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Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. The use of gangs by politicians in election campaigns in Mombasa is just one aspect of the role gangs play in Kenyan politics.

    Criminal gangs have come to play an entrenched and insidious role in Kenya’s political landscape. In Mombasa, as elsewhere in Kenya, gangs are used as an unofficial campaigning resource in the run-up to elections to intimidate rivals and their voter bases, and provide ‘security’ at rallies. This is acknowledged by politicians as common practice, but allegations around one MP’s career in particular – Rashid Bedzimba, former MP for Kisauni (a suburb of Mombasa) – illustrate how gangs can be a potent political force. This use of gangs during elections is also just one aspect of the wider set of quid pro quo relationships seen between gangs and politicians across the country.

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  2. Gold and guns: audacious armed robberies at gold-smelting facilities in South Africa.

    Attacks on South African smelters processing gold rose sharply in 2018 and spiked in 2019, when 19 incidents were recorded. The assaults bear the hallmarks of professionals with military, police or security backgrounds, and the groups involved are believed to have links to illegal gold-mining networks and gangs that carry out heists on armoured vehicles transporting cash. A sharp decline in cash-in-transit heists in 2019 in the face of measures to thwart the attacks, together with a drive against illegal mining, may have been behind the surge in gold attacks that year. Developments in 2020 may further show that gangs are switching between different types of targets, and refining methods and alternating targets in response to new security measures.

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  3. Floating armouries in the western Indian Ocean: new trends in the modern maritime- security landscape.

    During the apex of Somali piracy around 2011, vessels carrying armed guards and floating armouries in the western Indian Ocean became shipping companies’ response to this form of organized crime. This led to a proliferation of private maritime-security companies operating in the region, which continues today. Yet the sector is currently under pressure: declining prices have led some operators to cut corners on safety standards, while the legal framework remains largely undefined. And some maritime security operators may soon be contracted to protect oil and gas developments in northern Mozambique.

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  4. Sun, sand and synthetics: the sharp rise of synthetic cannabinoids in the Indian Ocean islands.

    The market in synthetic cannabinoids has grown rapidly in Mauritius, Mayotte and the Comoros. Easily available via online platforms, these cannabinoids – which can be made up of a range of compounds – are largely imported from China via post. The market is highly profitable and easy to access for those looking to make money, but spikes in cannabinoid-related hospital admissions illustrate the significant public-health toll this new market is taking on Mayotte, Mauritius and the Comoros.

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About this issue

In this issue, we investigate four very different perspectives on the impact of organized crime. Our first story, looking at the way gangs are deployed to influence election campaigns in Kenya investigates how organized crime can play a role in the degradation of democracy and urban governance.

In South Africa, we look at the alarming phenomenon of heists carried out at gold-smelting facilities, in which armed gangs – well equipped and seemingly with some level of military training – strategically target gold and gold-bearing material. The seemingly connected trends between gold heists, cash-in-transit heists and bank robberies may be indicative of these criminal groups adapting and shifting their key target, illustrating the adaptability of organised crime groups to respond to new developments and situations.

Our investigation of the rapidly growing market in synthetic cannabinoids (types of new psychoactive substances) in Mauritius, Mayotte and the Comoros likewise illustrates the adaptability of organised crime groups and illicit markets. This nascent drug market had significant public-health impacts, and presents very different challenges to law enforcement than longerstanding markets in the islands such as the heroin trade.

We then turn from drugs markets and urban governance to governance of the seas. The introduction of private maritime security companies in the Western Indian Ocean, originally as a response to Somali piracy, fundamentally shifted the role of private military operations at sea. We look at how this market has developed, including allegations of poor safety standards and insufficient regulation of some operators. This story illustrates the longlasting impacts which responses to organised crime can have on security dynamics and other sectors of the economy.