The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s recent reports indicate that transnational organised crime has significantly increased to become a major security threat, especially in Africa, the second most affected continent. There are calls for coordinated responses based on the UN’s Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), adopted in 2000 by the international community in Palermo, Italy.

Speaking at the 17th African Chiefs of Defence Staff and Heads of Safety and Security in May last year, Ambassador Bankole Adeoye, the African Union’s commissioner of political affairs, peace, and security, singled out transnational organised crime – including money laundering, illicit financial flows, smuggling as well as illicit trade, and the linkages to terrorism and extremism – as a key threat in Africa.

A woman in Nairobi, Kenya, takes part in a vigil for the victims of a terror attack in which 148 people were killed. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP

“When the African Standby Force (ASF) was envisioned in the early 2000s, we were not faced with the kinds of conflicts that we currently grapple with in the continent, ranging from transnational and trans-regional threats … that includes acts of terrorism and violent extremism that are also linked to transnational organised crime, as well as drugs and human trafficking,” said Adeoye.

In West Africa, the illicit trafficking of minerals into the bordering areas of Gabon, Cameroon, and Congo – known as the “TRIDOM landscape” – and Chad and the Central African Republic, has become a source of funding for terrorist groups in the region. Illegally mined gold and other precious metals are being fed into the legitimate market, providing huge markets for traffickers.

In the Sahel, one of the poorest regions of the world, illicit trafficking and terrorist-linked security threats have got worse since armed terrorist groups have engaged in illegal gold mining. In 2020, UNODC and Interpol undertook a coordinated firearms operation that seized 40,000 sticks of dynamite and detonator cords intended for illegal gold mining by armed terrorist groups in the Sahel.

People rescue a wounded victim following suicide bomb blasts in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Abdi Hussein Farah/AFP

The situation is no better in East Africa, which ranks highest on the continent, according to the ENACT Organised Crime Index of 2021, for transnational organised crime penetration and threat, a region well connected to the rest of the continent and the world through good trade networks, and exploited by criminal outfits.

Briefing the United Nations Security Council in October last year, UNODC head Ghada Waly said criminal exploitation deprived millions of Africans who depended on natural resources for their livelihoods, fuelled conflicts and worsened instability.

“The illegal trade in ivory alone generates $400 million in illicit income each year; with a population of around 1.3 billion, almost 500 million Africans are living in extreme poverty. The illegal trade of natural resources consigns Africans to poverty,” Waly said. “The illicit trafficking of natural resources further jeopardises development and winds back progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Two men stand at the scene of an explosion at a hotel complex in Nairobi on January 15, 2019. Photo: Simon Maina / AFP

Innovative and effective mechanisms are required to combat transnational organised crime on the continent, and to identify and dismantle the enabling environment that has made Africa vulnerable to the growth of organised crime.

Mohammed Abdiker, the Regional Director for East and the Horn of Africa at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told Africa in Fact that a lack of focused governance on transnational organised crime, coupled with a lack of mutual understanding [among African countries] was the first challenge.

“The most crucial factor is the incongruent approach to transnational organised crime by states in the region and vastly different prioritisations within governance,” Abdiker says. “Many states are faced with more pressing humanitarian and development needs and are more inclined to focus their efforts in this area. Conflict, climate change, poverty and lack of access to education and livelihood opportunities continue to heighten the vulnerability of populations and push them into situations of trafficking.”

Soldiers apprehend a terror suspect outside a military base in Kati, Mali, in July 2022. Photo: AFP

In addition to addressing the root causes of transnational organised crime and trafficking, Abdiker calls for urgent action to combat these crimes, including ownership and taking shared responsibility, enhanced intelligence, systematic data collection and analysis and information in real time, and increasing anti-money laundering institutional strength.

The lack of strong institutions has also made it difficult to bring perpetrators to justice. “We need to strengthen regional and international interdiction, investigations and prosecutions, to disrupt drug trafficking, human trafficking and migrant smuggling and its financial facilitation of other transitional organised crime threats,” says Abdiker. “We need to build bilateral, regional and international training and capacity, cooperation and partnership, and establish dedicated multi-faceted agency task teams.”

Waly agrees with Abdiker, adding that there must be partnerships with the private sector, including companies involved in mineral supply chains, public and civil society stakeholders, and more help to improve understanding of national and cross-border illicit financial flows related to mineral crimes. “The focus should be to increase prevention, investigation and the prosecution of transnational organised crime,” says Waly.

Islamist fighters loyal to Somalia’s Al-Qaida-inspired Al-Shabaab group perform military drills at a village in Lower Shabelle region, 25 km outside Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Abdurashid Abdulle/AFP

Ambassador Adeoye has also emphasised the urgent need for African countries to make more concerted and coordinated efforts to effectively fight transitional organised crime.

Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Noordin Haji, was recently elected to represent Africa and the Indian Ocean region at the International Association of Prosecutors. Haji has pledged to advance innovative strategies and strengthen regional and international cooperation and collaboration in the prosecution of transnational organised crime.

Already, there are remarkable initiatives on the continent to promote coordinated and holistic responses. The UNODC, the guardian of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime – the leading international instrument in the fight against such crimes – supports countries to put in place the policies, legislations and operational responses required to ensure border seizures, and to better address terrorist threats. The UN agency is working on a programme that seeks to strengthen inter-agency coordination among intelligence services, law enforcement, financial intelligence units and prosecutors – and promotes the financial investigation of natural resources and wildlife trafficking.

An injured woman receives medical attention at the scene of an explosion at a hotel complex in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb in January 2019. (Photo: Luis Tato / AFP)

The IOM provides training and capacity building to law enforcement and immigration services to recognise and intervene when they suspect suspicious criminal and extended transnational organised crime involvement. Also, the organisation supports governments in the development, amendment and implementation of laws and policies on counter-trafficking to ensure inclusion and protection for the victims of trafficking and punitive measures for traffickers.

“States must recognise the treaty and accede to international legal frameworks, as this reflects the nature of the problem; globalised crimes need globalised responses,” says Abdiker. “Also, because transnational organised crime is borderless and transnational, cross-border cooperation and information sharing are the vital starting points necessary to combat and prevent transnational organised crime in its various forms.”

Most importantly, Africa needs the support of the international community to make substantial progress in reducing the negative impact of transnational organised crime on the region’s development.

The international community can assist and facilitate assistance to African countries’ efforts to counter transnational criminal networks by targeting their off-shore infrastructures, depriving them of their illicit funds, and preventing the criminal facilitation and association of terrorist activities. They can also help African partner states to strengthen governance and transparency, highlighting the destructive nature of financial corruption and its impact on personal, state, and regional development, as well as strengthen and increase the overall number of legal pathways for migration. 



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Raphael Obonyo is a public policy analyst. He’s served as a consultant with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). An alumnus of Duke University, he has authored and co-authored numerous books, including Conversations about the Youth in Kenya (2015). He is a TEDx fellow and has won various awards.