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Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Death and forced labour at sea as Chinese fishing trawlers pillage northern Somalia.

    For over a year, about a dozen trawlers belonging to the Liao Dong Yu fleet have been fishing illegally in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia. Many abuse allegations have surrounded the vessels, including forced labour practices, hazardous working conditions and numerous violations of Somali fisheries law. Foreign fishing companies in Somalia rarely operate without the assistance of local facilitators on land. In the case of the Liao Dong Yu vessels, the GI-TOC’s investigation has revealed that they appear to enjoy protection at the very top of Puntland’s business and political elite.

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  2. ‘Loved to death’: poaching for the horticultural market threatens cycads in South Africa.

    Cycads, an ancient group of plants dating from the time of the dinosaurs, are threatened globally by extinction. The plants are also coveted by collectors, especially rarer specimens. In South Africa, a hotspot of cycad diversity, this demand has given rise to a harmful illicit market that has placed dozens of species at risk. Working with rudimentary gear under cover of darkness, groups of poachers have dug up thousands of cycads from the wild, including the last known population of one species. The existence of a legal cycad market enables poachers to launder their harvests. ‘Many homes could have cycads purchased from traffickers and no one would know,’ one cycad expert said.

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  3. Kidnappings target the Somali community in Kenya.

    Somalis living in Kenya are targets of kidnappers, whether for ransom or because of their political stance. The victims are varied: high-profile businesspeople, scholars and even school-age children. Quantifying the number of people kidnapped remains a major challenge, due in part to the underreporting of cases to law enforcement. Families are left in precarious positions, torn between parting with huge amounts of money for ransom or reporting to the police, with whom the Somali community has an estranged relationship bred by a long history of extortion and harassment.

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  4. Inadequate protection for witnesses and whistle-blowers in Kenya.

    Witnesses and whistle-blowers in Kenya face widespread intimidation and violence. Kenya is one of the few countries in East and southern Africa with an institutional witness protection programme. However, witnesses themselves, civil society groups and other institutions have voiced alarm about shortcomings in this programme and the continued risks that witnesses face. The Witness Protection Agency faces underfunding and long case backlogs, which means that witnesses must be protected for a long time with few resources. Allegations of poor performance, lack of independence, poor cooperation with other institutions and overly restrictive limitations of who qualifies as a witness were also made against the Agency. Witnesses have turned to other agencies – including NGOs – for protection.

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About this issue

At The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), the aim of much of our research is to investigate the systemic issues around organized crime: the social, economic and political issues that drive organized crime and shape forms of organized crime, and how responses can better address these underlying systemic issues.

All four stories in this issue of the Risk Bulletin speak to these systemic imbalances. For example, our research this month has investigated how the Somali community in Kenya has been targeted for kidnapping for ransom. The victims vary widely, from prominent scholars and political analysts (believed to be targeted for their political views) to school-age girls. Yet the common denominator among these victims is their ethnicity. Why is this the case? People within the community suggest that at least one factor driving this is the fractured relationship between the Somali community and Kenyan authorities, particularly police, due to a history of police harassment and intimidation. This makes some Somali families less likely to report kidnappings and extortion or, if they do, receive the adequate support and investigation from authorities. The fractious political history between Somalia and Kenya is shaping the behaviour of criminal groups.

Also in Kenya, our investigations look at the violence and intimidation faced by whistle-blowers and witnesses in criminal cases. Although Kenya is one of the few countries in East and southern Africa to have an institutionalized witness protection programme, the programme faces challenges of underfunding, a lack of independence and allegations of poor practice. This creates a systemic weakness in Kenya’s criminal justice system, hampering prosecutions in serious organized crime and corruption cases. A number of witnesses have been killed, and others fear for their lives.

Looking north to Somalia, the case of the Liao Dong Yu fishing fleet demonstrates some of the classic characteristics of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing cases in Somalia. A range of allegations of forced-labour practices and illegal fishing practices have dogged this foreign-owned fleet in recent years. The GI-TOC has evidence that the illicit operations of the fleet have been facilitated by an individual part of Somalia’s political and business elite. These commonalities are found in other prominent IUU fishing cases in Somalia that the GI-TOC has researched, showing the systemic lack of accountability that has played a part in allowing IUU fishing to flourish in Somali territorial waters.

Finally, the biggest threat to cycads – a highly endangered group of plant species – from illegal trade comes from collectors, obsessed with owning the rarest varieties. This is a common theme seen across other forms of illegal wildlife trade: from endangered Malagasy tortoises to rare orchid species, the fanaticism of the ‘collector’ provides the demand that is fed by illegal supply.