22 May 2024

Organised crime in Africa / Organised crime’s role in Southern African elections

As seven countries in the region prepare for elections this year, how will organised crime influence the outcomes?

Comorians went to the polls in January, and seven more Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries – Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi and South Africa – will hold elections in 2024.

Although the democratic formation of governments will be foremost on everyone’s mind, organised criminal actors can also influence election outcomes. According to Gareth Newham, Institute for Security Studies Justice and Violence Prevention Programme Head, organised criminal groups can significantly impact elections, ‘depending on the country, its political culture and the strength of its institutions.’

Most organised crime enterprises have political goals in that they wish for the state – usually the primary provider of security – to either facilitate their business or, at least, not impede it. On the one hand, organised criminality is governments’ foe, often leading to violence, lost revenue, and declining legitimacy.

Newham says organised crime can lead to political instability if criminal networks are ‘involved in vote buying, or using intimidation to stop people from voting for certain parties in areas where they have control or influence. This can lead to instability where they may threaten physical violence against those campaigning for parties they don’t want to win. [They] have also become active in online influence operations to try to sway voter behaviour by posting false or misleading information.’

Although national governments will be foremost on everyone’s mind, criminal governance will also influence election outcomes

They might also establish or join a party to be elected into public positions themselves.

Where governments can’t mitigate the impact of organised crime, they lose voter confidence. In turn, political parties use this, especially in election manifestos and public platforms, to lobby for votes, showcasing their intention to eliminate organised crime.

However, politicians also participate in organised crime. ENACT’s Africa Organised Crime Index 2023 shows that state-embedded actors are the dominant actors in organised crime across Southern Africa. In such cases, politics and organised crime are symbiotic as politicians and criminal networks both seek to benefit from public power. How they do this depends on the electoral context and proximity to elections.

Criminal networks might aim to infiltrate the state to facilitate their business activities or to benefit from public funds, e.g. by securing procurement contracts. They do this by weakening state institutions to avoid detection and prosecution, or by extorting or funding individual politicians or political parties.

National organised crime strategies could help curb organised crime, including its impacts on governments

Corrupt politicians can also seek out additional opportunities by offering their influence in exchange for kickbacks or eliminating political opponents and whistle-blowers through organised assassinations.

As reflected in the ENACT Index and the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, SADC countries experience varying levels of organised crime, and varying governance capacities. Well-functioning democracies are more resilient against organised crime threats and impacts, and their institutions, including the judiciary and oversight bodies, can hold governments accountable. In such democracies, civil society is also active in standing up against organised crime and the media is free to report on corruption.

Country Election date Election ENACT Index Ibrahim Governance Index
Botswana TBC General 9th 5th
Comoros 14-Jan Presidential 12th 38th
Madagascar 29-May Legislative 3rd 34th
Malawi 24-May Legislative 6th 18th
Mauritius 30-Nov General 8th 1st
Mozambique 09-Oct Presidential and legislative 2nd 26th
Namibia 27-Nov General 10th 8th
South Africa 29-May General 1st 6th

ENACT Index ranks prevalence of organised crime from highest (1st) to lowest (54th)
Ibrahim Governance Index measures ability to provide political, social, economic and environmental goods and services from most able (1st) to least able (54th)

Globally, research shows that organised crime erodes public trust and weakens democracy, the rule of law and state institutions, including those responsible for fighting crime. It channels public funds away from basic service delivery, and when basic services aren’t provided, communities may more easily accept criminal networks that purport to offer these services.

A study of organised crime’s impact on democracy in 83 countries says the ‘unchecked growth of organised crime doesn’t merely lead to more illegal activities and lower public security, it threatens the very fabric of our democracies. It can lead to a broader acceptance of illegal behaviours by subtly limiting, or even sabotaging, political and legal authorities’ capacity to promote a culture of legality and cooperation.’

This is happening across Southern Africa. For example, in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) has been in power since the first democratic elections in 1994. The party has since been overshadowed by persistent links to corruption and organised crime. Endemic corruption has caused institutional weaknesses, contributing to state capture, high crime rates, power blackouts and crippled service delivery. However, addressing corruption and organised crime remains a key element of the ANC election manifesto.

Voters should consider steps taken against party members suspected of being involved in organised criminal activities

With predictions that the ANC will lose its majority for the first time during the 2024 elections, opposition parties have highlighted the ANC’s role in state capture, the process through which state and private actors conspire to weaken state institutions to redirect public resources to private benefit. South Africa’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, even released a statement calling the ANC an organised crime syndicate. Another opposition party, the Patriotic Alliance, itself no stranger to allegations of organised crime links, conducted its own border control “operation” – a key state function – to highlight its stance on illegal immigration, which it says facilitates criminality.

Responding to public concern regarding these issues, South Africa enacted the Political Party Funding Act 6 of 2018, which, despite its limitations, provides a vital instrument for the public disclosure of political party funding.

But the threat of organised crime is hardly limited to South Africa. Further east, Mauritius, typically considered one of Africa’s most robust democracies, plays an important role in organised criminal markets due to its favourable location along trafficking routes. A 2018 Commission of Inquiry on Drug Trafficking in Mauritius report suggested investigations into potential political party funding by drug traffickers.

Following a Committee on the Funding of Political Parties recommendation, a Political Financing Bill was drafted, but discarded. The Commission of Inquiry on Drug Trafficking also recommended that the Anti-Drug Smuggling Unit be disbanded, partly due to allegations of collusion with drug traffickers, but this didn’t happen. Although Mauritius was FATF-grey-listed in 2020, it was delisted by 2022 after complying with the FATF’s recommendations.

Similar examples of organised crime’s influence on politics and, therefore, elections abound across SADC. In addition to safeguarding election processes against organised crime influences, national organised crime strategies could help curb organised crime, including its impacts on governments.

SADC countries have endorsed a Regional Strategy against Transnational Organized Crime, which includes, as a priority, measures to address corrupt involvement in organised crime. Some, like Namibia, have taken steps to domesticate this policy framework in national processes. Other countries should follow suit to show their electorate how they plan to address organised crime, especially that which could influence governance.

Besides considering political parties’ approaches to combatting organised crime, voters should consider steps taken against party members suspected of being involved in organised criminal activities, since this is a good indication of future party behaviour.

While it is certain that organised crime across SADC will impact election and governance outcomes, it remains to be seen if voters consider this a primary concern when casting their votes.

Dr Carina Bruwer, Senior Researcher, Southern Africa

Image: Alfredo ZUNIGA / AFP


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