news analysis advocacy

Support AfricaFocus and independent bookstores!

Make non-profit your first stop for buying books.
See books recommended by AfricaFocus.


Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!

Format for print or mobile

Africa: Understanding Organized Crime

AfricaFocus Bulletin
July 14, 2014 (140714)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"We have concluded that drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem. Drug users need help, not punishment. We believe that the consumption and possession for personal use of drugs should not be criminalised. Experience shows that criminalisation of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption. ... We caution that West Africa must not become a new front line in the failed "war on drugs," which has neither reduced drug consumption nor put traffickers out of business." - West Africa Commission on Drugs

Two recent reports, one from the West Africa Commission on Drugs cited above, and the second a report on Organized Crime in Southern Africa from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, stress both the significance of growth in organized crime on the continent and the need to avoid false solutions such as the "war on drugs" approach that criminalizes ordinary users as well as traffickers. Organized crime is an obstacle to development, the authors of the reports note. But, equally, no approach can be successful unless it addresses development and governance issues. Trafficking in drugs, wildlife, and people, moreover, all cross continental as well as national boundaries, and must be addressed in terms of both supply and demand.

For more background, see the websites of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime ( and of the West Africa Commission on Drugs

Two AfricaFocus Bulletins on related issues include:

Africa: "War on Drugs" Blowback Effects, June 14, 2011


Guinea-Bissau: Drug Trade in Broader Context

For a wider global analysis, see the website of the Global Commission on Drug Policy at Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and the Kofi Annan Foundation took the lead in setting up the West Africa Commission on Drugs. Other prominent world and African leaders are also involved in the two commissions, reflecting a growing trend of questioning the traditional approach of the "war on drugs."

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Analysis: Understanding organized crime in Africa

by Philippa Garson

IRIN humanitarian news and analysis, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

July 3, 2014

[Excerpts: full article available at]

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

New York, 3 July 2014 (IRIN) - 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.


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 militia."

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 Netherlands.


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 initiatives.

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."


Unholy Alliances: Organized Crime in Southern Africa

Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung

June 2014

[Excerpts: full report available at; direct URL:]

Evolution and Growth of Organized Crime in Post-Colonial Africa

While organized crime is not new, the scope, scale and impact of it in recent years are unprecedented. Organized crime has been considered to be one of the greatest threats to global security, stability and development, and is one of the five priorities of the UN Secretary-General's Action Plan.

The growth and evolution of organized crime in Africa is deeply interwoven within the fabric and nature of post-colonial States, being both a response to and a driver of emerging and weak governance frameworks, often authoritarian regimes, transitioning economies and fragile social structures characterised by widespread poverty and income inequality.

Globalisation and technology have brought economic growth, increased stability and development in sub-Saharan Africa, but this has arguably occurred in spite of the state, rather than because of it. In a number of the countries in Southern Africa, criminal groups have taken advantage of weak states and low regulatory capacity to grow their illicit activities.

The manifestations of organised crime in Africa are many and varied, ranging from natural resources crimes, exploiting southern Africa's wealth in minerals, hydrocarbons, flora and fauna; to domestic and transit trades in drugs, arms and people. Southern Africa is both victim to and a proponent of cybercrime and other emerging technology based crimes.

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. Mentions and resolutions of organized crime in the UN Security have increased dramatically between 2005 and 2013. A further breakdown reveals that 80% of these mentions and resolutions were focused on Africa, yet there are very few focused on Central America or other regions. This indicates that the UN views organized crime in Africa as an issue of peace, security and statehood.

By contrast, the response to organized crime in Southern Africa, both by the international community and national authorities, has largely been understood through a security lens. Interventions have been disproportionately geared towards building the capacity of law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Responses that build the resilience of communities affected by organized crime, offer development alternatives, or reinforce the capacity of civil society have been negligible. This perspective has tended to overlook, or even reinforce, the socio-political context in which organized crime can thrive.

A number of major shifts in the global economy have increasingly situated African within an international organized crime picture. The following trends are important to understand when articulating organized crime in an African context:

Major shifts in illicit markets: The growth of demand in Asia and the Middle East has impacted both legitimate and illicit trade in Africa: the economic growth in Africa has been largely attributed to commodity driven demand in Asia. 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.

A breakdown in historical differentiations between source, transit and consumers states: A number of features of modern technology have prompted the breakdown of the traditional distinction between source, transit and consumer states. Cybercrime, in particular, is a locationless crime which can be perpetrated in any jurisdiction that has sufficient connectivity, and has placed an unprecedented challenge on national law enforcement, who lack the capacity and skills to respond. The emergence of designer drugs, e.g. amphetamines (which are more sought after in the emerging markets of the Gulf and Asia than heroin or cocaine) have delinked drug trafficking from specific production zones.

