including its most heinous degeneration, paedophilia. The UN has reported that at least 200,000 children are trafficked annually out of West and Central Africa. The US State Department estimates that 400,000 children are involved in child labour across West Africa according to baseline studies.[5] Additionally, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Togo are among West and Central African countries with heavy trafficking of child labourers.

As regards the smuggling of illegal migrants, the region is both a point of departure and of transit. Oil producing countries in the region, such as Gabon, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea, or developed regional economies like South Africa and Nigeria, are themselves the destination of fellow Sub-Saharan migrants. In addition to African nationals, illegal Asian migrants are often smuggled to West and Central African locations on their way to final Western destinations. The easiest mode of travel is by air directly to Europe or, alternatively, to North Africa and the Middle East, from where the trip can be continued by boat. Obviously, travelling by air is cost-intensive and highly dependant on organised crime as it requires the provision of false passports, visas and supporting documents. The maritime route is used by large numbers of clandestine migrants. There have been cases in which vessels from as far afield as Cameroon and Nigeria travelled along the West African coast, the destination in most cases being the Spanish Canary Islands or the Portuguese Azores. Vessels often land in different inadequately controlled ports en route or anchor off shore to take clandestine immigrants on board from canoes. In other cases, ferries travel on established routes between two (neighbouring) countries and are used by migrants on one leg of a longer journey. The smuggling of migrants on maritime routes is also highly dependant on organised crime, as it requires some initial capital investment for purchasing and reconditioning wrecked vessels and onshore logistic basis to refuel and pick up migrants from several countries on the route. Nigerian, Ghanaian, Liberian and Senegalese crime groups are believed to be involved in such activities. Illegal migrants’ land routes run through the Sahara desert from south to north.[6] When it comes to trafficking over land, there seem to be two scenarios. In the first scenario, the migrant buys a ‘full packet solution’ from his or her place of origin. The package can include false documents, transport, accommodation, the bribery of border officials and logistic advice. In the second scenario migrants try to get as far as they can by themselves using normal roads and transport. Along the routes through the Sahara, local people have specialised in servicing migrants by providing food and accommodation, forging documents and offering transport and guidance through the desert in order to avoid detection. Smuggling routes in West and Central Africa are also being used by migrants from other continents, particularly the Far East and East Asia. Migrants from China, India and Bangladesh have been found stranded in West or North Africa. Asian migrants normally travel by air to West Africa, from where they continue by either maritime or land routes towards Europe.

The same routes used for smuggling drugs and illegal migrants appear to be used also for the flourishing trade in counterfeit and pirated items originating mostly from Far East Asia but also, according to some reports, from Latin America. The problem of counterfeit items seriously affects local industries, particularly the entertainment, food and pharmaceutical sectors. In this context, it is worth noting that, according to the World Bank Institute[7], music represents the third most important component of annual economic growth and revenue in GDP terms in Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Cameron. Intelligence gained from Interpol[8] investigations uncovered suspected connections between organised crime gangs involved in music piracy in Ghana, Guinea (Conakry), Liberia and Nigeria and Middle Eastern terrorist organisations. Examples of CDs and CDRs carrying propaganda messages from extremist groups have been found in Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria.

According to several studies, there are four to eight million light arms in West Africa alone, representing a major obstacle to the ending of civil conflicts in the region. The easy availability of small arms coupled with the inability of the State to provide due security, control over its territory and fair justice foster violent behaviour, crimes against property and eventually anarchy. The trivialisation and privatisation of the use of violence coupled with impunity and corruption are, in this context, at the root of violent strife, often ending in open civil war.

Arms exports and imports are not the only concern in volatile areas of West and Central Africa. In countries where tensions run high, the availability of weapons risks re-igniting or spreading conflict and violence. In 2002, the Nigerian Customs Service reported that it had intercepted small arms and ammunition worth more than US$30 million at border posts in a six-month period. The Nigerian government announced that in 2004 it had seized some 157,000 illegal firearms.[9]

Just as weapons are recycled from conflict to conflict in West and Central Africa, so too are untrained civilian militias, ill-disciplined fighters who move from country to country along with their weapons. The allegiance of these individuals is all too easily bought by State and non-State actors alike with the promise of looted goods or a few dollars, as proved by the cases of Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Ivory Coast. Mercenary pilots from former Soviet countries have also been employed in these countries and in other conflicts in West and Central Africa,[10] along with well-trained European and South-African former elite soldiers for attempted coups in Central and Eastern Africa.

