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As part of the ongoing Sixth Session of its Conference of Ministers of Drug Control in Addis Ababa, the African Union has just released a new report, Comprehensive Assessment of Drug Trafficking and Organised Crime in West and Central Africa available in four languages.

Authored by a team from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime Secretariat — Mark Shaw, Tuesday Reitano, and Marcena Hunter — the report draws on over 500 documents in several languages to paint a detailed picture of the organised criminal landscape across a West and Central Africa, and to assess its implications for governance, security and development.

The report found that the victims of organized crime in these regions are often some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable societies, and organised crime exacerbates that vulnerability.  Thousands upon thousands of families in rural areas of Central Africa lack either access to quality medicines or the money to buy them, and having a family member fall ill after taking a counterfeit pill can mean extreme hardship. West Africans exploring the new opportunities that internet access affords them are all too often easy prey for the so-called 419 scammers, entrusting hard-earned savings to strangers without understanding the consequences.  Children with bright futures are subjected to abuse in the context of trafficking and exploitation of criminal groups.  And these are just a handful of the criminal pursuits common in West and Central Africa.

The report structures transnational organised crime into three categories of criminal activity: historical crimes, new and evolving crimes, and criminal enablers.  Crimes in the first category have long existed in a transnational form in the region, and include many of the region’s (and the world’s) most lucrative illicit activities: drug trafficking, human trafficking, and the smuggling of goods.  The second category includes crimes which are either more recent or, if not, have previously been restricted to more localized contexts and have only recently taken on transnational aspects; examples include cybercrime, maritime piracy, and the illegal disposal of toxic waste.  Finally, criminal enablers, such as money laundering and arms trafficking, are crimes in their own right, but are primarily practiced in the service of a larger-scale crime.

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The report comes to several noteworthy conclusions:

First, organised crime has contributed, and continues to contribute, to state fragility in West and Central Africa. This contribution can be direct, such as the Bissau-Guinean military’s extensive, hands-on participation in the cocaine trade, or it can be indirect, as when governments are unable to implement social programs because of lost tax revenue thanks to the pervasiveness of smuggling.

Second, organised crime increases violence and insecurity, although often in different ways than those seen in regions like Latin America. In the African context, the report argues, organised crime increases insecurity less by threatening the lives of individuals on a daily basis than by weakening states and thus fostering the creation of protection markets. Protection markets are less predictable and regulated than a well-functioning state police force, and therefore increase insecurity on the levels of communities and societies.

Finally, the report finds that organised crime inflicts social and economic damage on West and Central African states, by facilitating socially damaging behaviour like drug addiction and by concentrating wealth and power in the hands of comparatively few well-armed criminals.

While these represent an enormous range of difficult problems, the report offers some broadly applicable recommendations for how to better comprehend and begin to address these issues.

First and foremost, the authors note that there is a problematic dearth of African scholarship and African thinkers in the literature on transnational organised crime. According to the authors’ calculations, some 80% of all United Nations Security Council pronouncements on organised crime relate to Africa, and 51% to West or Central Africa. Yet only 8% of the more than 350 documents upon which the report is based were produced by West or Central African sources.

The implications of this are that the discourse and responses on organised crime remain driven by an external security lens, without local knowledge, expertise or ownership being mobilized in the fight against African organised crime.  The domination of the literature by external, and usually Western, sources has also meant that organised crime in West and Central Africa is generally framed in terms of the threat it poses to these foreign authors’ countries and regions rather than potentially more pressing domestic priorities.  It has thus become an issue of security and border control, rather than reducing vulnerability and improving development.

The report’s second major conclusion is that this framing needs to change, and that the debate on African organised crime needs to be reoriented towards development rather than security. The Global Initiative has outlined the reasoning in the ongoing debates around the Development Dialogue, and it holds true in the African case.  As with any other development initiative, regional and local approaches and ownership to transnational organised crime in Africa are and will remain critically important.

In its work throughout the continent, from facilitating discussions of organised crime in Southern Africa to aiding IGAD with an assessment of organised crime in its member states, the Global Initiative has worked to promote regional involvement and ownership of solutions to the TOC problem, and this report calls for more of the same.

Download the full report here: http://sa.au.int/en/content/comprehensive-assessment-drug-trafficking-and-organised-crime-west-and-central-africa

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