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Observatory of Illicit Economies in East and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Extortion and access to illicit firearms are key to understanding the rise in mass shootings in South Africa.

    Mass shootings have claimed dozens of lives in South Africa in recent months. Even though South Africa has become grimly accustomed to some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, these shootings represent a step change in the scale of violence committed in individual incidents. The shootings range widely in their targets, from liquor taverns in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces to shops and homes in Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town. Many appear to be linked to extortion rackets. The ever-increasing availability of illicit firearms and ammunition is fuelling the fire of extortion and inter-gang rivalries.

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  2. Kenya grapples with theft of state ammunition.

    A high-profile trial is due to begin in Nairobi, in which a senior police officer in Kenya’s paramilitary General Service Unit is charged with the illegal possession of state ammunition. The case is likely to shed light on police complicity in the trafficking of state ammunition supplies. Our investigation, involving interviews with insiders, former officers and security experts, has exposed a problem of ammunition theft far greater than this individual case. Ammunition is stolen from state training facilities, on security operations and during periods of unrest. Oversight authorities in Kenya have called for better record-keeping in the police service to ensure that bullets do not end up in the hands of criminal networks, fuelling insecurity and political unrest.

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  3. Round-tripping, corruption and established smuggling networks: The illegal cigarette trade between Uganda and its neighbouring countries.

    In Uganda, cigarettes have for decades been one of many products that are smuggled across the country’s land borders with Kenya, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In border towns, smuggling networks leverage corrupt connections, evasive tactics and, at times, violence to preserve their smuggling routes for these goods. Smoking is declining in most of the world, yet many African countries are high priority for tobacco companies looking to expand their market. Expansion of the tobacco industry will also have an impact on these smuggling economies.

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  4. Online trade of pangolin products in China is driving pangolin trafficking in eastern and southern Africa.

    Four species of pangolin are distributed across sub-Saharan Africa and can be found in countries in eastern and southern Africa. All of them are threatened with extinction as a result of a vibrant online trade in pangolin products. A new investigation using machine-learning technology focuses on the online market for pangolin and pangolin-derived products in China, an under-researched area of the trade. We found that the marketing of pangolin-derived products on Chinese websites largely does not follow applicable laws and regulations. This has implications for pangolin populations in eastern and southern Africa and the ongoing trafficking of African pangolin to meet Asian demand.

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About this issue

Globalization is a phenomenon that shapes illegal markets just as much as their legal counterparts. Changes in policy, regulation and law enforcement in the destination market for an illegal product can have a knock-on effect in supply regions around the world. Our recent research on online markets for pangolin products in China shows this in action. Online trade in pangolin-derived products – widely used for traditional medicine – largely seems unconcerned with the applicable Chinese laws and regulations. So the major destination market for pangolins (including those sourced from East and southern Africa) continues apace.

Similarly, our research into illicit cigarette trading in Uganda has found that this illegal market is shaped by global factors, in this case the approach of transnational tobacco companies to target expanding African consumer markets, as the prevalence of smoking declines elsewhere. In Uganda and its neighbours, a combination of long-established smuggling economies at border areas, differences between countries in tax on cigarettes, and shifting consumer demand has given rise to a complex and large-scale illicit tobacco market.

The two other articles in this issue, likewise, explore similar themes. An upsurge in mass shooting events in South Arica has been driven, at least in part, by the increasing number of illicit firearms and ammunition available to criminal networks. As our previous research has explored in depth, some of these firearms can be traced to state sources, either lost or stolen from police and other government agencies. Likewise, in Kenya, our investigations have found that state ammunition has been siphoned off by corrupt law enforcement officers for profit. In both cases, these resources – intended to be used by the state for enforcing the rule of law – have instead become the tools used to foment conflict and criminal violence.