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Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Northern Côte d’Ivoire: new jihadist threats, old criminal networks.

    A surge in jihadist activity in northern Côte d’Ivoire since June 2020 has come alongside a rise in criminal activity in the border region of Bounkani. Although there have been reports that jihadists are leveraging local criminal economies for funding (particularly in the wake of declining external contributions), experts in violent extremism in Cote D’Ivoire caution that it is easy to overstate the links between jihadist groups and criminal networks, highlighting the differences between various illicit markets. That said, some links have been ascertained, which, combined with alleged targeting of vulnerable communities for extremist recruitment, point to a growing entrenchment of jihadist actors in northern Côte d’Ivoire.

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  2. Criminal economies are a key factor in Burkina Faso’s Solhan massacre.

    On 5 June 2021, at least 132 civilians – and perhaps many more – were killed when armed attackers assaulted an informal gold-mining site near the village of Solhan. The massacre marked not only a grim milestone amid ongoing intercommunal violence in Burkina Faso, but further reinforces the extent to which places like Solhan can become violent flashpoints as various actors compete for control over access to natural resources, such as gold. It also underscores an emerging dynamic in which child soldiers and female combatants have become directly involved in violent extremist activities in the country.

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  3. In north-western Nigeria, violence carried out by bandit groups has escalated so fast that killings now rival those that take place in Borno state, where extremist groups hold sway.

    On 18 July, gunfire from bandits caused a Nigerian fighter jet to crash in Zamfara state, the latest incident in Nigeria’s violent and escalating bandit crisis, which has killed hundreds and forced thousands to flee their homes over the past six months. Cross-border arms smuggling supplies the bandits, who increasingly rely on kidnapping as a main source of revenue, with extensive weaponry. Amid mass displacement and growing concerns over food shortages, this attack highlights not only the magnitude of the crisis, but also the increasing boldness and sophistication of the criminal actors involved.

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  4. The release from prison of drug traffickers convicted of coordinating Guinea-Bissau’s largest ever cocaine consignments seized by local authorities undermines any hopes of a brave new dawn in the country’s stance on drug trafficking offences.

    Two record-breaking cocaine seizures in Guinea-Bissau in March and September 2019 brought the near-drought of cocaine seizures in West Africa since 2013 to an abrupt end. In a country where apparent state protection means the vast majority of cocaine shipments pass unimpeded, and drug traffickers enjoy almost complete impunity, these seizures and the ensuing convictions of the traffickers involved, which saw heavy sentences handed down, were interpreted by elements of the international community as evidence of a newly strengthened criminal justice stance in Bissau against drug trafficking. In May 2021, it was revealed that six individuals behind these imports had been released on seemingly spurious medical grounds, highlighting corruption in the criminal justice system and severe shortcomings in the country’s response to organized crime.

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About this issue

In this issue, articles scrutinize the relationship between jihadist violence and local illicit economies in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, the revenue sources of bandit groups behind the upsurge in violence in north-western Nigeria, and the implications of the unlawful temporary release of cocaine traffickers imprisoned for coordinating two bumper cocaine imports in Guinea-Bissau.

A spate of attacks by jihadist groups in Côte d’Ivoire’s Bounkani region, which borders Burkina Faso, since June 2020 have raised fears that Burkina Faso is increasingly operating as a launchpad for jihadist operations into the coastal states of the Gulf of Guinea. Ivorian law enforcement interviewees the GI-TOC spoke to in July 2021 attribute the expansion of criminal economies in Bounkani to the growing presence of jihadist groups, pointing to their increasing reliance on Ivorian sources of financing. While it is key to avoid overstating this causal relationship, it is clear that as jihadist-fuelled violence in northern Burkina Faso has spread southward over the borders, jihadist and criminal actors in Bounkani are increasingly operating in the same space.

A jihadist attack on an informal gold-mining site near Solhan, Burkina Faso, in June 2021 was the worst terrorist attack experienced by the country since 2015, and appears linked to groups vying for control over criminal economies. As jihadist groups look to exploit criminal economies to finance their operations, the role of Solhan as one of the most profitable gold mines in the province likely shaped its emergence as a flashpoint for violence between extremist groups and government-backed militias. Researchers confirmed the deployment of child soldiers and female combatants in the Solhan attack, making it the first confirmed major case of child soldiers being used in the country’s conflict.

Kidnapping attacks perpetrated by bandits in north-western regions of Nigeria have escalated as revenues from kidnapping have become increasingly instrumental in the wake of diminishing returns from cattle rustling, previously their financial mainstay. Interviews with former arms traffickers also reveal regional cross-border smuggling routes for trafficking weapons used by the bandits. These illicit supply chains continue despite border closures imposed due to insecurity, and more recently COVID-19.

Finally, ongoing weaknesses in Guinea-Bissau’s criminal justice response to cocaine trafficking indicate that the country remains a safe haven for regional illicit actors in the drug trade. The temporary release from prison of drug traffickers convicted of coordinating two 2019 cocaine import deals, which subsequently led to Guinea-Bissau’s largest ever seizures, would indicate that signs of the country’s earlier vigorous criminal justice action taken against traffickers have waned. The prisoners’ release – arguably another indication of corruption among elements of the criminal justice infrastructure – comes amidst a renewed drought in major cocaine seizures, as Judicial Police operations would appear increasingly influenced by Bissau’s political agenda.