Researchers on organised crime are often asked where in Africa the problem is most serious. Implicit in the question is which countries should be prioritised in order to address the problem. The question is fair, but hard to answer.
Organised crime encompasses different forms of criminal behaviour, and these affect the continent differently. Broadly, Africa has four types of organised crime. They are all evolving in different ways – and there is some overlap between them. They also affect the continent and its citizens differently, and this is what should determine where organised crime is most serious.
The first of these typologies can be seen in places where organised crime is relatively entrenched and is most recognisable to outsiders as mafia-style organisations. Here the use of violence is a defining feature – for example in Cape Town.
The city’s gangs and criminal networks – including corrupt connections within the police – allow parallels to be drawn to the Italian mafia. Gangs or mafia-style criminals in Cape Town kill, extort, traffic illicit substances and have connections to the state.
In Nigeria, the phenomenon is slightly different. Relatively sophisticated criminal networks – with greater global reach, but less geographic control domestically – also resemble the recognised definition of organised crime. Nigerian criminal groups, for example, have a substantial hold in Italy; an achievement in itself given the crowded organised crime field there.
The second category of organised crime in Africa is more complex. On the face of it, criminal networks in other parts of the continent resemble less the classic definition of organised crime groups. Instead they function more as networks that link outsiders and insiders on the continent, with a focus on moving illicit products or resources.
For example, drug trafficking on Africa’s east and west coasts is conducted more by loose networks of criminal entrepreneurs than hard-core mafia-type groups. Many have overlapping interests in the legal economy. There is also a strong intersection with ‘political protectors’ – people embedded in or paid by the networks to ensure that illicit operations continue.
Guinea-Bissau, for example, has been described by outsiders as a ‘narco state’ because of the high level involvement of state officials in cocaine trafficking. But on closer examination it resembles more a set of interlocking criminal networks protecting a transit trade.
The third category sees a strong cross-over between loose political organisations – militias or armed groups – and trafficking or smuggling operations. Libya, the Sahel and Horn of Africa are examples.
While the focus is on armed groups and conflict, the role of the state is also important in this category of organised crime. For example, the Malian state and the Kenyan military have proven to be as central to the development of cross-border trafficking economies as criminal groups.
Either through direct involvement, as in Kenya, or by influencing which groups are active by providing or withholding political protection, as in Mali, government officials have a defining role when the state’s authority over large geographic localities is weak, including in border areas.
Control in such places may be about taxing the movement of goods – or, as in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the products of resource extraction. Even the word ‘tax’ (although it is essentially extortion) suggests that the groups in charge have ‘state-like functions’, even if at a low level and with the use or threat of violence.
The fourth and final category of organised crime in Africa is cybercrime. This is included as a separate category because it is likely to increase in Africa as internet prevalence increases.
Having outlined these four categories, it is easier to analyse where the greatest harm is being done. Each causes harm in its own way, although how harm is measured or assessed is often determined by external influences (notably the impact elsewhere globally), rather than internally (local deaths or suffering, or degradation of the environment).
Measuring harm should, by definition, combine internal and external factors because the two are often interlinked. Drug trafficking may have implications outside Africa, but it also causes significant local harm to governance, stability and domestic markets. Skyrocketing heroin use in cities along the east coast of Africa is an example.
The degree to which organised crime is connected to both grand and local level corruption must also be seen as a defining feature of harm. The overlap between ostensibly legitimate business actors and organised criminal ones is one of the most serious concerns.
If each of the four typologies is viewed through a long-term lens, then the first category is likely to continue evolving into the African variant of ‘classic’ organised crime. The second category holds the potential to develop into a variant of the first – albeit with a looser structure and less territorial control. But this would depend on the political economy of the places concerned.
The third category is directly linked to weak states and zones of conflict in different parts of Africa. For the most part, it cannot exist without the instability brought about in such conditions. Its practitioners are often weak proto-states with some form of geographic control, but this is limited and continually challenged, particularly when criminal groups offer alternative forms of governance.
The final category – cybercrime – is the least understood but is likely to grow based on several factors: internet connectivity, the lack of other employable options for people with growing internet skills, and the degree of organisation and sophistication that develops around the criminal economy.
There is no straightforward answer to the question of where organised crime is most serious. The key issue may not be the scale or severity of a specific illicit market – even though this tends to be the preferred metric of policy makers. Perhaps the most critical issue is not where the market is strongest, but where the response from the state is the weakest or most compromised.
The future of organised crime in Africa will be a combination of the four typologies. How they evolve or dissolve will depend on criminal commodities (such as a change in global drug trafficking patterns) and external markets (such as changes to Asia’s seemingly insatiable desire for environmental products). But what will make the real difference is the degree to which legitimate states, respectful of the rule of law, can contain organised crime.
Written by Mark Shaw, Director, Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.