17 Apr 2018

A turning point for West Africa’s fight against organised crime?

ECOWAS leadership changes may add much-needed political momentum in the region’s response to transnational organised crime.

West Africa is often portrayed as a continental hotbed for organised crime. The region has been struggling to address the many challenges posed by various illicit activities, and it is difficult to find cases where decisive action to respond to these crimes has yielded tangible or lasting results.

The area has become known for all forms of illicit trafficking; from drugs, weapons and humans to stolen cars, cigarettes, counterfeit medicines, cultural artefacts and wildlife products. Similarly, natural resources like gold, diamonds and oil are smuggled or illegally traded, as are raw products like cocoa and cashew nuts, and various consumer goods. Other forms of transnational organised crime are also rife and increasing, including money laundering, cattle rustling, cybercrime and illegal activities at sea.

This year presents a series of important opportunities for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to revisit, rethink and reinvigorate the fight against organised crime in the region. The organisation stands to significantly strengthen its role as a regional framework for policy development and action on these issues.

At the beginning of March, Jean-Claude Brou took office as the new ECOWAS Commission chairperson after being appointed by ECOWAS heads of state in December 2017. This presents an opportunity for strengthened leadership. There has also been a reshuffle of the Commission’s various portfolio holders.

West Africa is often portrayed as a continental hotbed for organised crime

It is also significant that 2018 marks 10 years since the Political Declaration on the Prevention of Drug Abuse, Illicit Drug Trafficking and Organised Crimes in West Africa was adopted at a ministerial meeting in Praïa, Cabo Verde, in 2008. It was endorsed on 19 December 2008 by the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government at their 35th ordinary summit held in Abuja, Nigeria.

Also referred to as the ‘Abuja Declaration,’ it was intended as a shared acknowledgement among West Africa’s political leadership regarding the magnitude that the scourge of drugs and, to a certain degree, organised crime, had reached in the region. It was also intended to demonstrate their commitment to finding and implementing appropriate responses.

The Abuja Declaration and its regional action plan are ECOWAS’ key political and operational frameworks regarding organised crime. But despite many references to organised crime, the focus is clearly on drugs – and more specifically, on reducing drug demand.

While this might have been an adequate reflection of the region’s main concerns in 2008, this may no longer be the case. The dynamics driving the demand and trafficking of drugs have changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Drug-related issues rightfully remain a central focus. But at the same time, various other types of transnational organised have also continued to evolve. Understanding the nature and scale of these crime types has never been more challenging; nor has their impact on West African societies been more pernicious.

Drug-related issues remain a central focus, but other types of organised crime have also continued to evolve in West Africa

There is no country in West Africa that has not been affected by organised crime; albeit in varying forms and proportions. The changes that have occurred over the past decade call for the Abuja Declaration to be revised, and the fight against transnational organised crime in the region requires new political momentum.

ECOWAS faces several limitations and challenges. First, the regional body seems unable to articulate a unified stance on organised crime, including the complex and changing ways in which it manifests and affects the region. This significantly hampers effective action.

Secondly, regional cooperation remains sorely lacking. While calls for strengthening collaboration have been repeated all too often, it is worth emphasising the need for this vital element.

Several cooperation frameworks exist within ECOWAS, including the Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters (1992); the Agreement on Cooperation between Police Forces in the Investigation of Criminal Matters (2002); and the Protocol Establishing the Criminal Intelligence and Investigation Bureau (CIIB – adopted in 2006).

Several cooperation frameworks exist within ECOWAS, but regional cooperation is still lacking

Designed to support member states in their fight against transnational organised crime, the CIIB is not yet in place. On the other hand, the West African Police Chiefs Committee, as well as the Committee of Chief Security Services (which provides frameworks for cooperation) are well established. However, these bodies meet infrequently, which undermines their effectiveness.

ECOWAS also has in place several political, legal and operational instruments against specific forms of organised crime. These include the Protocol on the Fight against Corruption (2001); the Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons (2006); the Counter-Terrorism Strategy and its Implementation Plan (2013); the Integrated Maritime Security Strategy and its Implementation Plan (2014) and the Drug Action Plan (2016-2020).

Unfortunately, it seems that once adopted, these instruments remain largely ineffective. As much as ECOWAS is undergoing a series of important institutional changes, the primary responsibility for fighting organised crime remains with the member states. Stepping up to this challenge calls for ECOWAS to intensify its advocacy so that member states take full ownership of responses and implement the instruments available.

Greater integration is also lacking within ECOWAS’ various departments. Issues related to the trafficking of people, drugs and illicit arms are currently dealt with by different departments: a disconnect that is bound to be echoed at the policy level.

Now, with new leadership in place, ECOWAS has an opportunity to invigorate its own structures, and through this to support West Africa’s leaders to address the regions’ reputation for organised crime on the continent. With decisive action and the updating and implementation of existing protocols, the region could do much to address the issues.

William Assanvo, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – West Africa, ISS

EU Flag
ENACT is funded by the European Union
ISS Donors
ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.