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Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Chad’s largest goldfield, Kouri Bougoudi, is central to regional stabilization efforts.

    The Kouri Bougoudi goldfield sits at the heart of a volatile cross-border region with Libya that is largely beyond the reach of national authorities. Although the area has long been home to opposition and criminal groups, the goldfield has emerged as one of the region’s key sites of illicit activity, including the smuggling and trafficking of weapons, narcotics, fuel, food staples and migrants, in addition to gold. As Chad enters a new era of political uncertainty after the death of long-time president Idriss Déby, any attempts at regional stabilization efforts will have to take into account these criminal economies and the interests of the local community in the gold sector.

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  2. As a non-state armed group tightens its grip over resources in western CAR, violence looks likely to escalate.

    In CAR, the rebel group referred to as ‘Retour, réclamation et réhabilitation’, or ‘3R’, has evolved from a self-defence militia formed to protect ethnic Fulani herders into a predatory criminal organization with significant criminal interests. While taxation of the livestock trade is central to 3R’s financing, the group’s more recent shift into taxation of artisanal gold mining marks diversification of its revenue streams. It may also indicate a growing focus on drawing revenue from illicit markets, in line with the reported priorities of ‘General Bobbo’, who assumed leadership of the rebel group in March 2021.

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  3. Rise in cyanide-based processing techniques changes criminal dynamics in gold mines in Burkina Faso and Mali.

    Growing adoption of cyanide processing techniques is changing artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in Burkina Faso and Mali. Burkina Faso has emerged as a key hub of cyanide smuggling, with vendors and brokers facilitating sales throughout the country, as well as in Mali. The costly introduction of cyanide into gold processing, which enables more effective gold extraction, has shifted power dynamics in the sector, disrupting local economies and social hierarchies, and creating social divisions, which jihadist groups in the region have exploited in similar contexts.

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  4. Burkina Faso’s Sud-Ouest region risks becoming new zone of insecurity.

    In Burkina Faso, the violence that has resulted in over 2 000 deaths and over 1.4 million internally displaced persons since 2015 has been centred in the north and east of the country. But new pockets of instability are emerging in other regions, including the previously stable Sud-Ouest.1 Situated at the tri-border area with Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where jihadist groups have made inroads in recent years, Sud-Ouest is one of the most prolific ASGM zones in the country. Amid conflicts between local communities and miners coming to the region in search of gold, authorities have expressed concern that ASGM sites could become flashpoints of violence.

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About this issue

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining plays a pivotal role in stability dynamics across West Africa. It has become an increasingly important source of income for conflict actors in the region, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic diminished incomes from a range of other economies, including smuggling of cigarettes and migrants.2 In contrast, income to Sahelian armed groups from artisanal gold mining and smuggling bucked the trend, reportedly increasing throughout 2020.3 While the easing of border restrictions has enabled a resurgence in commodity smuggling, the importance of revenue from the gold economy for conflict actors across the region has not diminished.

However, the relationship between ASGM and instability is multifaceted – the sector also provides a livelihood for many communities where alternatives are scarce, and this can have a stabilizing effect in volatile regions.

Recognizing the complex and central role of the gold economy in shaping stability across the region, this issue of the Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in West Africa examines relationships between ASGM, criminal economies and security in the Central African Republic, northern Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso.


  1. Insecurity in Southwestern Burkina Faso in the context of an expanding insurgency, 17 January 2019, https://reliefweb.int/report/burkina-faso/insecurity-southwestern-burkina-faso-context-expanding-insurgency

  2. For example, the figure for internal, incoming and outgoing migration in Niger is estimated to have dropped by 48% to 50% compared to 2019 figures. See RHIPTO, Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, Impact of Covid-19 on conflict, crime and threat finance in the Trans-Sahara: Security implications, 5 November 2020. 

  3. Ibid.