The Illicit Economies and Instability Dialogues are integral to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC)’s work in West Africa. The Dialogues are an opportunity for experts in illicit economies, civil society organizations, regional government representatives, foreign policy and development officials, external experts and stakeholders to discuss contemporary, policy-relevant themes on the intersections between illicit economies, conflict and instability in West and central Africa.

This Dialogue, the second in the series in the region, focused on protected areas in West and central Africa as geographic spaces of growing concern given the increasing encroachment of violent extremist groups, and the illicit economies transiting and based within these biospheres. In particular, the conference focused on the role of national parks in the potential southward movement of violent extremist groups from Sahelian states into coastal countries. Participants discussed how these armed groups engage with illicit economies in these areas.

There are a number of reasons why national parks tend to become hotspots for illicit activity and why armed groups, including violent extremist groups, congregate there. The first is that these are remote, often wooded or forested areas that provide numerous sites for armed groups, smugglers or traffickers to hide. As a result, the parks can serve as a refuge for groups with few options for places to base themselves or store their goods.

This use of national parks as a refuge and storage site has been seen in several parts of West Africa. Katiba Macina, a JNIM subgroup, established a presence within the Boucle du Baoulé National Park in Mali, near the Mauritanian border. The Sambisa Forest in north-east Nigeria is a well-known refuge and operational zone for Islamic State’s West Africa Province, and forests across the north-west of Nigeria – including Kamuku, Dansadua and Sububu – operate as bases for a large number of bandit groups, and areas for holding hostages and stolen cattle. Similarly, the Burkinabe portion of W national park in the WAP complex has been used to keep hostages kidnapped by JNIM, as the area is out of reach for state forces and hostages can easily be concealed from aerial patrols.

As a result, communities around national parks may be more susceptible to offers from alternative governance actors, including violent extremist armed groups. These offers are especially attractive if they allow people to engage in illicit but profitable economies freely. JNIM has been known to put forward this offer in the Est region in southern Burkina Faso, telling residents that if they cooperate with them and obey their rules, JNIM will expel state officials and rangers from the area, leaving them free to use the national park and its resources. Often this is framed in religious terms, with JNIM saying that the park is God’s creation, so residents cannot be excluded from it legitimately.

National parks, reserves and forests in West Africa identified as illicit hubs.

The Dialogues aim to enhance the links between the research and policymaking communities, strengthen civil society coalitions, and reinforce policymaking and the interventions of the development community. This report provides an overview of the discussions, addresses key themes and draws out the potential implications for regional and international actors seeking to engage in programming in these contexts.

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