As Crime in West Africa Spreads, Response Requires Regional Cooperation

Organized crime in West Africa has been on the agenda of the UN Security Council twice in recent days: on February 21, the Security Council focused on the situation in the Sahel region; and on February 27, it examined the threat posed by piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. These debates highlight a worrying trend that organized crime in West Africa is spreading beyond well-know problems such as cocaine trafficking in and around Guinea-Bissau and oil bunkering in the Niger Delta.

Key Conclusions

Organized crime in West Africa is having a debilitating effect on a region that is already vulnerable to underdevelopment and instability. The recent increase in criminal activity in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea underscores the need for urgent action in order to strengthen the sovereignty of the states concerned. The problem defies borders, and is too big for any state to tackle on its own.

The affected states need more hardware, and more effective cooperation. A regional response is essential; one that builds on existing strategies like the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) anti-drugs and crime action plan, and the UN’s West Africa Coastal Initiative (WACI).

The UN could play a coordinating role. The fact that it carried out assessment missions involving representation from many different UN bodies suggests it is becoming more effective at “delivering as one” in relation to transnational organized crime. The recent debates on instability in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea show that organized crime is now high on the UN’s agenda.


Over the past five years, West Africa has become a hub for cocaine trafficking. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), some 21 tons of cocaine were smuggled via West Africa to Europe in 2009. This has an estimated value of $900 million to the local economies, roughly equivalent to the GDPs of Guinea and Sierra Leone combined.

Major international efforts have been made to tackle the problem, through bilateral assistance, ECOWAS, and the UN’s innovative West Africa Coastal Initiative (WACI). Some progress has been made, although problem persists.

Now, two new problems have opened up.

The first is in the Sahel. According to a UN assessment mission that visited the region from December 7-23, 2011, the Sahel (particularly northern Mali) is becoming a dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime, terrorism and insurgency. Already vulnerable because of weak border control, a dire humanitarian situation, tensions between nomadic Tuareg groups and the central governments, and its location along cocaine trafficking routes, the region has now become even more unstable due to an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya. There is a concern that these weapons may fall into the hands of insurgents (like some Tuareg groups) or terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Boko Haram. There are also increased incidents of kidnapping.

The second is around the Gulf of Guinea. Increased oil production and weak maritime security have triggered a steady increase in piracy, particularly off the coast of Benin. To some extent, the recent attacks off Benin (21 were reported in 2011) are the result of more robust anti-piracy measures by the Nigerian navy that have simply displaced the problem up the coast. Although not on the scale of the problem off the Horn of Africa, piracy is having a detrimental impact on the economies of countries around the Gulf of Guinea that are already close to the bottom of the Human Development Index.

What can be done? As a priority, the affected states need hardware—such as planes in the Sahel, patrol boats in the Gulf—as well as radar and communications equipment. There is also an urgent need for training, particularly in counter-narcotics, border management and financial intelligence. And criminal justice assistance is needed across the board.

Bilateral cooperation is essential in the form of joint patrols (as have been carried out by the navies of Benin and Nigeria), information sharing, joint operations and mutual legal assistance.

Regional cooperation is also vital. ECOWAS has done useful work in fighting drugs and crime in West Africa, although its regional action plan expired in 2011. It should be reviewed and renewed. However, some countries in the Sahel region are not part of ECOWAS (such as Algeria, Chad, Libya, Mauritania and Sudan), so it is important to mobilize the African Union and the United Nations as well.

Around the Gulf of Guinea, ECOWAS can certainly play a role, as well as subregional organizations like the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa (MOWCA). But these organizations need to work more effectively in terms of generating an operational response, not just political will. It would make sense to have a regional anti-piracy strategy, drawing on lessons learned from multilateral counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa and the Malacca Straits.

All of this is an opportunity for countries in the Gulf of Guinea to think more ambitiously and consider a maritime security strategy that includes the coast guard, container security, anti-piracy, and measures against dumping hazardous waste and illegal fishing. This would reap benefits and strengthen sovereignty far beyond the narrow context of fighting piracy.

Of course, it is also essential to tackle the conditions that make West Africa and the Sahel vulnerable to crime by improving development, providing humanitarian assistance and strengthening the rule of law. An overemphasis on a purely security-related response could disproportionately consume badly-needed resources and fan the flames of perceived socio-economic grievances, generating instability.

It is worth noting the UN’s operational response to the recent crises in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea. In both cases, the UN carried out assessment missions involving a wide number of relevant UN bodies in an effort to take a “one UN” approach. This inclusive and pro-active approach is laudable, although its implementation may have challenges, considering the delegations numbered more than 15 people. The UN’s regional office for West Africa (UNOWA, located in Dakar) and its new regional office for Central Africa (UNOCA, located in Libreville), with support from UNODC and Interpol, are well-placed to promote a holistic approach to promoting a comprehensive solution to the threat posed by transnational organized crime in West Africa. Perhaps a new and separate strategy is needed for the Sahel, taking into account the threat posed by the illicit trafficking of drugs, people, weapons, and cigarettes from Senegal in the West to Somalia in the East.

At the political level, the recent Security Council debates on the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea are further evidence of a significant increase in the number of high-level meetings devoted to the threat posed by transnational organized crime. On February 21, the same day as the debate on the Sahel, piracy in Somalia was also on the agenda.

Maybe the time is ripe to consider a proposal made by the President of Togo, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, when he chaired the Security Council meeting on February 21: create an international contact group on transnational crime. The issue is so hot with many member states and affects so many theaters where the UN has missions that it deserves more attention.

Walter Kemp is Director of the Europe and Central Asia Program at the International Peace Institute

About the photo: Tuareg fighters (source)