Security and political stability provide foundation for peace and development.
Hence, when threats to security appears to be rampant, this raises concerns for many. Such is the situation of organized crime in West Africa today.
Networked crime has remained resistant to policy responses and is now linking up with political terrorism in the sub-region.
In this write up, I provide an overview to these linkages and point out why they have to rather be approached as collective security threats than as threats to the security of individual nation states.
Organized crime – kidnapping for ransom, armed smuggling, human trafficking, drug trafficking, marine piracy, illegal finishing, syndicated public corruption, illicit timber logging, cybercrime and money laundering – have all peaked lately in West Africa.
West African countries have continued to serve as transit hubs for cocaine meant for global markets. Illicit weapons remain widespread in the sub-region.
All these Illegal activities deprive the region millions of revenues. Ghana was recently reported to have lost $200m in revenue in 2016 and 2017 combined due to organized petroleum smuggling.
The Ghana’s Economic and Organized Crime Office was also reported to have retrieved GH¢ 99.2 million from groups and institutions committed to dealing in illicit businesses.
Illicit dumping of toxic commercial waste remains a serious threat to the sub-region’s maritime ecosystem and coastal livelihoods. Cocaine remains the most trafficked narcotic in West Africa and is believed to be readily available for consumption in almost all countries.
Illicit drug use creates several psychotic diseases to distress public health facilities. Global focus on illegal migration continues to keep trafficking of humans for sexual and other exploitative labor hidden from scrutiny.
There are several underlying reasons for the resistance of organized crime to even well-coordinated policy responses.
These groups steadily study policy responses, identify loopholes and exploit these gaps. Organized crime is increasingly undertaken by cross-borders groups who also operate within familial and professional networks.
These are multi-national groups and therefore combine different sets of strengths and skills to invade vulnerable countries and evade their security establishments.
Deals in illicit trading in one country can be transacted in jurisdictions other than where the crime would eventually be committed.
Organized crime monies can thus be found in legitimate and illegitimate businesses. Robust evidence even suggests these groups do hijack politics in the sub-region by funding political campaigns of different political parties at the same time.
This gives them leverage to influence governance decisions at any time as any party that eventually wins comes directly under their spell.
In this way, they control how laws dealing with organized crimes are enacted as well as influence the speed with which law enforcement agencies respond to distressed reports detailing an ongoing illicit activity.
Fear of retaliation also compels victims to rather shelve any thoughts of reporting criminal groups known to them. Organized criminal network groups exploit countries with low public trust and confidence in law enforcement agencies.
Regional government have continued to yet perceive these crimes as threat to the security of their individual states than as danger to the collective security of the region.
This has allowed for these networks to continue to cause hostilities to disrupt peaceful relations between neighboring countries.
Organized crime is now interlinking with political terrorism, either directly or indirectly. Terrorist attacks disrupt communities’ social bonds and create conditions that facilitate drug trafficking, human trafficking, and small arms and light weapons smuggling.
Bombing of migrant camp recently in Libya by warring factors resulted in the death of 60 migrants. These victims were mostly youth from the sub-region.
They have been pushed out by economic hardships and pulled by perceptions of decent living prospects in Europe.
Boko Haram in Nigerian and Islamic State of West Africa now increasingly attack military camps, seize weapons belonging to peacekeepers and use these weapons against civilian populations.
Kidnapping and herder-farmer conflicts continue to replace security vacuums created by terrorist activities more recently in Nigeria. Widespread illicit arms facilitate the commission of armed robbery and intercommunal violence in West Africa.
Communal violence in Burkina Faso and Mali increasingly associate with terrorism. These crimes contribute to lowering public trust and confidence in regular state security agencies.
Perception of state neglect motivates vulnerable groups to join gang and terrorist groups and repeat violence on other vulnerable communities to further weaken public confidence and trust and in state security agencies.
These threats induce governments to increase budgetary allocations to national security. These allocations are sometimes made without necessary public scrutiny and thereby increases the prospects of corrupt deals overtaking professionalism in security issues.
In brief, organized crime fosters violence and maintains itself through organized chaos.
These linkages may be new; both organized crime and terrorism thrive upon prevailing challenges. West African states hardly cooperate in intelligence gathering, analysis and results sharing.
Incumbent suspicion of neighboring states’ relations with domestic forces prompts them to emphasize national security over and above collective regional security. Cooperation in intelligence is still critical to proactively identifying changing motives and modes of operation of bad actors.
These crimes persist precisely because inequalities occasioned by differential development impacts have been left unmonitored. West Africa is reported to have the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa. The wealth generated by this growth is still shared by only the few wealthiest.
The many who are trapped in poverty are once again exposed to network crimes in different ways. Young people have been primary targets for recruitment to distribute trafficked drugs and participate in extremist agenda.
Indeed, electronic dealings leave clues for investigative bodies, but the region is yet to fully embrace this opportunity. Manual payment allows for illicit transactions to float in national economies unnoticed.
Finally, unprofessionalism in security sector itself has been too common in the sub-region. This has posed different threats to efforts meant to combat organized crime and terrorism.
Intelligence sharing and public cooperation with law enforcers depend on high degree of professionalism. Once public trust in a country’s security sector is weakened, a message is sent to cooperating agencies that intelligence sharing with local law enforcers should be exercised with extreme caution.
Regional governments should address these old challenges to help combat organized crime and terrorism, and consolidate peace, security and political stability in the region.
The writer is the Head of Programs at the Africa Center for Security and Counter Terrorism (ACSC) in Accra, Ghana