West and Central Africa are rich in natural resources. Oil, precious stones, gold, platinum and timber are often the most important source of revenues for a number of West and Central African States. Considering the overall political context within which these resources are exploited, it goes without saying that their control is often the cause of lasting internal conflicts, and that their exploitation is the source of financing of private armies. The links between organised crime, terrorist groups and both rebel groups and rogue States/kleptocracies in Africa have been shown in a number of official UN reports, including those on Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Whether or not al-Qaeda invested in Sierra Leonean diamonds, its operatives certainly travelled and sojourned in West Africa, and funds from West African diamonds supported Hezbollah’s operations in the Lebanon. In Nigeria, around 60,000 to 100,000 oil barrels a day, worth an estimated US$4 billion a year, are siphoned off from illegally tapped pipelines and shipped abroad by international smuggling gangs. The profits are then used to finance the arms race in which criminal gangs and tribal militias are engaged, sustaining ethnic bloodletting in the oil-rich but impoverished Delta region.

Unemployment, scant capital investment, an unabated capital flow and poor infrastructures are also common features of many of the economies of the West and Central African region. External financial assistance, remittances from migrants and buoyant informal sectors often compensate for structural weaknesses, but also open the doors to all manner of illicit and criminal business practices. Beside the subsistence-oriented informal economies, parallel and shadow monopolies govern consistent parts of the national markets and economies, offering unexpected opportunities to money launderers. In December 2003, the Italian police arrested one of the most wanted men of the Sicilian mafia[11] at Senegal’s Dakar International airport on his arrival from the Ivory Coast. According to security sources, the man had important economic interests in both countries. In this context, corrupt practices are not only justified as ‘licit’ by the general public but even ‘institutionalised’ as the most palatable redistribution mechanism of national wealth. The low ranking of West and Central African States in the Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perception Index[12] mirrors the growing acknowledgement by the very governments vis-à-vis the spread of corruption at all levels of both institutions and societies.

West Africa has become an attractive location for foreign criminal networks, with West Africans as partners, and a particular criminal network model is gradually being built up and exported. Besides the well-known Nigerian networks, new ones are developing in Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Senegal. Modelled on the Nigerian ‘network’ type, such criminal organisations have in common the very loose, fragmented and business-oriented features which make them extremely successful in the global village of modern ‘disorganised’ crime.

Traditional highly-organised criminal models, such as those of well-known criminal organisations like the Sicilian Mafia, the American Cosa Nostra and Japan’s Yakuza, would indeed hardly fit the bill in the lawless and ‘hit-and-run’ conditions characterising the overall African context, where project-based, business-oriented structures are far better performers. In this respect, criminal ventures in West Africa adopt structures, modi operandi and features typical of the region’s legitimate traders and business people, with a successful entrepreneu inviting one or more junior relations or other dependents to join him[13] in the business as volume grows. The division of tasks within these structures occurs in such a way that new recruits, generally personal acquaintances or relations of the original associates, barely know the employers they are really working for, as well as how their tasks relate to assignments given to other members. The employment offered is generally limited to the project without any expectation of stable –ie, permanent– links to the structure which, on the contrary, fades away upon completion of a given project. Secrecy and an individual’s total loyalty to the group involved in the venture is further ensured by cultural pressures (eg, belonging to the same village, clan or ethnic group) and by the use of religious and black magic rituals threatening supernatural punishment in the event of betrayal.

As far as terrorism is concerned, all analysts and available reports concur on the unlikely expansion of al-Qaeda-type branches within West and Central African societies, with the exception of certain areas in northern Nigeria, Mauritania and the Sahara. On the other hand, the use of West African territory for training and logistic facilities and the establishment of operational business-oriented joint ventures between terrorist groups and local criminal networks is a far more likely scenario. Recent developments in Nigeria’s Delta region bear out the fear of local terrorist groups increasingly using violence to push forward their political and economic claims.

