Home > Research > Organised Crime and Illicit Markets > African Union: A Comprehensive Assessment

African Union: A Comprehensive Assessment of Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking in Central and West Africa

An exponentially growing body of literature has heralded the expansion of organised crime in Africa. From media articles, to international reports and academic research studies, there is now a substantial library of publications that speak to the extent of the challenges that sub-Saharan Africa is facing in regards to illicit trafficking and organised crime. What was once a narrow debate restricted to specific communities, is now entwined in the continental narrative of state formation, economic development, peace and security.



The African Union commissioned Mark Shaw, Tuesday Reitano and Marcena Hunter to develop this study to:

{C}{C}{C}·         assess the impact of organised crime in West and Central Africa;

{C}{C}{C}·         build a record of the available literature;

{C}{C}{C}·         provide relevant recommendations for developing an effective response; and,

{C}{C}{C}·          identify areas where additional research is required.

The findings and conclusions draw from a review of all available documentation, in English, French and German. In total, more than 500 documents or articles were consulted, and 150 of these have been used as source material in this report, with the majority of these being drawn from recent academic source material.

A comprehensive review of the available literature on organised crime in West and Central Africa suggests that the two regions are in an important period of change: important political, economic and social shifts are being accompanied by an increase in organised crime and illicit trafficking which are in themselves shaping both on- going trends as well as the emerging nature of governance in the regions concerned. The literature charts the evolution of emerging and entrenched illicit markets with longstanding historical routes, which, under the influence of three overarching global trends and some enabling factors created conditions which facilitated the rapid evolution of new forms of organised crime. This has resulted in the picture we see today. Understanding both their extent and impact are thus be crucial elements of analysing broader shifts underway.

A key finding of the report, however, is that despite the mounting evidence of large scale organised criminal activities and the immense negative impacts it has on the two regions featured in the report, organised crime in all its forms in West and Central Africa is a surprisingly un-analysed phenomena. Much of our current understanding is driven by secondary literature on organised crime and illicit trafficking that it is written and published in the West. There are comparatively few African scholars, analysts or experts working in this area. This creates a disproportionate attention on criminal activities with a perceived threat to Europe or North America – for example, cocaine trafficking through West Africa – rather than those crimes or related impacts which most affect local populations. If African states are to confront the issue of organised crime and illicit trafficking and engage in a longer term and more informed policy debate, it is crucial to build the capacity of Africans in this area to better shape the debate and continental response.


Research on the illicit activity taking place in West and Central Africa reveals a diverse array of criminal activity and actors spread across a large geographical expanse. As such, any attempt to build a map of the continuously evolving context of organised crime in the regions involves not only identifying a number of different threads in a vast, transnational web of activity, but also how the threads connect and influence one another within West and Central Africa.

The literature revealed that criminal ventures in West and Central Africa adopt structures, modus operandi and features typical of legitimate traders and business people of the region. The West African approach has made regional criminal groups extremely successful in the global village of modern “disorganised” crime. Paired with a sizeable and well-connected diaspora community, traffickers have established themselves in most parts of the world and provide networks farther afield.


The literature further indicates that illicit or criminal markets have evolved in response to global trends, and that this evolution can be broadly divided into three inter-linked categories:

Historical Crime: Transnational crimes that have taken place in the region for a considerable period of time (at least since the late 1970s) and are well known though still evolving; 

New and evolving crimes: criminal markets which may have had longstanding roots but were not transnational in nature; and, 

Criminal enablers: which may overlap into each of the above categories and be organised crimes in their own right, but which serve as enablers for more general organised criminal activities. 
While there are unavoidable shortcomings of categorising in this way, the exercise provides a valuable framework to better understand the phenomena, which can be employed to inform and understand the potential impacts of policies and initiatives as well as raise awareness and generating political discourse. Furthermore, the classifications allow for the juxtaposition of organised crime as a metric against other state indicators, making dialogues surrounding organised crime and its impacts more accessible and bringing to the table critical development actors who must be part of future responses. 

