Welcome to the first issue of Africa in Fact for 2023, which we devote to the phenomenon of transnational organised crime (TOC), an ever-evolving menace that threatens the security, well-being, and livelihoods of millions of people on this continent, subverting efforts at political, economic, and social development in the process. 

TOC is a broad term for a wide range of activities that include human trafficking and smuggling, illicit financial flows, money laundering, illicit trade in drugs, firearms and other weapons, precious metals and gemstones, wildlife, and wildlife products such as rhino horn and pangolin scales, fake medicines, and environmental crimes such as the harvesting of rare and endangered trees.  

While TOC is a global business, generating more than $870 billion a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Africa with its wealth of natural resources, coupled with many porous borders, political instability and weak or bad governance, as well as high levels of extreme poverty, is particularly vulnerable to exploitation by greedy transnational criminal syndicates.  

ENACT (an EU-funded programme to enhance Africa’s response to TOC run by the Institute for Security Studies [ISS] and the Global Initiative) published their 2021 Organised Crime Index in November of that year and it makes grim reading. 

The report noted that Africa has the second-highest level of criminality globally after Asia. “Organised crime causes vast social, economic, political and environmental damage; from human trafficking for sexual exploitation to corruption, fraud and money laundering, and poaching of endangered wildlife,” the report said. 

It went on to observe that organised crime created a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle, damaging governance and eroding the rule of law. “Africa experiences an annual loss of $88.6 billion in illicit financial flows linked to criminal activities. This is equivalent to 3.7% of the continent’s GDP, according to UNCTAD’s Economic Development in Africa Report 2020.” 

To emphasise this, writer Raphael Obonyo, in our opening article, quotes the African Union’s commissioner of political affairs, peace and security, Ambassador Bankole Adeoye, in a speech last year in which he singled out TOC and its links to terrorism and extremism as a key threat to Africa. 

And COVID-19 only made things worse, as contributor Ronak Gopaldas notes. In the aftermath of COVID-19, he writes, organised crime has soared across Africa; with organised criminals able to adapt more effectively than legal entities to the disruptions and exploit them.  “During COVID-19, graft relating to state procurement of medical supplies was staggering. Criminal syndicates in many countries, including South Africa and Kenya, cheated governments and consumers with faulty and counterfeit PPE.” Politicians and other state actors, he says, used their positions and power to give contracts to companies to supply medical equipment and services to the state at inflated prices in exchange for kickbacks.   

Human trafficking and smuggling are two of the most pervasive organised crimes in Africa, earning billions of dollars for the perpetrators and causing misery – and too often death – for the victims. Several articles in this issue of Africa in Fact take a close look at this particular crime from several angles.

Habiba Osman, the Executive Secretary for the Human Rights Commission in Malawi, writes that her country is both a source and transit country for people trafficking, despite the fact that Malawi has progressive laws to deal with it. For another article, Josephine Chinele interviewed several Malawian women who were rescued from Kuwait by their government after they were lured to the middle east with the promise of well-paid clerical and teaching jobs only to find themselves trapped in what must be described as slavery.  Journalist Blame Ekoue also tackles human trafficking from a West African perspective, interviewing teenagers who were trafficked across borders to work on farms, also lured by false promises.  

The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth-largest trafficking industry, after drugs, humans, and weapons. Co-authors Stephanie Karns and Shawn Karns bring their expertise to bear in their article on the impact of the illicit wildlife trade (IWT) on Africa.  IWT, they write, compromises the rule of law, disrupts social, political, and economic security, destabilises ecosystems and threatens biodiversity.  

“Nowhere are these impacts more relevant or urgent than in Africa,” they say. “Many of the world’s most iconic species are found and ruthlessly exploited in Africa, including rhinos, elephants, spotted cats and pangolins.” 

Much of the poached wildlife from Africa, including the pangolin – the most trafficked mammal on earth for its meat and scales and threatened with extinction – is destined for the Asian market, particularly China.  

Equally damaging to Africa and its people for many of the same reasons are environmental crimes. As GGA data journalist Mischka Moosa writes, the exploitation of tropical hardwoods such as rosewood, baobabs and sandalwood, forms part of a multi-billion-dollar illicit industry that has devasted community forests and caused other environmental degradation. Sophisticated criminal networks often operate in countries already constrained by conflict or instability. A lack of security and regulation, coupled with a higher likelihood of poverty in communities, also makes it easier for foreign-private and local-state actors to collaborate and circumvent national laws and legislation. 

Illicit financial flows and money laundering go hand in hand with these criminal activities. Jim Karani writes that, every year, Africa loses $50 billion in illicit financial flows, money that could be used for economic investment in jobs, poverty, inequality and climate change adaptation and mitigation. At least a third of these illegal financial flows are attributed to the illicit wildlife trade.  

In his article, regular contributor Terence Corrigan looks at the whistleblowers, those insiders who risk their jobs – and often their lives – to expose corruption and other organised criminality. Corrigan’s inspirational article includes an interview with one whistleblower who stood to lose everything by exposing transnational criminality involving both state and non-state actors in South Sudan, but bravely stood firm in the face of intimidation and imprisonment to finally see justice done.  

Space does not allow a synopsis, however brief, of every article in this bumper issue of Africa in Fact, but it is worth concluding with this observation from UNODC: “Transnational organised crime is not stagnant, but is an ever-changing industry, adapting to markets and creating new forms of crime. In short, it is an illicit business that transcends cultural, social, linguistic and geographical boundaries and one that know no borders or rules.” 

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Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.

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Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.

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