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Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. In Somalia, COVID-19 opens up new avenues for corruption.

    The first case of COVID-19 in Somalia was con­firmed on 16 March. Since then, the government has received unprecedented backing from international partners, but internal challenges are impeding the response. Control over humanitarian aid has remained a source of fierce competition since the collapse of the state and subsequent famine in the early 1990s, and insecurity continues to inhibit effective monitoring mechanisms. In addition, despite recent improvements in public financial management in Somalia, corruption remains widespread. Keeping track of the rapid influx of material donations intended to prop up a healthcare sector dominated by unregulated private actors will remain a formidable challenge.

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  2. Somalia’s khat ban has led to the emergence of a contraband industry.

    In the wake of the pandemic, the Somali Federal Government temporarily banned imports of the narcotic leaf, khat, on public-health grounds. Regional administrations quickly followed suit. After the ban, the price of the drug in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu jumped as much as fifteen-fold, and new land and sea smuggling routes quickly emerged. The primary result of Somalia’s ban has been a shift away from khat of Kenyan origin towards Ethiopian imports. While it is unclear if the public-health objective has been achieved, the loss of revenue to Somali authorities has been significant.

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  3. The tobacco ban in South Africa is expanding the horizons for profit from illicit trading.

    Among the measures South Africa has taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus was a moratorium on the distribution and sale of tobacco products, including cigarettes. The alleged susceptibility of smokers to COVID-19 was cited as the primary rationale for the ban. Evidence on the relationship between COVID-19 and smoking is, however, still inconclusive. Further, analysts have speculated that the already-thriving illicit trade in cigarettes may become more deeply entrenched by the time the coronavirus crisis passes, depriving the South African government of significant long-term revenues.

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  4. The pandemic has driven unprecedented shifts in human-smuggling patterns to Mayotte.

    Since 1975, when the Union of the Comoros gained independence, but Mayotte voted to remain part of France, a large number of Comorians have used the services of human smugglers to reach Mayotte in search of a better quality of life. More recently, a far smaller number of Malagasy and Central African migrants have also been smuggled to Mayotte, with many hoping to claim asylum or obtain French visas. The coronavirus pandemic initially caused a drastic reduction in the former, and an almost complete stop in the latter. While the irregular movement of Comorians to Mayotte as of June 2020 has returned to – or even exceeded – pre-pandemic levels, arrivals of continental Africans, who rely on air travel for part of their journey, remain low. The pandemic’s effect on these smuggling routes sheds insight into trends emerging across the region.

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  5. Kenyan gang members are facing increased police extortion.

    On 15 March 2020, soon after Kenya’s first recorded case of COVID-19, the chief justice suspended open court hearings. Certain elements among the police moved quickly to take advantage of the absence of judicial guarantees, threatening criminal suspects – particularly members of gangs – with indefinite detention unless bribes were paid. Health measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus are also being used as an opportunity for increased extortion and violence. The GI-TOC spoke to gang members and civil-society activists in Nakuru and Nairobi for their perspectives on police abuses.

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About this issue

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the formal global sector as well as illicit economies – where it has proven disruptive, but has also presented new opportunities. Our headline story explores the misappro­priation of international medical donations to Somalia; a country now in its fourth decade of civil war. With a virtually non-existent public-healthcare system and plagued by endemic corruption, Somalia is one of the least equipped countries in the world to deal with the pandemic.

Somalia is only one example of a weak government struggling to cope with COVID-19. Across fragile states, the coronavirus pandemic has changed patterns of public corruption, as state agents have sought to take advantage of the crisis for personal gain.

The COVID-19 crisis has also led to the emergence of novel illicit economies, and the expansion of existing ones. Bans of the narcotic leaf, khat, in Somalia and tobacco products in South Africa during the pandemic may result in unintended consequences, principally the long-term loss of state revenue. The danger is that illicit networks formed during the coronavirus pandemic may well endure long after the current crisis passes.

In Kenya, police have been accused of brutally enforcing the government’s curfew measures, and of using public-health measures as a pretext to ramp up extortion of the population. The implications of such behaviour go far beyond financial governance. If communities perceive COVID-19 measures to be yet another tool for an oppressive state, it risks politicizing public health and further eroding the state’s legitimacy. The ability of governments in East and Southern Africa to control the spread of the virus, both domestically and regionally, may be jeopardized.