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Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Re-examining Russia’s presence in West Africa’s gold sector.

    Since the Putin regime’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022, Russia has been hit by severe economic sanctions, isolating the country from the global financial system. Given their increasing presence in the gold sector across West Africa, it is likely that Russia will seek to use gold as a means of generating funds, moving money internationally and accessing foreign currencies. In Mali and Central African Republic, where Russia has been for several years building their influence, criminal networks are likely to play a role in smuggling gold out of the countries, disguising the origins of the gold and thus enabling the evasion of the sanctions in place against Russia.

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  2. Violence surges as criminal networks spread to new territories amid economic downturn in Jos, Nigeria.

    The central Nigerian city of Jos and its surrounding areas have been experiencing a resurgence of violence since 2021. A spike in criminal activity in Jos, partly attributable to increases in unemployment and economic hardship, is one key driver behind this explosion in violence, with fatal incidents linked to illicit markets, including cattle rustling, arms and drug trafficking, and kidnapping for ransom, doubling between 2020 and 2021. An increase in inter-communal clashes, driven partly by the growing operations of rural based militias in peri-urban areas of Jos, has further contributed to escalating violence. The violence and instability, moreover, is likely to intensify in the lead-up to the 2023 elections, as political actors seek to instrumentalize criminal networks.

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  3. A reported coup attempt brings to the fore how cocaine trafficking continues to shape Guinea-Bissau’s politics.

    In the wake of an attack on Guinea-Bissau’s governmental palace in February, labelled a coup attempt by the Bissau-Guinean government, we track the chequered history of the alleged mastermind – Bubo Na Tchuto – to explore the evolving role of the cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau’s volatile politics. Although the nature of the incident remains unclear, this article does not attempt to opine on whether Tchuto, and the other two men arrested, were truly behind the attack. Instead, it analyzes the historical and contemporary context that grants the government’s current position credibility, and explores the concerning aftermath of February’s incident in Bissau, characterized by escalating repression of voices critical of the current administration.

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  4. The Organised Crime Index Africa 2021 underscores differing relationships between certain illicit markets and instability.

    The results of the Organised Crime Index Africa 2021 underscore the strong but complex relationship between instability and illicit markets in West Africa. The Index highlights that certain markets – most prominently arms trafficking, but also trafficking in persons – show marked positive correlations to conflict, whereas others – such as cannabis and the illicit wildlife trade – appear to have none. These findings underscore that it is vital to recognize the complexities of the relationship between different kinds of criminal markets and conflict and instability.

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About this issue

In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the first article of this issue of the Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in West Africa examines Russia’s presence in the gold-mining sector in West Africa, specifically in Mali and Central African Republic. We explore how criminal networks may play a role in disguising the origins of gold mined by sanctioned entities, enabling sanctioned Russian entities and individuals to use gold mined in West Africa as a means of generating funds, moving money internationally and accessing foreign currencies.

The second article highlights the recent resurgence of violence in Jos, Nigeria, as criminal networks in the city have spread to new territories and expanded their portfolio of illicit activity. One of the key drivers of the explosion of violence is unemployment and economic hardship, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown measures. As the political environment becomes more hostile in the run-up to the 2023 elections, a further surge in violence is expected as political actors seek to instrumentalize criminal networks in Jos.

In Guinea-Bissau, the attack on the governmental palace in February 2022, labelled a failed coup attempt by the authorities, has shone the spotlight on the cocaine trade in the small coastal state once again and its role in destabilizing the country. This article analyzes the historical and contemporary context of the intertwining of the political and military elite, and the cocaine trade, and considers the aftermath of the attack, most concerningly manifesting in a crackdown on critical voices.

The common thread running through all three articles is the way in which illicit economies and conflict and instability are inextricably linked, whether that be as it pertains to physical conflict such as in the case of Jos or political instability as witnessed in Guinea-Bissau. Illicit economies often feed off of political and economic instability, as the case of Russian sanctions illustrates. However, different illicit markets have distinct relationships with instability, and this is underscored by the findings of the 2021 Organized Crime Index, explored in the final article, which provide a statistical framework for understanding the strong but complex relationship between instability and illicit markets in West Africa.