Conclusion: The response of West and Central African governments to the serious challenges posed to the development of their economies and societies by transnational organised crime has been mostly limited to the updating of national legislations and legal frameworks in order to come into line with UN conventions and protocols. This approach has, however, yielded mixed results, with the overall enforcement of new laws being dependent on numerous and variable factors, some of which are well beyond the control of national administrations. Concrete and courageous cleaning-up efforts such as the anti-corruption campaign implemented by President Obasanjo’s government in Nigeria should certainly produce dramatic results if sustained long enough to ignite a virtuous cycle. Similarly, the decision of giving due political and financial priority to security and transparency by countries such as Cape Verde is also an obvious positive and important signal to all countries of the region.

Most importantly, the international community as a whole has finally come to the conclusion that security, the rule of law, justice and transparency are indispensable elements (or preconditions in the case of post-conflict countries) for any sound and realistic development strategy. These factors are, indeed, the very roots of the ‘social contract’ between individuals and States, whereby the need to ensure security for all should be set within a context where an agreed law regulates the interaction between individuals. In many Western and Central African scenarios, the very essence of this contract is currently under discussion.

Figure 6. Membership of the United Nations Drug and Crime Conventions as of 20/2/2006

West Africa
   Burkina FasoXXXXXXXXXXX
   Ivory CoastXXXX
   Sierra LeoneXXXXXXXX
Central Africa
   Central African Rep.XXXX
   Rep. of CongoXXXX
   Dem. Rep. of CongoXXXXX
   Equatorial GuineaXXXXX
   São Tomé e PríncipeXXXXXXX

(1)   1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Illicit Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
(2)   2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.
(3)   Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children,    supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.
(4)   Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.
(5)   Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.
(6)   2003 United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Antonio L. Mazzitelli
Regional Representative for West and Central Africa, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Dakar, Senegal)

[1]The views expressed herewith are these of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

[2] The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

[3] The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) includes Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, (Republic of) Congo, (Democratic Republic of) Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda and São Tomé e Príncipe.

[4] 2005 World Human Development Report, UNDP. The report lists 177 countries. Due to the lack of data, the list does not include Liberia. As for individual countries, the following can be singled out: in ECOWAS, Benin (162), Burkina Faso (175), Cape Verde (105), The Ivory Coast (163), The Gambia (155), Ghana (138), Guinea (156), Guinea Bissau (172), Liberia (n.c.), Mali (174), Niger (177), Nigeria (158), Senegal (157), Sierra Leone (176) and Togo (143); in ECCAS, Angola (160), Burundi (169), Cameroon (148), Central African Republic (171), Chad (173), (Republic of) Congo (142), (Democratic Republic of) Congo (167), Equatorial Guinea (121), Gabon (123), Rwanda (159) and São Tomé e Príncipe (126).

[5] Mark Taylor, US State Department/NCM Report, Spring 2003, p. 25-28.

[6] In this report, the focus is on the land routes to northern Morocco and not on the routes to Tunisia and Libya.

[7] Presentation of the World Bank Poverty Reduction Strategy for 30 African countries in September 2002 in Dakar, Senegal.

[8] Interpol Report on Intellectual Property Pirated Goods, May 2004, p. 35-37.

[9] Thomas Madnick, Arms Trafficking in West Africa, The University of Michigan Political Review, March 2005, p. 21-25.

[10] Human Rights Watch, Report on West Africa, April 2004, and John Maynard Reinhold, The Liberal Dilemma: West African Arms Traffickers, May 2004, Ann Arbor, p. 11.

[11] Giovanni Bonomo was wanted for murder and associating with the Mafia and had been on the run for seven years. Police say he has been involved in money laundering activities for the Mafia in Namibia and South Africa.

[12] The best-performing West African country listed in the 2004 TI Corruption Perception Index ranks 64th (Ghana) and the worst 144th (Nigeria).

[13] Women criminal entrepreneurs seem to be predominant in the trafficking of girls for sexual exploitation from the Nigeria’s Delta region to Europe.