The way in which this distinction has also broken down, however, is a specific feature of organized crime on the African continent, where criminal networks have accumulated multiple illicit flows along established routes. For example - in Southern Africa, routes and relationships used to facilitate the smuggling of weapons are now used to traffic other commodities such as wildlife products.

Intractable connections between crime, governance and democracy: Participants noted that the growth of illicit networks and organized crime in Africa are interwoven into the narrative of independence and statehood on the Continent. Criminal resources were able to insert themselves into key states as sources of 'legitimate' (development or cold war) funds dried up. Multi-party democracy and the need to finance electoral processes have presented a particularly vulnerable point for criminal networks to gain influence and legitimacy.

In a number of countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, and also in Southern Africa, states suffer from widespread corruption that penetrates to the highest levels of the state. This has been indicated by a number of high-profile indictments of figures close to heads of state, or in senior law enforcement or security. This in turn has created an aura of impunity for criminal acts, which is having a corrosive effect on the rule of law more broadly.

It is increasingly evident that organized crime is having a detrimental impact on the legitimacy of states and the capacity for peace-building and central state consolidation. In a number of key contexts, recent events have demonstrated the capacity for illicit resources to empower some groups over others, altering the balance of community relations. ...

West Africa Drugs trade threatens progress

Obasanjo and Annan call on West African states to reform to drug laws and policies

June 12, 2014

News Release

West Africa Commission on Drugs

[The full report and more background is available at]

Dakar, Senegal - In a joint declaration, the West Africa Commission on Drugs concludes that drug trafficking, consumption and production in West Africa undermines institutions, threatens public health and damages development efforts. This is the key finding of the Commission's report Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa.

The scale of the cocaine trade alone through West Africa (estimated at $1.25 billion) dwarfs the combined state budgets of several countries in the region.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offences", Olusegun Obasanjo, Chair of the Commission will say.

"West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production" Mr Obasanjo will say. "The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and nonusers alike, to growing public health risks."

Kofi Annan, who initiated the West Africa Commission on Drugs, will say: "Most governments' reaction to simply criminalise drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems".

"We need to gather the required political will to go after the organized traffickers while reforming outdated laws and policies that no longer fit reality", Pedro Pires, of the West Africa Commission on Drugs will say. "We call on West African States to collaborate and make common cause against a trade that knows no borders."

"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community", Edem Kodjo, a member of the West Africa Commission on Drugs will say. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand".

For further information, please go to: or follow the Commission on Twitter at: @WACommission

About the West African Commission on Drugs

Kofi Annan, in consultation with international and regional partners, national governments and civil society organizations, convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) in January 2013 to make face to the ever-growing threats posed by drugs in West Africa.

The report is the culmination of one and a half years of engagement by the Commission with national, regional and international parties including the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It is informed by a series of background papers, drafted by leading experts from Africa and beyond.

The Declaration of the West Africa Commission on Drugs - Full text:

West Africa can look forward with optimism. Civil wars have receded, democracy has gained ground and our economies are growing. But a destructive new threat is jeopardizing this progress: with local collusion, international drug cartels are undermining our countries and communities, and devastating lives.

After looking at the evidence, consulting experts from the region and around the world, and visiting some of the most affected countries and communities in West Africa, we the Commissioners have reached a number of conclusions - detailed in this report - about how we should tackle the problems of drug trafficking and consumption.

We have concluded that drug use must be regarded primarily as a public health problem. Drug users need help, not punishment. We believe that the consumption and possession for personal use of drugs should not be criminalised. Experience shows that criminalisation of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption.

We abhor the traffickers and their accomplices, who must face the full force of the law. But the law should not be applied disproportionately to the poor, the uneducated and the vulnerable, while the powerful and well-connected slip through the enforcement net.

We caution that West Africa must not become a new front line in the failed "war on drugs," which has neither reduced drug consumption nor put traffickers out of business.

We urge the international community to share the burdens created by the rise in trafficking through West Africa, which neither produces nor consumes most of the drugs that transit the region. Nations whose citizens consume large amounts of illicit drugs must play their part and seek humane ways to reduce demand for those drugs.

We call on political leaders in West Africa to act together to change laws and policies that have not worked. Civil society must be fully engaged as a partner in this effort. Only in this way can we protect our people, as well as our political and judicial institutions, from the harm that illicit drugs can inflict.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

Read more on |Africa Peace & Security||Africa Economy & Development|

URL for this file: