Organised Crime Rises In Africa As Criminal Groups Take Advantage Of Covid-19

By Yethu Dlamini
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Despite lockdowns and movement restrictions due to the pandemic, organised criminals were able to adapt more effectively than legal entities.

Pretoria, South Africa – Organised crime increased across Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic and shows no signs of slowing, according to the 2021 Organised Crime Index released on 25 November.

It is one of Africa’s biggest security challenges, with more than two-thirds of Africans living in countries with high criminality, and nearly 80% in states with acute vulnerability and low resilience. Organised crime got worse in 42 countries on the continent and improved in just 12 between 2019 and 2021. Africa has the second-highest levels 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.

Organised crime threatens peace and security on the continent, in a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle, damaging governance and eroding the rule of law. Africa experiences an annual loss of US$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.

The Organised Crime Index is published by the European Union-funded ENACT programme (Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organised Crime) – run by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), INTERPOL and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).

‘The wheels of the criminal ecosystem kept turning during COVID-19,’ says Mark Shaw, Director of GI-TOC. ‘Our 2019 Index reported widespread organised crime with no region spared the damage inflicted by illicit economies. In 2021 our data suggests it is worse, with more criminality and less resilience.’

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has the highest criminality, followed by Nigeria, with Kenya, South Africa, Libya and Mozambique also in the top 10.

Organised criminals took advantage of the pandemic to fill gaps left by state institutions and adapt illicit activities to beat COVID-19 restrictions. Institutional responses to stop the virus caused extensive losses for legitimate businesses and, despite lockdowns and restrictions on movement, organised criminals were able to adapt more effectively than legal entities.

State-embedded actors grew more powerful as they monetised their control over government resources and institutions. The pandemic may also have provided opportunities for states to crack down on critical voices under the pretext of promoting health and curbing the spread of the virus.

Human trafficking remained the most pervasive criminal market in Africa, while the cocaine trade saw the biggest increase.

Central Africa registered the largest rise in criminality, and East Africa remains the region in which organised crime is most prevalent.

Illicit economies, from drug markets to illegal mining and weapons smuggling are drivers of conflict and instability; and conflict zones and fragile states create conditions where organised crime can flourish.

‘Criminal economies often intertwine themselves with formal economies and market institutions of countries experiencing violence, terrorism, insurgency and war. Instability caused by conflict is a significant impediment to an effective government response to organised crime,’ said Martin Ewi, Coordinator of the Southern African organised crime observatory for the ENACT programme.

The 2021 assessment shows that countries scoring highest for organised crime often experience conflict or some form of violence, insurrection, terrorist activity or civil unrest. Conflict also diverts important resources, thereby undermining institutions responsible for taking steps to contain organised crime.

ENACT researchers found some positive change between 2019 and 2021, with marginally more resilience driven by social protection measures such as victim and witness support.

But a major injection of political will is required to tackle organised crime in Africa. Economic opportunities and development, and improved regulatory environments, will reduce incentives to engage in illicit behaviour, ENACT researchers said.

The index also proposed capacity building across justice and security structures, with greater support for social protection and civil society to strengthen national resilience.