Transnational organised crime and violent extremism are increasingly interconnected, and pose serious challenges to peace, security and development. This interconnectedness is recognised in the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s 2015 Plan of Action for the Prevention of Violent Extremism and the fifth review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, carried out in 2016.
Central Africa, a resource-rich region made up of 12 states in the Congo Basin and the Lake Chad Basin, has also experienced a rise in insecurity and violence. But to what extent is it seeing an emerging overlap between the threats of violent extremism and organised crime?
Central African countries like Chad, Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo have a long history of internal and/or cross-border conflict. But for many others, instability and terror are relatively new. Cameroon for instance, had seen violent and criminal activities in the Bakassi Peninsula from Nigerian militants, but it was the presence of Nigerian terror group Boko Haram that drove home the threat of violent extremism in the country.
Is Central Africa seeing an increasing overlap between the threats of violent extremism and organised crime?
Boko Haram established its presence in Cameroon with acts of organised crime, such as the theft of weapons from security forces, and the kidnapping of foreigners in 2013. The terror group launched its first armed attack on Cameroonian soil in March 2014.
It consolidated its regional presence by kidnapping local citizens, trafficking arms and rustling cattle across borders in Cameroon’s greater north, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. In CAR, actors like the Séléka collaborate with similar groups in Libya, Sudan and South Sudan, and make occasional incursions into Cameroon and Chad.
Boko Haram has been able to strengthen its foothold in the region due to poor border management and a long history of mistrust among the countries concerned. These are the same factors that enable organised crime. Boko Haram has been held responsible for fuelling regional drug trafficking, while the Séléka and anti-Balaka have been using natural resources in CAR to fund their terror activities.
Distinctions between the actors and impact of organised crime and terrorism are vague and poorly understood
Although the linkages between groups that perpetrate transnational organised crime and violent extremism in Central Africa are often difficult to define, it is clear that there are shared drivers. These include poor governance, human rights violations, the exclusion of minorities and the absence of state legitimacy, alongside unemployment
Traditional responses to these threats have focused on law-enforcement strategies. This has translated into stringent anti-terror legislation in Cameroon, and the hosting of foreign military bases – for instance in Chad. But increasingly, stakeholders are calling for multi-dimensional approaches that focus on prevention and human rights.
As threats to peace and security in Central Africa continue to escalate, it is becoming clear that distinctions between the actors, activities and impact of organised crime and terrorism are vague and poorly understood.
Several actors are working to improve social cohesion and collaboration in the region. At the same time, awareness must be raised to ensure that Central Africa stands united in the way it understands and responds to the threats of organised crime and terrorism.
Agnes Ebo’o – ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – Central Africa, ISS