African organised crime is not all the same thing


Researchers on organised crime in Africa, are often asked where on the continent the problem is the most serious.

Implicit in that question is where internal and external prioritisation should occur if the issue is to be addressed adequately. The question is fair, but hard to answer. It requires understanding that organised crime encompasses different forms of criminal behaviour, and these have different impacts on the continent.

Broadly, there are four types of organised crime in the African context. They are all evolving in different ways – and there is some overlap between them. They also impact the continent and its citizens differently, and arguably this is what should determine where organised crime is most serious.

The first of these typologies can be seen in places where organised crime is relatively entrenched and is most recognisable to outsiders as mafia-style organisations. Here, the use of violence is a defining feature. Cape Town is one example. The city’s gangs and attached criminal networks – including corrupt connections within the police – allow observers to draw African parallels to the Italian mafia. ‘Gangs’ or mafia-style criminality in Cape Town kill, extort, traffic illicit substances and have connections to the state. These networks also have tentacles in several other South African cities.

Drug trafficking in Africa is often conducted by loose networks of criminal entrepreneurs, many with overlapping interests in the licit sector

In Nigeria, the phenomenon is slightly different. Here, relatively sophisticated networks of criminal activity – with greater global reach, but less geographic control domestically – also resemble the internationally recognised definition of organised crime. Nigerian criminal groups, for example, have a substantial hold in Italy; an achievement in itself given the crowded organised crime field there.

The second category is a more complex one. On the face of it, organised criminal networks in other parts of Africa less resemble the classic definition of criminal groups. Instead, they function as networks that link outsiders and insiders on the continent, and focus on moving illicit products or resources.

Take the case of drug trafficking on the east or west coast. This is conducted less by what we might term hardcore mafia groups, and more by loose networks of criminal entrepreneurs, many with overlapping interests in the licit economic sector.

There is also a strong intersection with what might be called ‘political protectors’ – people embedded in or paid by the networks, who ensure that illicit operations can go ahead unimpeded. Guinea-Bissau, for example, has been described by outsiders as a ‘narco state’ because of the high-level involvement of state officials in cocaine trafficking. On closer examination, however, it resembles more a set of interlocking criminal networks protecting a transit trade.

Cybercrime, or cyber-enabled crimes, are likely to increase on the continent as Internet prevalence also increases

The third category sees a strong cross-over between what might be described as loose political organisations – militias or armed groups – and trafficking or smuggling operations. Libya, the Sahel or the Horn of Africa are arguably cases in point.

While the focus is on armed groups and conflict, the role of the state is also important in this model. For example, the Malian state and the Kenyan military have proven as critical to how cross-border trafficking economies develop in those regions, as are the actions of criminal groups.  Either through their own direct involvement, as in Kenya, or by influencing which groups can be active by providing or withholding political protection, as in Mali, the state has a defining role in places where the writ of the state (any state) over large geographic localities is weak; on borderlands or on state peripheries.

Control in such places may be about taxing the movement of goods – or, as in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the products of resource extraction. Even the word ‘tax’ (although what is being talked about is essentially extortion) suggests that the groups in charge in such places have ‘state-like control functions’, even if at a low level and with the use or threat of excessive violence.Even though they display many similar characteristics to organised crime, such groups – at least in the international lexicon of organised crime studies – are seldom called that.

The fourth and final category is cybercrime. This is included as a separate category in that cybercrime, or cyber-enabled crimes, are likely to increase on the continent as Internet prevalence also increases. No one can predict how much, or in which direction, cybercrime will increase. At the moment, however, it is distinct in that there has been little intersection between the traditional criminal groups or networks described in the first three typologies, with the pockets where cyber-criminality has taken root.

Having outlined these four categories or typologies, the problem of the greatest harm becomes easier to analyse.

Each causes harm in its own way, although how harm is measured or assessed is often determined by external influence (most notably the impact elsewhere in the globe), rather than internally (local deaths or suffering, the degradation of the environment, as a result of organised crime).

Measuring harm should, by definition, be a combination of internal and external factors. The two are often interlinked. Drug trafficking may have implications external to Africa, but it also causes significant local harm to governance, stability and local markets – even if this may not be immediately apparent. Skyrocketing heroin use in cities along the east coast of Africa is a stark example. 

Guinea-Bissau’s drug trade resembles more a set of interlocking criminal networks protecting a transit trade

The degree to which organised crime is connected to both grand and local-level corruption must also be seen as a defining feature of harm. The overlay between ostensibly legitimate business actors and organised criminal ones is one of the most serious concerns.

If each of the four typologies described above is viewed through a long-term lens, then the first, namely the absent state action, is likely to continue evolving into what would be termed the African variant of classic organised crime.

The second model in the typology holds the potential to develop into a variant of the first – albeit with a looser structure and less territorial control. This would depend, however, on the political economy of the places where such criminal actors are operating.

The third category is directly linked to weakened states and zones of conflict in different parts of the continent. It largely cannot exist without the instability brought about in such conditions. Its practitioners are often weak proto-states with some form of geographic control, but this is limited and continually challenged – particularly on the periphery where criminal groups might offer alternative forms of governance.

The final category, and, as already indicated, the least understood, will grow as it has elsewhere based on several factors: Internet connectivity, the lack of other employable options for people with growing Internet skills, and the degree of organisation and sophistication that develops around the criminal economy. This includes the extent to which established criminal groups can start combining virtual threats with on-the-ground violence, a model that has already begun to play out in other forms of mobile communication.

There is no straightforward answer to the question of where organised crime is most serious. In fact, the key issue may not be the scale or severity of any specific illicit market, even though this is often the preferred metric for policy consideration.

Perhaps the most critical issue here is not where the market is strongest, but where the response from the state is the weakest or most compromised.  

The future of organised crime in Africa will be a combination of different constellations of the four typologies. How they form, evolve or dissolve will in turn depend on criminal commodities (change in global drug-trafficking patterns, for example) and external markets (such as changes to Asia’s seemingly insatiable desire for environmental products). But what will make the real difference to their impact will depend on the degree to which legitimate states, respectful of the rule of law, manage to contain them.

Mark Shaw, Director, Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime

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