Organized crime targets weak African states

UN urges stronger police, anti-corruption action to fight crime networks
From Africa Renewal: 
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Kenyan police prepare to burn cocaine sachets seized from drug smugglers Kenyan police prepare to burn cocaine sachets seized from drug smugglers.
Photograph: Reuters / Radu Sigheti

In one swoop in April, authorities in Guinea-Bissau seized 635 kilogrammes of cocaine, worth an estimated $50 mn. But the traffickers managed to escape with the rest of the 2.5-tonne consignment because the police could not give chase. United Nations Office on Drug Control (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa commended the seizure, but lamented the poor state of policing in the West African nation. “It is regrettable that the rest of the consignment was not intercepted, but hardly surprising as the police are woefully ill-equipped and often do not even have enough gasoline to operate their vehicles.”

That same month, media reports noted that drug traffickers had established a transit area along the Gulf of Guinea as a way to elude tighter policing off the coast of Europe. Fragile states in Africa are often overwhelmed by other pressing challenges such as poverty, weak public institutions or political instability and can provide a haven for such groups. One of the illicit networks, operating in Guinea-Bissau, is made up of South American suppliers, African transporters and European distributors.

Guinea-Bissau, still recovering from a civil war that ended six years ago, is particularly vulnerable. It is one of the world’s 10 poorest nations, lacking secure prisons or adequate border patrols. “All the institutions have collapsed,” explains Mr. Koli Kouame of the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). Tighter policing on the Iberian Peninsula, which has traditionally been the transit point for drugs heading for Europe from South America, is forcing the syndicates to seek alternative routes through Africa. Strategically located close to Europe and with a porous coastline made up of a labyrinth of islands, Guinea-Bissau provides an ideal sanctuary.

High demand

Demand for drugs such as cocaine is at an all-time high in Europe. A kilogramme of cocaine reportedly sells for about $80,000 in Europe, compared with $50,000 in the US, the world’s biggest market for the narcotic.

Between 2000 and 2003, African authorities managed to seize only an average of 600 kilogrammes of cocaine per year, 0.2 per cent of the drugs estimated to have been trafficked in the region during that period, UNODC noted in a report on Africa in 2005.

The case of Guinea-Bissau illustrates some of the challenges facing many poor African countries. With weak enforcement capability, underpaid officials and porous national borders, these countries provide an ideal environment for organized criminal rings to extract or tranship illicit commodities.

Africa has far fewer police per citizen than other regions. There are only 180 police per 100,000 people on the continent, while in Asia there are 363. Moreover, when police officers are underpaid and government officials are susceptible to corruption, the job of traffickers only becomes easier. Public officials can be bribed to look the other way or even be induced to work in direct collusion with traffickers.

Transnational crime syndicates deal in a wide range of illicit commodities, including narcotics, diamonds, petroleum, ivory and weapons. They also smuggle human beings. The UN has reported that 90 per cent of African countries are affected by human trafficking flows, either as a source, transit site or destination.

Policeman in Rwanda Policeman in Rwanda: Many African police forces need to be better trained, equipped and financed to tackle the challenges of organized crime and smuggling.
Photograph: Alamy Images / Alan Gignoux

Because drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling, loan-sharking and official corruption are illegal and many transactions are consensual, experts note that the extent of organized crime is hard to establish on the basis of official data, in Africa or elsewhere. “But perception surveys, as well as international crime intelligence and seizures of contraband, suggest that Africa may have become the continent most targeted by organized crime,” UNODC states in a 2005 report, Crime and Development in Africa. “Lack of official controls makes the continent vulnerable to money laundering and corruption activities, both of which are vital to the expansion of organized crime.”

Impeding development

Policy planners point out that organized crime can derail development programmes. In turn, unbalanced or inadequately planned development contributes to criminality, resulting in a vicious cycle of poverty-crime-poverty. Crime threatens security of life and property, the growth of democracy and good governance and the free exercise of human rights.

Crime also leads to the loss of scarce assets and resources. Although current data is scarce, the South African police estimated in 1998 that the country was losing more than $3 bn annually in potential revenue as a result of the operations of more than 30 Asian, Italian, Nigerian and Russian crime groups in the country.

Angola, another country recovering from conflict, is one of many in Africa that are losing millions of dollars’ worth of national resources that could be ploughed into development. The Southern African nation attracted scores of transnational crime syndicates during its decades-long civil war as the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) traded diamonds and other natural resources to fund its war against the government. When the war ended in 2002, some of its fighters switched from military activities to transnational crime.

