Organized Crime in Africa

Mark Shaw & Gail Wannenburg. Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice. Editor: Philip Reichel. 2005. Sage Publication.

Organized crime is one of the most serious challenges facing African development today. It robs governments of much-needed revenue to provide basic services, undercuts democracy, directly threatens the safety of citizens, and in some extreme cases, because of environmental degradation, strips subsistence farmers of their livelihoods. However, the term organized crime needs to be used with great care in the African context. It is not that crime is not organized or that organized criminal groups are not active; indeed, this chapter will show the extent to which organized criminal formations have expanded rapidly over the past decade on the continent. But for most Africans, if they have given any thought to the term at all, it is more likely to resemble the Hollywood-style mafia don and his cohorts than the complex network of individuals, sometimes with strong ties to the political establishment, that is more common in the African context. There is not, for the most part, much reference at all to the problems of organized crime in African political discourse, as there may be elsewhere in the world. This is mirrored, too, by the organization of law enforcement agencies, where specialized units dedicated to the fighting of a clearly identifiable phenomenon called “organized crime” are the exception rather than the rule. It should be no surprise then that there is also little literature on organized crime in Africa.

The Nature of “Organized Crime” in Africa

Studies conducted in Africa, insufficient as they may be, suggest that serious crime in Africa may fit a particular sociological profile in which family and ethnic connections assume a particular importance. Stephen Ellis has noted that these very factors are also often important in African politics and that it suggests the existence of an important terrain for the study of serious crime in Africa that does not fit the

classical criminological category of organized crime, but a category existing in a grey area between politics, legitimate social formation and professional crime, in which those concerned may not consider themselves as professional criminals in the same way as their counterparts in Europe or North America.

The boundaries between the formal and informal economy and the licit and illicit market are consequently blurred. If organized crime in Africa is understood in this way—indeed, this chapter will show that unless this is the case, an accurate representation of the true scale and impact of the problem will escape an external observer— then it is apparent that the problem has reached serious proportions.

One metaphor used by a policeman when describing organized crime in the region of the continent where he works is useful. The officer suggested that organized crime in Africa should be understood like a large net pitched like a circus tent. The net is held up in various places by poles with the net stretched in between. The poles constitute the nodes of the network, key pillars of the criminal establishment. Around each pole is a complex network of individuals and activities that overlap and phase into the activities of other nodes—not necessarily clear groups but a complex meshing of different individuals and their entrepreneurial activities. Indeed, the term entrepreneur is useful in understanding the nature of organized crime in Africa. African criminal operators in interviews have described themselves as “businessmen,” and indeed this is what some of them genuinely consider themselves to be. Individuals have identified economic opportunities, which often happen to be criminal, and pursue them in the pursuit of profit. The fact that such activities—the smuggling of particular natural resources, for example—may not be defined as criminal in that particular country or that the groups and individuals involved may also engage in legitimate business makes the easy identification of what is criminal, what is business, and what is politics difficult.

It can also be argued that the complex network of criminal activity across the continent has consolidated to the degree that in some areas, the networks of organization are taking on the shape more clearly of criminal organizations. Even where this occurs, however, such organizations almost always retain a closer resemblance to complex networks of individuals than to strict hierarchical groups. This is because few networks have the logistical or financial capacity to manage the production, supply, and retailing of goods or services. Also, it seems that many of these networks use different suppliers and logistical networks consistently, which obviates the need for more formal relationships. Those that perform less-complex tasks within the network, such as the couriers, may be regarded as disposable and easily replaced.

Most of these networks are relatively new and owe their formation to a complex interplay of historical, socioeconomic, and political factors that have shaped the social formations and forms of governance on the continent in the post-Cold War era.

Political Crises, War, and Organized Crime

Some of the reasons for the exponential growth in organized crime in Africa are as follows:

  • The weakening or implosion of state authority in areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia
  • The onset of a series of brutal wars since the early 1990s in areas such as Rwanda, the DRC, and Angola and the imposition of U.N. sanctions banning the trade in weapons and other resources, such as diamonds, to conflict zones, which created a market for lootable commodities and illicit war material
  • The reform of centralized economies and the introduction of a free market in countries such as Mozambique and Angola, which resulted in wholesale privatization of state assets and created opportunities for organized crime
  • The transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in countries in southern Africa, most notably South Africa, which ended its isolation from African and international markets when mechanisms of social control were undergoing major transformation

These issues suggest a direct link in many countries between political crisis, dysfunctional states, and the development of organized crime. Although many conflicts in Africa are underpinned by political grievances, over the past decade many protagonists have been unable to articulate any defined ideological outcome, with the result that they are characterized as simple resource wars. In turn, the accumulation of these resources serves to sustain ongoing conflicts. Resource accumulation, the desire for profit, and a breakdown between what is considered legal and illegal by state and other actors, have ensured that protagonists in conflicts are vulnerable to outside influence.

As basic services, infrastructure, and the formal economy decline, the civilian population and rebels or lower-level government forces are compelled to adopt survival strategies that may involve the extraction of alluvial diamonds or other valuable commodities for or on behalf of military and political elites who have connections with organized crime middlemen who can facilitate this trade. Legitimate business corporations also may seek to acquire mining, oil, or other concessions to exploit natural resources that may result in complex payoffs and protection fees and in an overlap between legal and criminal activity. For example, in Angola it is estimated that US$1 billion in oil revenue remained unaccounted for in 2000 while its population lives in dire poverty. The situation in Angola is by no means unique on the continent.