Download the full document, or the summaries in English, French, Spanish and Arabic here:


·          A Comprehensive Review of Organised Crime and Trafficking in the IGAD Region


As global networks become increasingly intertwined and complex, so to do criminal networks.


The Centre for Criminology and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime were commissioned together by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Security Sector Programme (ISSP), the regional commission for the Horn of Africa region, to underpin a knowledge/evidence-based process of strategic planning and coordinated action to counter the region’s transnational organised crime threats.



Research on the illicit activity taking place in the IGAD region reveals a diverse array of criminal activity. Investigation reveals the evolution of entrenched illicit markets with longstanding historical routes as well as a series of emerging crimes. A legacy of conflict and poverty, overlaid by prevailing global trends and some enabling factors have fostered an environment conducive to the growth of organised criminal activity. As such, attempts to build a map of the continuously evolving context of organised crime in the region requires not only identifying a number of different threads in a vast, transnational web of activity, but also analysing how the threads connect and influence one another within the IGAD region.


The objective of this study was to conduct a comprehensive assessment study on vulnerabilities and threats of transnational organised Crime in the IGAD region. The findings and conclusions of this report draw from a review of over 350 individual publications, with more than 250 individual publications directly referenced in this report, with the majority of these being drawn from recent sources.


The report, which will be published in 2016, is structured as follows:


The Chapter 1. Introduction is intended to provide a contextual framework through which to understand some of the key concepts of the organised crime phenomena within the IGAD region, and the ways that it is interacting with communities and states. It also established a basic definitional framework as a foundation for the rest of the analysis.

Chapter 2. Organised Crime in the IGAD Region systematically reviews the dominant forms of organised crime as it has manifested in the region, exploring the evolution, modus operandi, and where possible the key actors involved in the crimes. Chapter Two covers eight categories of crimes:


{}A.     Trafficking persons and smuggling of migrants are arguably the greatest organised crime threats the IGAD region is facing. While distinct crimes, the crimes are closely interwoven and have a detrimental impact on the ability of regional populations to achieve and maintain sustainable livelihoods. While migrant smuggling has been widely covered in the media, particularly in relation to the conditions in which people transit the Mediterranean by boat, many individuals are trafficked and smuggled east towards the Persian Gulf as well as trafficked within the region. The report assesses the flows, various forms of trafficking, and victims found within the IGAD region.


{B.      Maritime piracy is historically the form of transnational crime most identified with the IGAD region, with the crime impacting the flow of world trade. While there has been success in combatting the crime, and attacks have declined from their 2009-11 high, the geographic span of piracy attacks is growing and success has come at considerable cost. The report examines current trends in maritime piracy in the region and identifies issues that must be addressed in order to achieve a long-term, sustainable response.


{C.      In regards to Narcotics trafficking, the increasing movement of heroin through the region has garnered the most attention, with large seizures made off the coast of the IGAD region. In addition, there is evidence of growing methamphetamine and cocaine flows through the region. As the region has become more accessible, specifically through increased air travel, the threat of narcotics trafficking and its impact on local populations continues to grow. The report scrutinizes current flows as well as the foreseeable expansion of narcotics trafficking in the region.

{D.     Environmental crime has grown exponentially in the IGAD region in recent years, with greater international and transnational connections than in the past. A great diversity of activities fall under the category of environmental crime: from wildlife poaching to illicit logging and mining. Demand for environmental products found in the IGAD region, such as ivory by East Asian markets and charcoal by countries in the Persian Gulf has fuelled the illicit trades and, consequently, is having a detrimental impact on the IGAD region’s environments and communities. In many ways it could be argued the impacts of environmental crime are the harms felt most acutely and directly by communities. The report assesses the various environmental crimes taking place, identifying demand markets and how extremist groups are profiting from environmental crime.


