29 Feb 2024

Maritime / Organised crime risks in the Port of Douala

Cameroon’s main seaport, like many others globally, is a target for criminal networks.

In May 2023, a customs official in Douala, Cameroon, stamped a shipment of logs for export. ENACT has a copy of the document showing this. Originally from the Central African Republic (CAR), this cargo was destined for China. It seemed like a routine shipment, an everyday part of international trade.

But the company that exported these logs – Wood International Group (WIG, formerly known as Bois Rouge) – is not routine. It is part of a network of companies in Africa operated by the Wagner Group, the notorious Russian mercenary organisation. The United States placed WIG under sanctions last September.

The Wagner Group operates in the grey zone spanning both legal and illegal economies. The group has deployed mercenaries to African countries, typically in exchange for access to valuable natural resources, including gold and diamonds.Wagner-linked companies have accessed these resources using illegal, corrupt, questionable and irregular means. For years, several of these companies based in the CAR have used Douala as a hub to import equipment and export goods such as timber.

The logs exported by WIG are not the only shipments of timber to have passed through Douala with a suspicious story behind them. The port has long been a major thoroughfare for illicit timber felled in the forests of Cameroon and neighbouring countries.

In recent years, security reforms at the Port of Douala have improved oversight of goods in the port

A recent investigation by the Pulitzer Center found that despite Cameroon’s efforts to combat illegal logging, there has been a ‘troubling increase’ in illegal logging cases. Often, the illegally felled timber is ‘laundered’ through legal logging companies. They operate sawmills and warehouses close to Cameroon’s major ports, Douala and Kribi. The top destination countries are China and Vietnam.

Official trade data can be an indicator of this kind of illicit trade. COMTRADE, the United Nations database on world imports and exports, holds data on the timber imports from Cameroon declared by China and Vietnam, and what is declared as exports to these countries by Cameroon. Analysis of downloaded COMTRADE data shows that between January 2013 and December 2018 (the latest available data that can be compared), there is a gap of US$1.099 billion between these figures. This gap suggests a large volume of undeclared or illegal trade.

These examples show that the Port of Douala is used by criminal networks and conflict actors as a gateway between West and Central Africa and international markets.

Douala is the main seaport and economic capital of Cameroon. It manages just under 85% of the country’s international trade (according to estimates from port authorities). It is a key strategic hub for international trade from Cameroon and its neighbours. This includes the landlocked CAR and Chad. It is therefore not surprising that criminal networks and conflict actors have sought to use the port as a transit route.

Antwerp and Rotterdam’s ports accounted for almost 65% of the cocaine seized in all EU ports in 2020

The exploitation of transport hubs, particularly ports, by criminal networks is a universal issue. Seaports carry the vast majority of global trade – both licit and illicit. Over 80% of international goods trade is carried by sea, according to 2021 data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). This percentage is even higher for most developing countries, says UNCTAD.

Whether for fuel, grain or consumer goods, any major international supply chain relies on maritime trade. Port facilities are also a target for infiltration by criminal networks looking to gain access to international markets.

This has been observed globally, as well as in Cameroon. Studies in Europe show that the major ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam accounted for almost 65% of the cocaine seized in all European Union (EU) ports in 2020. A 2023 analysis by the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) found that ‘ports are also exploited for moving shipments of illegal goods into the EU and are vulnerable to infiltration by criminal networks.’ Europol said the sheer volume of containers transported each year made detecting illicit goods challenging.

In 2022, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s (GI-TOC) Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa mapped hotspots of illicit economies and violent conflict across West Africa. It developed the Illicit Economies and Instability Monitor to assess the role of illicit economies in fuelling instability in each hub. The mapping identified 280 hubs across 18 countries in West Africa.

Poor working conditions make workers vulnerable to recruitment and exploitation by criminal networks

One of the key findings was that ‘transport infrastructure, such as seaports and airports, are key nodes in regional and global illicit economies.’ Several coastal hubs were classified as ‘high risk’ hubs for illicit and criminal activity. This included Douala and several other Cameroonian ports.

In recent years, security reforms at the Port of Douala have improved oversight of goods in the port. The reform has brought port management in line with international standards. However, GI-TOC’s forthcoming research focusing on the Port of Douala found that vulnerabilities endure, and these improvements to physical security may be undermined by corruption.

Poor working conditions – both in the port itself and in its associated transport infrastructure – make workers vulnerable to recruitment and exploitation by criminal networks. These working conditions are also safety concerns in themselves, as they create a high risk of accidents and injuries for port workers.

Douala shows the importance of strengthening the human side of port management. Improving accountability and working conditions are key to this, in conjunction with technical and physical improvements to port security. This could also be applied to other ports and infrastructure in Africa facing similar criminal exploitation challenges.

Julia Stanyard and Eleanor Beevor, Senior Analysts, GI-TOC

Image: Z Ngnogue/WikiMedia


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