This phenomenon is fueled by the glut of inexpensive weapons on world markets in the aftermath of the Cold War. As a review of global organized crime commissioned by President Clinton points out,

With the substantial decline in state support [after the Cold War], many insurgencies and extremist groups reach out to criminal networks to acquire arms and supplies that cannot be obtained through more traditional or legitimate channels. Unlike insurgent groups, criminal groups are well-connected to outside gray arms merchants, transportation co-ordinators, money launderers, and other specialists who can provide the weapons and other logistics support once given by state sponsors.

Criminal networks have played an important role in linking combatants with suppliers, although the two parties may seldom meet or even know who they are in business with. The difficulty of understanding the phenomenon of the connection between war and crime in Africa is confounded by the fact, as suggested in the introduction, that those involved seldom structure their operations as hierarchical (and thus more easily understandable) groups, with clear leadership and rank structures. Rather, it is increasingly recognized that the reality of organized crime on the continent more closely resembles complex networks of key individuals. To illustrate the point, the profile of one such individual is provided below.

Victor Bout, a former interpreter in a military aviation unit in Belarus, runs one of the most sophisticated criminal operations allegedly selling weapons to Africa. Bout has been implicated in supplying weaponry from the former Eastern bloc to 17 African countries and (allegedly) to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. He has been implicated in all the U.N. reports on those individuals and groups flouting the ban on supplying arms to rebels in Angola, Sierra Leone, and the Liberian government. He has also been named in the U.N. expert panel reports on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. He has used at least five aliases and owns a maze of airline, cargo, and freight forwarding companies. He maintains 60 planes that have been registered in Belgium, the United States, Liberia, South Africa, Swaziland, the United Arab Emirates, Rwanda, and the Central African Republic. When his companies are subjected to scrutiny, he moves his operations elsewhere. He is still at large, although the Belgian government has issued an international warrant of arrest for him on money-laundering charges. Bout denied all the charges against him in 2002 when he appeared on a Russian radio station.

Apart from arms dealing, evidence now also exists that “trafficking in and abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances are increasingly being linked to the various civil conflicts in Africa.” Illicit drugs have, for example, been used to finance civil conflict, including the purchasing of arms, in Angola. In the DRC, apart from financing parts of the rebel war effort, drugs have been issued to combatants “to induce them to carry out dangerous operations with impunity.”

The task of rebuilding areas of conflict in which rebels and militias have held sway and bringing them under central government control and establishing civilian structures such as local administrations, policing, and the criminal justice system is enormous. This is the case in Angola and the DRC where much of the countryside is inaccessible because of landmines or damaged infrastructure.

Fragile peace processes in some countries such as Sierra Leone and the DRC are under threat from former rebels or militia that are prepared to work as mercenaries in neighboring countries that funded these movements in the past. The presence of large numbers of firearms on the continent will continue to enhance opportunities for lawlessness in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their neighboring countries and increase the violence associated with lawlessness in regions such as southern Africa. Many civilian populations were militarized and armed in the conflicts on the continent. The cessation of hostilities has reawakened ancient disputes over land and resources at local levels. This is evident in areas such as Ituri in the DRC where Hema and Lendu militias have continued to fight after the signature of a peace accord.

Regional instability, therefore, including both weak and unstable states and ongoing conflicts, serves as an important driver of illicit activity in Africa. The space and opportunities made possible by those engaged in armed conflict, who seek to fund war through the exploitation of natural and other resources, are crucial in the development of criminal networks. In this process, links are established with external criminal groups, and new networks of lawful and criminal activity are forged—again, an important defining feature, as suggested above, being the crossover between legal and illegal operations.

The Vulnerability of Post-Conflict Societies to Organized Crime

Although the conduct of war itself has enhanced the opportunities for crime, it is in war’s aftermath that the greatest danger lies. Postconflict societies on the continent are likely, given the conditions spawned by wars, to be vulnerable to higher levels of crime and, in particular, violent crime. This is because war has reduced economic opportunities (or centralized them around a small elite), undermined the rule of law, weakened states with little enforcement capacity, and ensured cheap and easily accessible firearms. Parallel with these developments has been the growth, over the last decade, in global organized criminal activity able to exploit opportunities in Africa.

A number of characteristics apply to societies recovering from conflict, which make them vulnerable to higher levels of crime and disorder. These include the following:

Established Networks to Smuggle Contraband. Networks established during times of conflict to smuggle weapons or other necessities of war are easily converted into channels for the smuggling of drugs, contraband, or stolen goods. In South Africa, the apartheid government authorized the establishment of numerous covert front companies to obtain war material and other goods that were the subject of U.N. sanctions. Now, cars, drugs, and other contraband are brought in along old gun-smuggling routes while the general availability of weapons and the weakness and corruptibility of the police serve as additional incentives to criminal activity.

There Are Few Opportunities for Legitimate Economic Activity. The immediate postwar environment may contain few opportunities for involvement in the formal economy, ensuring that there are few alternatives but to engage in crime. Young men with guns were the principal source of most of the violence in Somalia: They had no jobs and could find cheap weapons in local markets. The best way to make up for the absence of a job was a weapon, a traditional symbol of manhood in nomadic culture and now a source of income as well. In countries undergoing reform of a centralized state-planned economy, the privatization of state assets may provide opportunities for entry of organized crime groups into the economy, in conjunction with the political elite. In Mozambique, there were insufficient systems in place in the banking sector to regulate the privatization and indigenization of business with the result that widespread corruption and penetration of the state occurred.