{C}{C}{C}E.      While the trafficking of small arms and light weaponry (SALW) is a criminal market in its own right, having a direct impact on peace and security in the IGAD region, it is also an important facilitator of wider patterns of organised crime. The ease at which arms are available has transformed traditional crimes in the region, such as cattle rustling and wildlife poaching, into highly violent, militarized activities. Furthermore, prevalence of SALW has led to the emergence of a protection economy around trafficking. In addition to identifying SALW flows, the report examines the impact the heavily saturated SALW market is having on border regions in the IGAD region and challenges to combatting the illicit trade.


{F.       Counterfeiting and smuggling of illicit goods is significantly under-researched compared to other organised crime types found in the IGAD region. Contributing to the challenge in assessing the scale of illicit activity in this category is the difficulty in differentiating informal trade and cross-border smuggling. Cross-border trade has long been a way of life for many communities, and smuggling networks are now exploiting these connections as a ready resource for the movement of high value illicit goods. While it may appear the counterfeiting and smuggling of illicit goods has a lesser impact on the region than other crimes, the crimes constitute a significant economic drain and endanger public health. The report outlines the a selection of organised crimes that fall under this category as well as briefly discussing harms to IGAD economies and public health.


{}G.     Cybercrime has changed the game for criminal behaviour and for law enforcement responses globally. Not only is improved technology increasing the efficiency at which criminals can commit crimes they have been committing for decades, but it also opens up a whole new host of criminal options. As regional capacity has grown and more individuals have access to the internet, cybercrime has become a growing threat. The report assesses current cybercrime threats, as well as identifies foreseeable future threats and action that can be taken to protect local populations.


{H.     Money laundering and terrorist financing pose a significant threat to security and development in the IGAD region. While two, separate crimes, both money laundering and terrorist financing exploit vulnerabilities in financial systems. Particular forms of money laundering found in the IGAD region include trade-based money laundering and the laundering of funds through real-estate transactions. Within the region, terrorist groups, such as al-Shabaab, benefit from the laundering of illicit profits, using the money to finance their activity. The report identifies methods used to launder money as well as specific financial markets vulnerable to money laundering and terrorist financing in the region. 

Addressing these categories of cross-border crime in separate chapters is not intended to suggest that they can be neatly compartmentalised or that criminal networks specialise in one type of trafficking activity only. The reality is that different criminal networks tend to use the same cross-border smuggling routes and that networks often display a degree of flexibility and ingenuity that enables them to traffic in a range of illicit commodities. For example, those involved in smuggling small arms may also be involved in smuggling drugs or counterfeit goods.


Chapter 3. Impacts examines the impact of organised crime and criminal networks on violence and instability, governance and development for the countries and populations of the IGAD region. In many cases the determination of the impacts of organised crime remains a subjective process; the lack of hard data makes it difficult to measure exactly what is at stake. At the same, however, considerable evidence suggests that the impact of organised crime in both regions is decisive and is increasing. 


Efforts to promote stability, development and human security in all its forms are undermined and diverted by organised crime and organised crime can arguably be seen as one of the principle threats to the capacity of the people in the region to achieve fundamental development and human rights targets. Organised crime poses a threat to peace and stability, distorts the political processes, initiates and perpetuates instability, undermines the licit economy, destroys communities and spreads disease, amongst a plethora of other harms. 


The chapter highlights the vulnerability factors that have exacerbated the negative impacts of organised crime and facilitated its growth. Understanding the impacts and level of harm the illicit activity causes is critical. It offers an alternative avenue to assess that scale or organised crime as well as allows relevant stakeholders to understand the costs of doing nothing, of preventing harm from occurring, and of decreasing the vulnerability and increasing the resilience of people being harmed. This allows the identification of priority areas around which an improved response would need to focus.  


