01 Mar 2024

Organised crime in Africa / Somalia must tackle rampant organised criminality

Joining the East African Community could have immense benefits for the country if it curbs the prevalent criminal markets.

On 15 December 2023, Somalia signed a Treaty of Accession with the East African Community (EAC), a step towards becoming the bloc’s eighth member state. Being a member of the bloc could have immense benefits for Somalia and the other member states. Attaining these benefits, however, depends on curbing entrenched criminal markets that continue to threaten Somalia’s stability, reconstruction and economic recovery.

For existing EAC member states, benefits include a major boost to the regional bloc’s competitiveness for foreign direct investments. The reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers, opening cross-border trade and investment opportunities in Somalia, and integration into future regional infrastructure projects will boost trade in the regional bloc. The EAC’s eastern boundaries will stretch from the southern Indian Ocean up to the Gulf of Aden, a vital global maritime route, enhancing the bloc’s security, trade and geopolitical cooperation with major world powers.

For Somalia, joining the EAC will provide access to a market of 283.7 million EAC citizens, free movement of its people across the bloc and greater regional integration. This is likely to be a major contributor to its post-conflict recovery and reconstruction.

The Somali context, however, indicates a convergence of weak governance, instability, violent extremism and transnational organised crime. After decades of state fragility, Somalia is the fertile territory of diverse transnational criminal markets and actors, including arms and human trafficking, extortion, environmental crimes, piracy, money laundering and illicit financial flows, among others. These are complex issues, some intractable, and are likely to impede its successful integration into the EAC.

When piracy peaked off the coast of Somalia between 2005 and 2011, concerted efforts by major world naval powers helped reduce these incidents. However, piracy has recently returned to the Gulf of Aden due to the ongoing Gaza conflict.

For Somalia, joining the East African Community will provide access to a market of 283.7 million citizens

Prior to this conflict, a reported 22% of containerised shipping and 12% of global trade passed through the Red Sea. In recent months, Houthi rebels in Yemen have attacked and hijacked vessels they deem affiliated with Israeli, European and United States (US) ships as a sign of protest for the Israeli incursion into Palestinian territory. This evolving maritime conflict has forced ships to re-route, mostly around the southern African coast, delaying the delivery of goods and hiking prices, which affects Somalia and other bloc members.

Due to Somalia’s inability to manage its maritime ports effectively, the coastline is a known haven for arms traffickers who stockpile weapons for terrorist groups and clan militias. US sanctions against groups and individuals are a marker of the intricate transnational smuggling networks between groups in Somalia, the Gulf region and Iran. A United Nations panel of experts has raised critical questions about the Somali government’s ability to manage and track weapons, curb illicit flows to terrorist groups and organised criminals, and control arms trafficking along its coastline.

Due to porous maritime ports and the collusion of state-embedded actors and traders, Somalia is awash with counterfeit goods. These are smuggled into Somalia and onward to the broader East African region through elaborate criminal networks.

Somalia is a source and transit country for human trafficking victims and human smuggling. High levels of unemployment, insurgency-linked humanitarian crises and climate-induced disasters are causing thousands to flee Somalia to neighbouring countries, the Gulf region and Europe. Similar numbers are displaced within the country.

Due to porous ports and the collusion of state-embedded actors and traders, Somalia is awash with counterfeit goods

Al-Qaeda-linked Somalia-based al-Shabaab raises around US$100 million annually through roadblock ‘tolls’, extortion and the illegal sale of charcoal. They use these funds for their terror operations, undermining Somalia’s judicial, financial and security infrastructure and regional stability.

Although growing, the capacity of the federal government to provide a coherent regulatory and enforcement framework to curb money laundering and illicit financial flows is still inadequate. There are fears that with the free movement of people and labour within the bloc, terror operatives may infiltrate the region and expand attacks in the region.

The impending total withdrawal of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) by December 2024 may create a security vacuum that terrorist groups could take advantage of, further destabilising the country. As some of the main ATMIS-contributing countries are also EAC member states, Somalia could request the deployment of EAC standby forces to fill the void as the country continues to strengthen its security infrastructure.

There are several options for the EAC to assist Somalia’s response to transnational organised crime. To help address Somalia’s maritime threats, Kenya could leverage its membership in the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) – the multinational naval partnership that promotes security, stability and prosperity across approximately 5.1 million square kilometres of international waters.

There are fears that with the free movement of people within the bloc, terror operatives may infiltrate the region

Through its One-Stop Border Posts and other migration policies and procedures, the bloc could help build the capacity of Somali institutions to mitigate human trafficking flows and attendant crimes. On the other hand, Somalia could put in place mechanisms to strengthen and align its migration policy framework with that of the bloc by enhancing cross-border surveillance, screening immigrants and completing registration at points of entry.

Dr Hassan Khannenje, a Horn of Africa expert, told ENACT that ‘joining the EAC will allow Somalia to learn from successes, challenges and regional best practices about controlling illicit financial flows. EAC member states will be better placed to share financial intelligence and track money laundering and terror financing than ever before.’ To this end, there would be immense benefits to Somalia joining the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group.

In the next five months, Somalia is required to deposit the instrument of ratification with the EAC’s Secretary General. By then, EAC member states need to have considered how they will mitigate against Somalia’s transnational organised crime challenges spreading into the regional bloc.

Halkano Wario, Regional Organised Crime Observatory, East Africa, ENACT Project, Nairobi

Image: AMISOM/Flickr


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