Former Combatants With Military Training Are Unemployed. The presence of large numbers of ex-combatants who have easy access to weapons and few skills other than the conduct of warfare provides a ready source of recruits for criminal activity. Many demobilization programs in Africa have offered one-off small payments to former soldiers or rebels, insufficient to start small businesses. In a recent survey in Mozambique, for example, it was found that ex-combatants, particularly the disabled veterans, run drug-trafficking networks. Some combatants may already have been involved in criminal activities during the conflict as a means of survival or to supplement their incomes, so turning to crime is a relatively easy psychological step, particularly if they feel betrayed by their leaders.

Local Strong Men Control Distinct Geographic Areas. The immediate postconflict environment may see certain areas occupied and controlled by local groups or strong men. Such areas have the potential to become springboards for crime and are almost impenetrable to external actors. When the state is very weak or nonexistent, such areas are effectively local fiefdoms that may require the income generated by criminal acts to finance military activities. The clearest example of this is Somalia, where, in the absence of state control, local warlords assume control over specific communities and geographic entities. Ironically, the weakness of a state and its lack of resources may make it unattractive to organized crime, which makes cost-benefit calculations in the same way as legitimate business. However, local warlords who are predominant in a number of other places, particularly if they control access to valuable resources, may be a more attractive proposition.

Wars and State Actions May Generate a Disrespect for the Rule of Law. Ongoing conflicts on the African continent and state involvement in criminal activities have meant that few citizens believe that the law is worth respecting. In fact, engaging in criminal activities may be seen as a right, an attempt to “redistribute” wealth from the rich to the poor. For example, Nigerian drug dealers interviewed for a recent study “view the black market [and criminal activities] as the only way to redistribute wealth from the north to the south, arguing that mainstream commercial channels are effectively occupied.”

The vulnerability of societies emerging from conflict to high levels of criminality has important implications for state authority in sub-Saharan Africa. The vulnerability to crime will not only affect those societies that have suffered directly from conflict but will have repercussions for others on the continent, given the porous nature of national borders and the subsequent ease of movement between states. African societies engaged in, or emerging from, war seldom have legitimate police agencies willing and able to enforce the law. Law enforcement is generally highly militarized, with the civil function often shared with the army. In some countries, such as Mozambique, former soldiers form the bulk of the police service. Policing remains inherently colonial—the provision of “firefighting” responses to problem areas rather than the maintenance of close and ongoing relations with citizens. As a U.N. report on African drug control notes, “[African] law enforcement institutions must often resort to costly and inefficient ‘search and seize’ interventions such as roadblock inspections, neighbourhood raids and border checks—their role as a non-present deterrent is often marginalised because of poor credibility.”

Although legal instruments (implemented in many cases as a result of international pressure) have been created to fight criminal activity, including organized crime, there is often insufficient capacity within police agencies themselves. The growing sophistication of organized crime on the continent has in general not been matched by an increase in the sophistication, skill, and resources of the police. Indeed, targeting such security threats may not be the key purpose of the police at all.

The management of security in at least a substantial number of African states is in practice essentially “private,” in that such security as exists is designed primarily to protect the lives, power, and access to wealth of specific groups and individuals who control the state. For political elites in some African countries, therefore, effective and impartial law enforcement may be more a threat to the established order than something to be welcomed. Few serving members of African governments have been indicted for unlawful activity.

For ordinary citizens, however, police officers are the most visible extensions of the state so that inefficient and corrupt law enforcement undermines the view ordinary people have of the instruments of the state as a whole. Growing vigilantism is a measure of the insecurity and dissatisfaction felt by many ordinary citizens. The credibility and legitimacy of policing agencies is thus a key factor in ensuring their effectiveness. This remains one of the key challenges facing the police in most of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Ultimately, one leading analyst has concluded, the security of fragmented African societies must come from within by domestic actors creating a framework of order that allows them to survive—and with any luck develop—in some reasonably peaceful way.

The Evolution and Growth of Organized Crime in Africa

A study of the evolution and growth of organized crime in different contexts within Africa can provide a more nuanced view of its causes, consequences, and possibly, its future trajectory. The following section considers major trends in organized crime in West, South, and East Africa. In each region, although a number of important parallels can be identified, including the issues of conflict and state weakness already discussed above, particular conditions have been important in the development of organized crime. In West Africa, where the problem is particularly serious and has the highest global impact, the nature of organized crime has its origins in the breakdown of state institutions in Nigeria from the late 1970s. In South Africa, organized crime has grown rapidly since the end of apartheid, expanding not only because of the new opportunities offered by the comparative wealth of the country but also because apartheid itself bred criminalized smuggling networks well placed to take advantage of the openness that democracy would bring. Finally, East Africa, for centuries a hub of trade between the continent and Asia and Arabia, is increasingly now at the heart of a complex network of illicit trafficking up and down the east coast of the continent and expanding into its interior. As in other places in Africa, such expansion has also been accentuated by conflict, state weakness, and instability.

