Southern Africa’s security hinges on actioning its organised crime strategy

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Organised crime in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) seems to be worsening. Porous borders, weak governance and development deficits make the region vulnerable to drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human and wildlife trafficking, and financial crimes.

Political instability, weak government service delivery and socio-economic marginalisation provide fertile ground for extremist groups to operate. Organised crime and terrorism go hand-in-hand as the groups share common tactics such as acquiring local funding and resources, and benefit from each other’s illicit activities and networks. Terror threats in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and northern Mozambique are particularly concerning, and are causing serious humanitarian crises.

The latest data from the Global Organised Crime Index reveals that three African countries – Nigeria, DRC and South Africa – are among the most affected by organised crime globally. Two of these three are in SADC. The index evaluates all 193 United Nations (UN) member states’ criminality (their criminal markets and criminal actors) and resilience (their ability to withstand or counteract organised crime activities).

After Nigeria, DRC and South Africa rank the highest of all African countries on the criminality score. Between 2021 and 2023, South Africa climbed from 19th out of 193 countries to 7th globally. In 2021, DRC was 1st in the world rankings, improving to 5th place this year.

According to the index, the most prevalent criminal markets in SADC are human trafficking, financial crimes and arms trafficking. In 2022, a meeting of southern Africa’s police chiefs heard that financial crimes account for 43% of reported crimes in the region, resulting in the loss of billions in affected countries.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime estimates that around 3.8 million unregistered illegal firearms are in circulation in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. High arms trafficking rates in the region are primarily driven by historical and current armed conflicts, while porous borders facilitate the movement of arms, persons and other illicit commodities.

A UN Office on Drugs and Crime and SADC 2016 human trafficking report revealed that between 2014 and 2016, around 1 217 victims were officially documented in SADC. But underreporting could mean this is a fraction of actual cases. Labour and sexual exploitation were the most common forms of this crime, reported at an average of 66% and 23% respectively.

On resilience to organised crime, Africa scored the lowest of all global regions. The Global Organised Crime Index measures resilience according to the type and effectiveness of measures to mitigate the offences. Africa’s most prevalent resilience markers are international cooperation, national policies and laws, and territorial integrity.

Despite Africa’s poor ability overall to deal with organised crime, SADC countries such as Botswana, Seychelles, Malawi and Namibia scored relatively high on the resilience indicators. This could be because all 16 SADC member states have ratified the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Even so, Southern African countries face major challenges in preventing, investigating and prosecuting organised crime cases. Challenges include poor institutional capacity, corruption and a lack of political will.

For example, the implementation of SADC’s Protocol Against Corruption (2001) and its Protocol on Mining (2006) has been slow, perhaps hindered by a lack of political will or capacity. At recent events in Dar es Salaam and Lusaka on financial crime, illicit mining and explosives in SADC, experts lamented that essential protocols weren’t being put into practice. Collaborative action and regional cooperation were vital, they said.

More recently, SADC’s Transnational Organised Crime Strategy, prepared and developed in collaboration with the Institute for Security Studies’ ENACT transnational organised crime project, was accepted by all member states. The strategy is being implemented, with feedback reports from SADC member states expected this month.

After the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in 2021 found deficiencies in the ability of South Africa, DRC, Tanzania and Seychelles to curb money laundering and terror financing, the countries were placed on FATF’s grey list. The task force noted problems like inadequate record-keeping and corruption.

FATF has recently delisted Botswana, Mauritius and Zimbabwe after the countries complied with its recommendations. Botswana had been grey-listed for three years, Mauritius and Zimbabwe for two. Namibia has been placed on notice and will be re-evaluated in February 2024 if it’s not declared FATF-compliant by the end of October.

South Africa, Tanzania, DRC and Seychelles must urgently heed FATF’s advice to avoid damaging their international investments, capital flow and financial systems. Mozambique provides some good practices for the region. It was grey-listed a year before South Africa and submitted its first progress report early in 2023, in compliance with FATF’s recommendations. Mozambique now awaits a FATF assessment to be delisted.

The Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group, which oversees and coordinates anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing among member states, could help countries comply promptly with FATF’s requirements.

Given the ongoing organised crime and terror threats facing the region, deficiencies in curbing both problems must be urgently addressed. Organised crime not only threatens physical security but erodes community safety, creates fear and mistrust, and contributes to conditions conducive to terrorism.

The Global Organised Crime Index’s resilience indicators provide a useful guide for SADC states. Failing to address financial crimes and bolster laws would place countries at risk of facilitating criminal and terror groups’ activities. It also undermines the delivery of essential government services to citizens.

Written by Isel Ras, Research Consultant, Southern Africa and Willem Els, Senior Training Coordinator, ENACT, ISS Pretoria.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.