Chapter 4. Legal, policy and programmatic framework of responses examines the legal, policy and programmatic framework of responses that have been employed to counter organised crime and its impacts. In doing so, the analysis seeks to identify entry points, good practices and lessons learned which could guide future efforts to achieve an efficacious strategic response to organised crime in the region.


Chapter 5. Conclusion, the final chapter of the report makes some policy recommendations for the consideration of IGAD member states. The assessment suggests that while current conditions in the region do make it an appealing zone for criminal networks to perpetuate illicit acts, there is scope for intervention. With regional cooperation there is potential for success in combatting organised crime in the IGAD region.


Recommendations made are:

}Recommendation 1: Enhance research, analysis and information dissemination on organised crime and its impact in IGAD states

To effectively combat organised crime law enforcement, governments, the public and the international community should have access to reliable information to enable an understanding of the threats and to provide a solid evidence basis for programming of counter-measures. Furthermore, if the information is going to be a catalyst of multi-dimensional responses, analysis needs to be much more strategic, feeding the issue into the development analysis framework and capturing the impact of organised crime.


{C}{C}{C}·         {C}{C}Recommendation 2: Reconsider approaches to border security

Trade regulation, illicit and informal trade have inter-dependencies, and policymakers need to carefully review incentive structures to promote and protect licit trade to the extent possible, control for the most damaging forms of illicit trade and trafficking, and transition informal economic activity into the formal sector. This is not to say that border posts are irrelevant, but that regional approaches to border security ought to be reconsidered. For example, initiatives ought to include engaging with local communities and encouraging local engagement.


{C}{C}{C}·         {C}{C}Recommendation 3: Develop and support transparent governance

The issue of transparent governance urgently requires greater attention. Specifically, there is a need for increased political will from each of the IGAD governments to break the Gordian knot of crime, governance and the corporate sector. In this regard, establishing regional frameworks of accountability can provide support to weaker states to tackle crime and corruption. Also important will be to maintain standards of transparency and accountability that focus not only on financial flows and legislation, but re-enacting a sense of accountability to the citizenship that governance is meant to serve.


{Recommendation 4: Put organised crime on the development agenda

The report has suggested there is a growing connection between organised crime and development, peace and security issue. As such, in addition to law enforcement efforts, effective responses will require much a wider and multi-sectoral approach involving the development sector. Strategies to directly counter criminal flows need to be carefully aligned with socio-economic and peace-building interventions that will support the delinking of crime and governance, of crime and livelihoods, and to enhance community resilience.


{Recommendation 5: Greater examination of the ways in which the private sector, specifically corporations, can be exploited by organised crime

Defining criminal actors in the IGAD context remains a key challenge; they cross both the legitimate and illegitimate spheres of activity and they may have strong connections with state actors, political formation and/or armed groups. As such, a more intrusive examination into the ways in which organised crime groups are exploiting the private sector is necessary. In tandem it is necessary to engage the private sector in the fight against organised crime, employing a two pronged approach which firstly deters criminal activity in the private sector and secondly incentivises the private sector to report and combat organised crime.


{C}{C}{C}·         {C}{C}Recommendation 6: Build capacity for regional cooperation encompassing all IGAD states

Despite the plethora of regional bodies active in East Africa, few of the existing operational bodies uniformly encompass all of the IGAD Member States. The building of regional capacity ought to include the standardisation of anti-organised crime legislation and establishing an additional mechanism to place police cooperation between IGAD countries on a faster and more effective track.


In sum, this report concludes a relatively rapid, though broad-reaching survey of trends in organised crime in the IGAD region, as well as assessing their impact on key issues of security and development.


The goal of the report is to provide a baseline for IGAD regional discussions and strategic discussion around common threats and prioritisation of responses can be based. It does not replace the in-depth and multi-dimensional studies that would be needed to underpin a more detailed regional strategy to respond to specific flows, particularly given the speed at which some of the more pressing challenges are transforming.  It should, however, support analysis and decision making by policymakers, practitioners and scholars both in the region and externally.