Crime as Business: The Evolution of West African Organized Crime

By 1990, Nigerian criminal groups were widely regarded as one of the most significant threats confronting law enforcement agencies in many countries. Nigerian groups were active across the globe, from Latin America to Asia, with particularly sophisticated operations in Europe and North America. Few businesspeople around the world have not received fraudulent letters from Nigeria promising great profits, if only an advanced fee will be paid (so-called 419 scams, named after the section of the Nigerian Penal Code that prohibits such practices). Illicit trafficking and fraud have thus become the hallmark of Nigerian criminal operations. Perhaps most important to note about such activities is that unlike, say, Colombian organized crime, the commodities that Nigerian groups smuggle, most notably heroin and cocaine, are not produced in West Africa. Nigerian criminal groups then act in the majority of criminal exchanges as transporters or middlemen; they have added value not by producing but by buying, moving, and selling. The section that follows uses the term West African criminal networks, given that this is the term now widely accepted to describe the phenomenon.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the emergence of West African criminal networks is how quickly they have established themselves, dominating particular sectors of the global illicit economy. Most important, the origins of criminal networks from West Africa directly parallel the decline and economic crisis of the Nigerian state in the 1980s. In contrast, the period before the decline of the country was marked by the degree to which the country’s relative wealth allowed Nigerians to travel, study, and acquire interests abroad, in some cases establishing the seeds of the criminal networks that were to develop in the later crisis years. Economic mismanagement, a failed structural adjustment program, continuous political contestation, and ongoing and harsh periods of military rule marked the decline of the Nigerian state.

Why should Nigeria and Nigerians be singled out immediately in a study the focus of which is organized crime originating in Africa as a whole? The extent of economic decline in the country, the size of its population (with 125 million people, the most populous state on the continent—1 in 5 sub-Saharan Africans is a Nigerian), and the degree to which oil wealth ensured an educated elite, well traveled and interconnected to the rest of the world, are all contributing factors.

Despite the extent of the problem, a detailed study of the origins of West African criminal groups must still be conducted. In fact, although most analyses of events in Nigeria refer to the criminalization of the state, few explore the extent to which Nigeria became an important exporter of criminal activity. From 1985, the unprecedented diversion of revenues depleted resources, aggravated the debt burden, and alienated important external creditors. In this period, overtly illegal activities became a major portion of Nigeria’s shadow economy with more than $1 billion dollars (about 15% of government revenues) flowing through criminal networks, often with the connivance of the country’s elite. Although much has been staked on the civilian government that took power in 1999, significant problems remain, and the country is currently estimated to have the largest “shadow” economy (although not all of this can, of course, be attributed to illegal activities) in the world.

Although these figures suggest the astonishing extent of economic activity outside the formal economic sector, they provide little indication of how criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, were spawned in the context of a declining state. Law enforcement explanations also provide little insight. For example, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) briefing paper on explains that Nigerian naval officers undergoing training in India during the 1980s began trafficking heroin through Nigerian student networks to Europe and the United States. “When these students realized the potential profits to be earned from heroin trafficking, they started their own operations and heroin trafficking was gradually introduced to most Nigerian traders.” Of course, although such developments may certainly have occurred, the reality of the rise of West African criminal networks is much more complex.

The dramatic increase in oil revenues after 1973 ensured the influx of millions of petrodollars that, while bringing great wealth to the Nigerian state, had important consequences for the development of criminal enterprises in the 1980s. The sudden generation of wealth unsurprisingly led to disagreements (which have yet to be resolved) about who is entitled to spend it. This was exemplified by the fact that the oil wells are situated along the coast in the south, and the country has largely been ruled by military governments based in the north. Such disputes encourage a strong sense of entitlement and little compunction for citizens who steal from the state, because the state has stolen from them.

Such social dislocation has been accompanied by rapid economic decline. Although the oil windfall brought great wealth to Nigeria (even though it was concentrated in few hands), its dominance has ensured that the economy depends on fluctuations of the oil price, and the country, like Angola, suffers from the classic effect of “Dutch disease” where distortions are introduced, given the value of a single and dominant commodity to an economy. The petroleum sector produces about 40% of the country’s GDP and accounts for 96% of recorded exports. The presence of oil has created multiple opportunities for corruption and has ensured that control of the state is key to the accumulation of wealth. Economic decline in particular was accentuated during the Second Republic (1977-1983), the period immediately before the first increases in Nigerian involvement in illicit activities were noted by law enforcement agencies around the world.

The result by the early 1990s was a highly unstable and corrupt state with significant disaffected minorities. Nigeria, and West Africa more generally, developed into the hub of a worldwide drug-trafficking web, spanning almost every part of the globe.

The issue of ethnic alienation appears to be closely related to the development of criminal networks originating in Nigeria. The presence of the alienated Igbo ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria and their close involvement in organized criminal activities is a strong theme. Stemming from deep resentments around the Biafran War (1967-1970), the conflict resulted in the marginalization of Igbos from the various postwar military regimes. Although the details of the war are not of concern here, it was in effect an attempt by eastern parts of the country to break away from the federation and achieve independence. The war, however, generated a strong ethnic persecution complex among Igbo-speaking people and an alienation from the institutions of governance.

This dominance of Igbos in criminal networks has been attributed to their “business” or “commercial” skills. Yet according to some informants, it is also possible to exaggerate their involvement. Economic and political decline have had the impact of marginalizing and impoverishing larger numbers of Nigerians than just those who live in the southeast. And multiple ethnic identities as well as tight community and familial networks ensure that illicit activities are not confined (at least not now) to a single ethnic group.

It is worth noting in the context of this discussion on the growth of organized criminal networks originating from Nigeria that many Nigerians hold the West responsible for the decline of the country. That, for many, has provided justification for their involvement in criminal activities. Engagement in crime is considered justifiable to redistribute wealth back from those who have “stolen” it. Interestingly, any social controls in respect to the prevention of criminal activity are internally rather than externally focused. Thus, studies of Nigerian criminal networks have shown that their members seldom consumed their “own product” (meaning cocaine) because they saw it as introducing unneeded dependency on a commodity used exclusively for the purpose of gaining profit.