“The loss of money through these crimes is a serious issue for the region because the money is lost by countries which can least afford to be without those kinds of resources,” says Mr. Charles Goredema of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. In Southern Africa, when gold and diamonds are smuggled, no taxes are paid on those commodities, depriving the state of resources it could otherwise use to finance basic services.

Public perceptions of high levels of crime or corruption in a country almost always dissuade potential investors. In its Crime and Development in Africa report, UNODC noted that investment levels in Africa are lower than they could be due to a perception that the rule of law does not prevail on the continent. In 2003, Africa’s share of foreign direct investment was just 8.7 per cent of the $172 bn received by all developing countries. The levels are low despite the fact that investment returns are much higher in Africa than in other developing regions.

Fighting the scourge

One way in which governments can fight the scourge of organized crime is by strengthening domestic laws to deter criminals from using those countries as transit points. When it emerged from conflict in 2002, Angola had no policy specifically designed to combat organized crime. The government argued that it had devoted all its resources to military defence. But with war over, it is now strengthening its domestic laws.

Even in more stable countries such as Uganda, inadequate legislation can hinder the fight against transnational crime syndicates. “Because of the weak laws we have in Uganda, traffickers find it convenient to transit through Uganda,” says Deputy Director of Criminal Investigations Okoth Ochola. “The current law, the National Drug Policy and Authority Act, is too lenient. If you are convicted under that act, you are either sent to prison for one year or you pay a fine of not more than one million shillings,” or about US$570. Therefore drug traffickers, who make millions of dollars, would rather risk being convicted in Uganda than in countries where the penalties are stiffer. And, Mr. Ochola adds, five years have passed since a draft bill to strengthen the law was circulated, but it has not yet been tabled in parliament.

With the assistance of the UN, some countries, including Guinea-Bissau, are carrying out security sector reforms to strengthen policing. In October 2006, the country set up a national commission to combat the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. But the government does not have enough funds to devote to the sector. The West African nation of 1.6 million people does not even have a standard high-security prison.

According to UNODC Executive Director Costa, Guinea-Bissau needs support from international funding agencies to buy police equipment, vehicles and communications systems. “If support is not forthcoming,” he says, “I fear that honest police offices could become discouraged. This country must not be allowed to become a narco-state.”

Continental strategy

Across West and Central Africa, governments’ responses to transnational organized crime have been limited mostly to updating national legislation and legal frameworks to comply with UN conventions and protocols, notes Mr. Antonio Mazzitelli of UNODC’s regional office.

So far, Mr. Mazzitelli says, that approach has yielded mixed results. “Concrete and courageous cleaning-up efforts, such as the anti-corruption campaign implemented by President Obasanjo’s government in Nigeria, should certainly produce dramatic results — if sustained long enough to ignite a virtuous cycle.”

Mr. Christophe Compaoré, coordinator of the Committee Against Illicit Drug Trafficking in Burkina Faso, argues that there “is an urgent need for all national bodies against drug trafficking in the sub-region to meet and cooperate well, to stop this scourge and dismantle the networks.” He warns that a drug transit route is opening up in the west and southwest of his country, fed by a growing network in the region. In April, police in Burkina intercepted $10 mn worth of cocaine on the border with Mali.

Countries also need to support regional institutions to effectively tackle the cross-border challenges presented by organized crime. One such body is the UN African Institute for the Prevention of Crime, established in 1989. Throughout its existence, the agency has operated with inadequate funding and, as a result, has often failed to carry out some of its substantive functions.

Another effort hindered by lack of adequate resources is the 2006-2010 African Programme of Action to fight crime. It was endorsed by members of the African Union following a conference organized by UNODC in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2005. It is a framework for technical cooperation and donor assistance to reduce the impact of crime and drugs on security and development in Africa. Some of its specific programmes include reforming criminal justice systems and developing measures to prevent money laundering, corruption and drug trafficking.

“Drug trafficking is a global issue, with a devastating impact on the well-being of the world community,” states Kenyan Assistant Health Minister Wilfred Machage. Progress in fighting the scourge will depend on greater funding, continuous disruption of drug cultivation, distribution, trafficking and marketing networks, and collaboration with regional and international law enforcement agencies, he says.

However, if left unchecked, the INCB warns in its 2006 annual report, “the problem of drug trafficking in Africa might further exacerbate existing social, economic and political problems.” Under such circumstances, weak states will only get weaker, fuelling an already growing problem.