Organized crime causes widespread social, political and economic damage to the African continent, compromising livelihoods and threatening security and stability.

The 2021 ENACT Africa Organised Crime Index found that as many as 37% of African countries experience ‘high criminality’, which affects a worrying 61% of the continent’s population. Twenty years after the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) entered into force, it is necessary to reflect on the treaty’s effectiveness for the African continent.

In 2000, the global community adopted the UNTOC at a meeting in Palermo, Italy, with the intention of curbing the evolving contagion of organized crime. The treaty, which officially came into force on 29 September 2003, aimed to promote cooperation between countries and to encourage social and legal measures to safeguard the international community against the spread of organized crime. Almost all UN member states became parties to the treaty, including 52 of Africa’s 54 states. In fact, most African countries were early adopters of the UNTOC, with 36 states ratifying the treaty in the first five years of its existence. This is significant for a continent that experiences some of the highest levels of criminality and lowest levels of resilience worldwide.

A recent research paper, published by ENACT, reflects on two decades of the UNTOC in Africa, considering how African countries have responded to the mechanism, whether it has been successful on the continent and how its success might even be assessed. Using the Africa Organised Crime Index and the UNTOC Review Mechanism, among other sources, the research considered four representative countries – Senegal, Egypt, Kenya and South Africa – from which lessons were drawn about crime and resilience levels across the continent. In recent years criminality on the African continent has increased and resilience largely decreased, with the West African region accounting for the second-highest levels of criminality after East Africa. In North Africa, as in West Africa, resilience levels have declined and criminality is on the rise, with sustained episodes of conflict driving the growth of some criminal markets. Southern Africa, meanwhile, has relatively moderate scores for criminality – the lowest in Africa – but its resilience to organized crime has declined.

The considerable amount of time spent on the implementation of the UNTOC in Africa should mean that the continent has become better equipped to address organized crime. But the reality, as the report uncovered, is not as expected. Based on data from the Index, there appears to be no difference in crime levels across the continent between early ratifiers, late ratifiers and non-ratifiers of the UNTOC. Indeed, a key finding of the research paper is that there is no correlation between a state’s ratification date and its ability to dismantle criminal markets and combat criminal elements. Most African states were early signatories, but this has not translated into significantly improved capacity to curb criminality and increase resilience. While for some countries the length of time since ratification may coincide with a reduction in criminality and an increase in resilience, there is still no clear evidence that the UNTOC has had any direct impact on crime levels. And the prognosis for organized crime on the continent is getting poorer.

The UNTOC has been unevenly applied on the continent and with varying degrees of success. In relation to financial crimes in southern Africa, for example, there is evidence of joint investigations and collaboration in a few key cases, some of which were made possible through the use of the UNTOC. In East Africa, however, historical modes of cooperation have often been more effective at combating crime than the more recent convention. And in West Africa, other methods of international cooperation, only sometimes involving the UNTOC, have facilitated the establishment of regional networks, international and regional institutional partnerships and joint investigations and prosecutions.

Having measured the effectiveness of the UNTOC on crime prevention strategies in Africa, the report concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine conclusively whether

  • the time since a country’s ratification has a significant impact on the success of its interventions;
  • the implementation of the UNTOC is critical to state resilience to organized crime;
  • the UNTOC is essential for facilitating international cooperation against transnational organized crime; and whether
  • the UNTOC has played a central role in successful interventions against transnational organized crime.

Ultimately, African leaders cannot afford to be complacent while the harms of crime persist, and yet being party to an international convention on organized crime does not mean that governments are addressing the problem. Steps to ameliorate the threat on the continent should focus on strengthening law enforcement, improving the capacity of public institutions to target organized crime, tackling corruption and undoing the effects of state capture.

With this in mind, policymakers and experts need to ask fundamental questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of the UNTOC in Africa and seek further data and evidence to improve their understanding of what works, what does not and how the treaty’s application can be improved. A more scientific and robust approach to analysis aimed at understanding and solving the challenges involved in disrupting criminal markets in Africa is urgently needed. The next iteration of the Africa Organised Crime Index, due to be published in late 2023, may provide an opportunity to fill this gap through a consolidation of data as recommended in the paper.

Read the report here

Join the GI-TOC UN engagement mailing list that will be used to share updates, event information, analysis, and multimedia content.