The crisis of governance that affected Nigeria has now spread throughout West Africa, having important impact in countries such as Liberia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Ghana. In particular, the involvement of Ghanaians and Liberians in enterprise-type crime mirrored economic decline and war in both societies. Although their numbers are smaller and they are unlikely to dominate in the way of the Nigerian networks, interview evidence suggests that they have become involved in similar activity such as advance-fee fraud (419 scams), and they have developed specific criminal specializations of their own. It is possible, therefore, that police agencies around the world overestimate the extent of Nigerian involvement simply because all people from West Africa are labeled as Nigerians with little attempt made to differentiate particular nationalities.

The role of West Africans in criminal networks from the mid-1980s onward, however, cannot be explained simply by the collapse of governance and economic opportunity in their home countries. Powerful pull factors, such as the growing demand for illegal narcotics in North America and Europe that forced up the price of illegal narcotics (and therefore the profitability of drug smuggling) must also be considered. In turn, West African ethnic communities that had not been assimilated into the societies in which they lived, concentrated in various North American and European cities, provided a secure network for local distribution.

The weakening and criminalization of the state in particular West African countries— notably Nigeria, Liberia, and Ghana—resulted in the heavy involvement of state actors themselves in criminal activities. Paradoxically, this process of state capture and collapse was central, as we have seen, in forcing some people to leave in search of new (and often criminal) opportunities, given limited and declining economic opportunities at home while ensuring that the instruments of the state—such as the police, the diplomatic service, and various agencies responsible for the issuing of identity and travel documents— become heavily involved in criminal activity. The net result was often that the activities of the state and those of criminal groups became indistinguishable.

If the negative trend of state weakness in West Africa has been responsible for the development of sophisticated criminal networks, the position in South (and by implication, southern) Africa has been different. Here, positive developments, most prominently the development of democracy in South Africa, have had the unintended consequence of promoting the development of organized crime.

Democracy’s Disorder? The Changing Nature of Organized Crime in South Africa

What is surprising in the case of South Africa, where the state is comparatively strong, is the speed with which criminal activity grew after 1990. This has contributed to the current difficulties that government is experiencing in eradicating the problem as the instruments of the state slowly realign to confront the challenge.

The development of organized crime in South Africa has seen a complex interaction between the rise of local criminal syndicates and networks and the expansion of foreign criminal groups within the country. Before 1994, organized criminal activity (apart from the criminal activities of the state itself) were poorly developed because the country was largely cut off from the world and engaged in a low-intensity civil war. Although the apartheid government and the liberation movements used criminal organizations to smuggle weapons and disrupt opponents’ tactics, political considerations were always predominant. Nevertheless, the roots of organized criminality were bred before the transition began, were magnified in the period immediately before dramatic shifts in power occurred, and then became highly visible in the posttransition environment.

According to police undercover agents, many criminal syndicates had their origins in the late 1980s. These were the result of both foreigners coming into the region to establish legitimate import-export operations and the activities of local entrepreneurs. Locals had contacts through which they could acquire a range of resource products such as cobalt, ivory, diamonds, or drugs. Foreigners provided the means through which these products could be transferred to lucrative markets. From the beginning, then, the line between the activities of legitimate and illegitimate business has often been blurred.

Investigations of the trade in ivory and rhino horn from countries in southern Africa during the 1980s and early 1990s has implicated senior individuals in the military intelligence division of the then South African Defence Force. There is a clear overlap between the destabilizing wars conducted at the time—the support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola in Angola and RENAMO (Mozambican National Resistance) in Mozambique—and criminal activity such as the smuggling of military supplies to the rebel groups and (in conjunction with Chinese Triads) the extraction of ivory and rhino horn to South Africa and on to the Far East. A pathbreaking early study of the phenomenon concluded:

It was clear that during the time when South Africa was fighting secret wars in Southern Africa, officers under the command of [defence intelligence] were systematically demanding from their allies payment in whatever commodities lay to hand, including hardwood, gold, diamonds, rhino horn and ivory.

Former RENAMO soldiers claim that military helicopters were used to transport ivory and other goods from Mozambique to South Africa on a regular basis.

By the time the wars of destabilization were scaled back, individuals in South African Military Intelligence were in possession of a strategically valuable network of contacts with both old allies and former enemies. Johannesburg developed as a trading and communications hub for the movement of illegal goods, including drugs, with the trade being controlled by a small group of insiders.

The political changes that occurred in 1994, when apartheid was replaced by a fledgling constitutional democracy, created the opportunity for both indigenous, as well as international organized crime groups, to exploit the new low-risk environment that South Africa provided for criminal activities. The country had entered a political transition, and state structures (including the police) were being transformed and therefore weakened. Border controls were relaxed, and international tourism expanded. South Africa became more accessible to the international community, including the organized crime community.

The expansion of foreign criminal groups into the country has been a noticeable phenomenon of the new democracy. South Africa has become the linchpin in the development of a regional organized crime network. The country, given its comparative wealth, is both a market and a source for criminal groups. A significant proportion of the criminal syndicates identified by the authorities as operating in South Africa have a regional focus. These organizations generally involve themselves in a multiplicity of activities—for example, the smuggling of guns, drugs, or stolen car parts. One form of commodity may be exchanged for others. Once the routes are in place (and where necessary the appropriate border officials bribed), almost any commodity can be transported.

The hijacking and theft of motor vehicles in South Africa, for example, cannot be controlled without an examination of regional factors. Crime bosses in South Africa (many of whom are themselves from outside the country) have begun to focus on “exports” of stolen or hijacked cars or parts in the same way as if these were legitimate business concerns. Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have become markets for small delivery vans, 4 x 4s, and trucks. This is now a highly lucrative business run by increasingly sophisticated syndicates.

The fluidity and flexibility of syndicates in the subregion can be illustrated by the manner in which they have seized the opportunities available due to the political crisis in Zimbabwe. Unrealistic price controls in Zimbabwe have led to a lucrative black market in basic goods such as sugar. These goods are smuggled from Zimbabwe into its neighboring countries, undermining the local industries. In turn, Zimbabwean crime networks are buying up currency in neighboring states, as the Zimbabwe dollar depreciates, and using it to buy scarce resources such as fuel in Zimbabwe, which in turn can be sold at a profit on the black market.

Organized criminal activity often operates under the pretense of, or in conjunction with, legitimate commercial activity such as import-export companies or the taxi business. The need to move illicit goods has meant that the largely unregulated transport sector in the country has served as a breeding ground for organized crime. Some members of the cargo trucking industry are allegedly able to offer 50% discounts, thereby undercutting their competition by transporting illicit goods. The nature, organization, and use of violence by some groups in the taxi industry in South Africa have resulted in a complex interchange between licit and illicit activity, which fits the definition of organized crime.

A dramatic expansion in the number of minibus taxis in the 1980s, plying their trade within the larger cities and on long-distance routes, has given rise to turf wars for profitable routes as well as tightly structured taxi organizations that employ “hit squads” to eliminate potential competitors (as well as ambitious individuals in their own ranks) and actively engage in the corruption of state officials. Given that the taxi industry is poorly regulated and that there are many unregistered operators, competition for and between routes is intense. Unsurprisingly, the use of violence to protect economic interests has become a feature of the industry. The growth and consolidation of a few powerful figures in the taxi industry constitutes a classic case of the overlap between legitimate and illegitimate business and the development of organized crime. Given their capacity for mobility, taxi operators are useful partners in, and sometimes initiators of, smuggling networks across the subcontinent. In some cases, taxi associations serve as middlemen, selling weapons bought outside the country to criminal organizations in South Africa. They are also implicated in the trafficking of women and children from Mozambique and other countries to South Africa. State attempts to regulate the industry are gaining pace and proving to be effective challenges to some crime leaders, but these efforts are often undercut by high levels of corruption and weak law enforcement.

All these factors illustrate the extent to which both the transition to democracy and the changes in the southern Africa region— including the end of old conflicts and the beginning of new ones—have had important effects on illicit activities. This applies to many criminal networks and organizations that operate in South Africa. There is one area of the country, however, that has its own particular characteristics—the Western Cape. This is because it is the one region where there has been a history of both gang activity and, more recently, violent community-based responses. These factors have ensured that the development of criminal organizations in the Western Cape in the postapartheid period has taken on a specific trajectory of its own.

Gang formation in Cape Town has been the survival strategy of the poor. A result of grinding poverty, social exclusion, unemployment, and the dislocation caused by apartheid-forced removals, gangs have been a powerful organizing principle for the communities of the Cape Flats. Under apartheid, gangs were often harshly and indiscriminately policed while at the same time being used to target political opponents of the state. In the last decade of apartheid, a count of gangs in 30 areas of the Cape Flats found 280 groups who labeled themselves as gangs, with the majority of gang members interviewed suggesting that their gangs were about 100 strong. The hierarchy and organization of the gangs is complex and multifaceted. Organization has ranged from low-level street gangs to more organized family mafias and drug syndicates.

From the early 1990s, a number of significant developments altered the nature of the Western Cape gangs. The end of apartheid saw more relaxed border controls and the greater exposure of the country to international organized crime groups. These included the expansion of the activities of the Russian Mafia, involved particularly in money-laundering operations and in cross-border smuggling, and the role of Chinese Triads in the smuggling of abalone and the illegal trade in rhino horn and ivory, among other activities. Pakistani syndicates, involved largely in the trade in “grey products” (knockoffs of popular brand names) are a growing phenomenon. The most rapid expansion of foreigners involved in crime in South Africa, however, has been the dramatic growth within a short period of time of Nigerian organized crime groups. Nigerian crime syndicates now dominate the illicit trade in crack cocaine in South Africa and are involved in sophisticated fraud scams.

Before 1994, the six or seven largest crime syndicates in the Western Cape province, primarily involved in the narcotics trade, were constantly engaged in debilitating turf battles. This made them more vulnerable to police action and provided an environment that was conducive to the recruitment by the police of informers who were then tasked with providing information on gang activities. Rival gangs also used the criminal justice system to try to neutralize their opponents by laying criminal charges against them.

With the opening up of South Africa’s borders after the 1994 election and the realization that foreign crime syndicates were likely to exploit the new situation, most of these Western Cape syndicates decided to establish a cartel. Their aim was to reduce turf battles, order bulk shipments, distribute the drugs in prearranged proportions at agreed prices, and allocate distribution areas in terms of a set of agreed principles. Called “The Firm,” the cartel substantially changed the nature of organized crime in the Western Cape after 1994. By 1996, enormous profits had been generated that needed to be laundered and invested. Members of The Firm started buying fixed properties in rural areas along the Cape coastline. Some of the more assertive gangs that formed part of The Firm, such as the Hard Livings, set up branches in many communities and towns and made contact with Chinese Triads and the Sicilian Mafia.

Most of the local leaders of the Hard Livings were provided with seed capital and cars to run their own drug trade. The role of the leadership of the Hard Livings became one of merely collecting the money and coordinating activities. The consolidation and better coordination of activities are typical of what occurred with some criminal groups elsewhere in South Africa. It reflects a progression of a common criminal gang moving up the ladder of sophistication on its way to becoming a well-organized criminal group that thinks strategically after assessing its own strengths and weaknesses.

Notwithstanding increases in these crimes, one of the most important outcomes of these developments has been the growth of drug trafficking to South Africa, not only to satisfy growing local demand but because the country has become an important transshipment point for drugs destined for more lucrative markets. Current estimates are that 60% of all drugs that reach South African shores are moved on to other destinations. As already mentioned, one of the most significant developments in South Africa since 1994 has been the growth of Nigerian criminal syndicates, with important domestic implications.

The use of South Africa as a transshipment point has regional dimensions. Direct flights between source and destination countries are generally avoided in favor of diversionary stops in neighboring states. Law enforcement sources both inside and outside Angola, for example, have long identified the country as a source of cocaine entering Southern Africa. Originating in South America and trafficked via Brazil—with which Angola has strong historic, cultural, and language connections—powdered cocaine enters the country mainly on the weekly Angola Airways flight from Rio, according to a recent unpublished U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention report.

Trafficking routes from Latin America appear to be relatively sophisticated. Police sources suggest that Luanda serves as a “portal” into southern Africa. Smuggling routes from Luanda into the region itself are seldom direct; police records indicate that narcotics are transported by air to Windhoek or Maputo and then forwarded on to Johannesburg by road, rail, or air. In documented cases, Nigerian trafficking groups have recruited Angolan citizens to go to Brazil where they link up with other Nigerians resident there, bringing back cocaine destined for South Africa, and further afield.

The role of Nigerian syndicates in the drug trade has important implications for the inner city. The center of the trade remains the high-density area of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, now dominated by Nigerian traffickers, operating out of a series of residential hotels and who also have important links to local prostitution networks. These trends are also evident in Durban and, to a lesser extent, in Cape Town, although the situation in these cities is not yet as serious as in Johannesburg. The level of dominance by the Nigerian syndicates of these inner-city areas is reflected by interviews with local businesses and prostitutes who regard the Nigerians as bringing order by discouraging violent street crime that might drive away customers from outside the area.

As elsewhere in the world, the high profits generated by the illicit trade in drugs and other illegal commodities have ensured growing corruption of police officers. Low levels of morale, poor pay, and weak internal controls contribute to this problem. Some evidence points to active collusion between the police and drug dealers at street level.  Higher up the chain, the arrest of the head of the organized crime unit in Durban for corruption suggests just how serious the problem may have become. These incidents both undermine public confidence in those that are meant to ensure citizens’ safety and confound any attempt at concerted law enforcement.

South Africa then has become a hub for the development of organized crime, not only because of the county’s comparative wealth and developed transport infrastructure but because of both the presence and the later development of sophisticated criminal operations as well as the regional instability in southern Africa, which has promoted the development of sophisticated forms of cross-border criminal activity. In southern Africa, in particular, some states, most notably Mozambique, have been badly affected by this trend. This is also partly because the east coast of Africa has long served as a trading interface between Africa, Arabia, and South Asia. Although much of this trade has been legitimate, a significant proportion has not.

The Hub of Illicit Trade: East Africa

Located on the shores of the Indian Ocean, East African countries developed trade networks connecting Central Africa, southern Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest and Southeast Asia. Indian Ocean trade brought Islamic merchants and culture to East Africa over the past 1,000 years. Countries in the region are Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Somalia. This region as a whole has been a dynamic and crucial point for commercial trade with Africa. As elsewhere in the world, regions where significant levels of commercial trade take place are also vulnerable to the development of illicit transactions. In East Africa, reflecting a theme already outlined at the beginning of this article, state weakness and conflict have been an important contributing factor in the development of this trend.

Because some East African governments lost effective control over their states in a course of escalated armed conflicts in the region, especially after the Cold War, the region has become vulnerable to illicit trade and criminal activities. Its trade network is now threatened by criminal organizations. Today, East Africa is still struggling with ongoing and long-lasting regional conflicts, which place barriers to regulating internal affairs. Existing criminal activities in the region also suggest that there is serious potential for the further growth of organized crime. A preliminary review of the development of cross-border criminal activities in the region by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows significant problems in human trafficking, drug smuggling, and the trafficking of firearms.

Human trafficking, especially of women and children, has been recognized throughout the region by various news sources and academic research. According to a report by the U.S. Department of State, East African countries are both a source and destination for human trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. In the case of sex trafficking, states in East Africa principally serve as source countries. Women and teenage girls are mainly trafficked to European countries. Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and some countries within Africa are also recognized as destinations for those trafficked women. In the case of forced labor, women and children are mainly sent to the Middle East, North and southern Africa, and even within East Africa itself. Most of the women and children are from poor areas; therefore, either they or their parents are easily lured by traffickers’ promises, such as educational opportunities and marriage in Europe. Cultural tradition, where parents send children to wealthier relatives to care for the child, also leaves people vulnerable to child-trafficking traps.

The International Organization for Migration, which has a close partnership with the United Nations, has acknowledged in its report that organized crime is widespread in the eastern and southern African regions. The report addresses a connection between Malawian business and Nigerian traffickers in sex trafficking. In Ethiopia, employment agencies, most of which are not registered, act as a key recruitment mechanism, and some collusion between traffickers and government officials have been acknowledged. However, despite the significant evidence of human trafficking, there is little information on traffickers’ identities in East Africa.

As for drug smuggling, East Africa is a very busy transit region. Of all the states in the region, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania are the most critical transit hubs. In addition to its attractive location on a transit route between Asia and Europe, factors such as porous borders, poorly paid civil servants, and corruption are ideal conditions for drug smugglers. East Africa, thus, is an essential middleman in global drug trafficking. Sea and air transportation infrastructure in the region and the network of commercial and family ties on a global scale are critical in this regard. In addition, corruption in law enforcement and lack of resources for counternarcotics programs make East African ports very vulnerable to organized syndicates. A recent U.N. report noted that Nairobi and Mombasa, the latter with the biggest commercial seaport in the region, are systematically exploited by well-organized drug traffickers. Seaports in Kenya and Tanzania are particularly critical points to assess criminal syndicates in both regional and global drug trafficking.

Heroin and cocaine are the major substances that pass through the region. Most of the drugs originate in Southeast and Southwest Asia and are destined for Europe and North America. Southern Africa is another destination, although on a smaller scale. Khat, cannabis, and opium poppy are cultivated on a small scale compared with the flow of heroin and cocaine and, currently, are mainly for domestic consumption. A recent report from the UNODC shows that large amounts of cannabis/marijuana in Kenya and Tanzania are increasingly trafficked to neighboring countries, especially southern Africa. It also reports a large increase of cannabis use in Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda in East Africa.

Journalists in South Africa and Mozambique have identified a drug-smuggling route that stretches from Afghanistan via Pakistan to Tanzania and Mozambique. Drugs are transported by boat from Tanzania to Pemba in Mozambique. Some of the containers are floated at sea and collected by local fishermen at night. These drugs make their way into the former military veteran housing complexes in Maputo, dubbed Little Colombia, and by road to South Africa. Buyers claim that 5 grams of heroin will sell for R700 (just under US$100). This sends a warning that there are potential demands that help drug smugglers to expand their business into these countries.

Diffusion of small firearms in East Africa is now a well-recognized problem. It is apparent that there are millions of light arms in East Africa, where an AK-47 costs only 6 U.S. dollars. The proliferation of lightweight small guns is closely related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the regional war in East Africa. The U.N. Security Council has recognized this small-arms matter in the region as key challenge for promotion of durable peace and sustainable development.

Ongoing research indicates two major patterns of light arms trafficking: regional flow and smuggling from external traffickers. Regional flow of small arms is vast. It is attributed to the regional nature of conflicts in East Africa, where the conflicts in the DRC spill over into neighboring countries. Porous borders in the region allow soldiers and rebels to flee to neighboring countries very easily, and they are always accompanied by small arms. With the spillover of the conflicts in wide areas, small arms move along and are eventually sold in the civilian market.

The current stockpiles of small arms in Africa are remnants of former wars and the Cold War security that equipped anticolonial fighters. In the DRC, for example, most of weapons are from the Congolese wars of 1996 and 1998. It is now said that 100 million small arms are in the hands of unauthorized and unqualified individuals or groups in Congo. Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, with a population of 1.3 million residents, was estimated to possess over a million guns in 1999. In the confusion of ongoing armed conflicts and their aftermath, where there is weak, if any, state security, possession of a gun is a matter of survival. Therefore, today’s East Africa is fertile ground for small-arms traffickers to develop their business.

Such facts illustrate the vulnerability that will be faced in countries along the East African coast in the near future. Already, and as referred to several times, Mozambique has developed a significant problem of organized criminality that will prove difficult to curb. But similar problems are present in a variety of other states, including Kenya and Uganda. In Somalia, state breakdown has developed to such a degree that the activities of criminal groups and local clans trading in a variety of items, both licit and illicit, make distinguishing between local warlords and organized criminal activity nearly impossible.


A key theme that has run through this chapter is the degree to which the development of contemporary organized criminal activity on the African continent cannot be understood separately from state weakness, collapse, and ongoing civil conflicts. There is perhaps one exception to this, that being South Africa, where although such factors have also played a part, the key driving force for the development of organized crime has been the evolution of local gangs, which had largely been kept in check (or used for controlling liberation movements) by the apartheid state, combined with the opening of the country’s border to new and sophisticated criminal operators, most notably Nigerian criminal networks.

In West Africa, the problem of organized crime has now developed to the extent that West African criminal networks are renowned for their acumen in many other countries across the globe. This, combined with conflict and state collapse in some areas of the region, has ensured that the development of organized criminal activity now directly threatens the ability of states to develop both economically and politically. In East Africa, the historic position of the region as a trading hub, combined with the common feature of weak states and ongoing and past conflicts, has made the east coast vulnerable to illicit smuggling, most notably in human beings, drugs, and firearms.

What is perhaps most surprising about the overall development of organized crime in Africa is the extent to which it has not been documented in any detail. This remains an urgent and much-needed task. The definitive text on the developing problem of organized crime on the continent is yet to be written. At the moment, the story is one of fragments, with a hazy picture only now developing. This is partly because, as suggested at the beginning of the chapter, the term organized crime is still not widely used in Africa. Nevertheless, the past decade has seen the expansion of criminal networks across the continent, with increasing evidence that such networks have accumulated (and will continue to accumulate) profits, power, and political resources, making them a permanent feature of the African landscape. This poses significant threats to the long-term well-being of Africans. These networks threaten democratic processes, undercut economic development that benefits everybody, and have created new power centered on an already politically fragmented environment. In conclusion, it must be emphasized again that resolving such problems, given their complex political, social, and economic roots, cannot be the task of law enforcement agencies alone. Indeed, in Africa, with few exceptions, police and criminal agencies are seldom up to the tasks, and reliance must be placed on a long-term (and largely political) process that aims to strengthen institutions of peacemaking and governance on the continent as a whole.