Violence in the Sahel reached unprecedented levels in 2022, with citizens of Burkina Faso and Mali facing particularly extreme levels of violence at the hands of armed Islamist groups, vigilante self-defence groups and security forces, together with their international partners.1 Furthermore, armed conflict events have spilled over into the coastal states of West Africa, as violent extremist groups have sought to expand their spheres of influence.

However, it is not just violent extremist groups that pose a threat to communities across West Africa and the stability of the region, more broadly. Armed bandits are rife in Nigeria (a country that also faces a considerable threat from jihadist groups, particularly in the north-east), engaging in a litany of criminal activities, from armed raids on villages, including for the purposes of cattle rustling, to kidnap for ransom and other acts of violence.

The findings of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s (GI-TOC’s) illicit hub mapping initiative highlight the role played by various illicit economies in fuelling and sustaining instability in the region, and illustrate the increasing geographic overlap between crime and conflict zones.2 But which illicit economies are the most important to consider when analyzing the impact of organized crime on conflict and instability? And what were the key trends in 2022?

In this article we consider developments in three illicit economies in 2022: two of these illicit economies are central to conflict dynamics and one has close ties to political volatility.

Across this issue, more broadly, we look at two ‘accelerant’ criminal markets – i.e. illicit economies identified as playing a particularly prominent role in fuelling conflict and violence – namely, cattle rustling and kidnap for ransom.3 Both of these illicit markets experience low levels of legitimacy with the local communities in which they occur; they thus tend to fuel community tensions and exacerbate instability, driving more people to self-protect using weapons. Cattle rustling is considered in the article that follows, while kidnap for ransom – and the geographic diffusion of the practice in 2022 – is explored below.

Turning to the political landscape, we explore how the cocaine trade, which appears to be growing across the region, intersected with politics in 2022, and how it seems poised to continue this trajectory in 2023.

Finally, we consider responses to an illicit economy important for regional conflict dynamics – namely, the illicit artisanal gold trade. We look at how, in 2022, fears of terrorist financing drove further crackdowns on goldfields, how Mauritania is doing things differently, and whether there may be growing policy space for deploying alternative approaches.

Kidnap for ransom – geographic diffusion

Kidnap for ransom has over the past decade developed into a major criminal industry in West Africa, not only as means of generating revenue, but also increasingly used by armed groups as an instrument of war, wielded for the purposes of intimidation, punishment and recruitment.4 Not only did kidnapping incidents across West Africa increase in 2022, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), but more and more countries are being affected by this illicit economy.5

Although accurate and comprehensive data on kidnapping is extremely difficult to obtain, existing data indicates that, between 2012 and 2016, the number of kidnapping incidents across West Africa remained relatively constant, hovering at between 50 and 100 per year across the region.6 However, between 2017 and 2021, incidents of abduction/forced disappearance, as described by ACLED, surged from 124 to 1 193, an increase of 862%.7 Data for 2022 suggests that the industry shows no signs of slowing down. The number of kidnapping incidents in 2022 exceeded that of the previous year in Benin, Niger and Nigeria, among others.

Nigeria, the epicentre of the kidnap for ransom business in West Africa, made up almost half of all kidnapping events in the region in 2022, registering nearly as many incidents as the next four most-affected countries combined (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Cameroon). Every year since 2017, the number of separate kidnapping incidents has registered year-on-year increases, according to ACLED data.8 Moreover, 17 Nigerian states experienced an increase in the number of kidnappings between 2021 and 2022.9 Of most concern, however, is the apparent geographic spread of kidnapping within the country. Whereas in 2018, 14 of the country’s 37 states experienced no (recorded) kidnapping incidents,10 in 2022, only one state was able to avoid a single incident of kidnapping.11 At the end of 2022, the Nigerian central bank introduced cash withdrawal limits in an effort to, among other things, reduce the number of kidnapping incidents.12 Only time will tell whether this policy will have a material effect on the illicit economy.

Number of kidnapping incidents in West Africa, 2012–2022.

Figure 1 Number of kidnapping incidents in West Africa, 2012–2022.

Source: ACLED

In Mali and Burkina Faso, although the number of reported kidnappings in 2022 dipped slightly from the previous year, they remain twice and three times as high as 2020’s figures, respectively.13 But as the extremist violence that has afflicted the countries of the Sahel region has spread to surrounding countries, in particular southwards towards to the littoral West African states, kidnapping incidents have mirrored this expansion.

In 2020, there were six kidnapping incidents in Benin, more than in the previous eight years combined. This figure surged in 2022, a year in which there were 25 separate incidents of kidnapping in the country. In September 2022, for example, suspected members of either JNIM or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara kidnapped three people in a village in the commune of Malanville, in Benin’s northernmost Alibori department, for allegedly collaborating with the government forces.14 Moreover, kidnappings carried out by armed cattle rustlers are also reportedly on the rise in Benin, potentially pointing towards an ‘increasing ethnicization of farmer-herder conflict in the country’,15 highlighting the multifaceted nature of the kidnapping threat.

Town hall of Malanville, a city in north-east Benin where three individuals were kidnapped by suspected jihadists in September 2022. Malanville is a transit, supply and redistribution area for a number of grey commodities, including contraband fuel.

Town hall of Malanville, a city in north-east Benin where three individuals were kidnapped by suspected jihadists in September 2022. Malanville is a transit, supply and redistribution area for a number of grey commodities, including contraband fuel.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Côte d’Ivoire, another coastal state at increasing risk of violent extremism, local stakeholders noted that kidnapping incidents had increased in recent years, in parallel to the growing presence of armed groups.16 However, it remains unclear whether armed groups are indeed the perpetrators, or whether kidnapping is instead more tied to longstanding intra-communal differences.17

The close ties between conflict and kidnapping for ransom make this an important illicit economy to track, with spikes in incidents offering insights into shifting tensions, the operations of armed groups and conflict dynamics.

Cocaine trade – financing elections?

The findings of the Africa Organised Crime Index 2021 showed that the cocaine trade was the criminal market that registered the greatest increase in pervasiveness across West Africa as a whole between 2019 and 2021.18 In 2022, cocaine seizures were registered in Nigeria,19 Gambia,20 Liberia,21 Burkina Faso22 and Côte d’Ivoire,23 among other states in the region. Some of these were country records. While seizures are more an indication of law enforcement efficacy than the volume of flows, other indicators also point to an increase in cocaine trafficking across West Africa.

In Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine-producing country and a major source of cocaine flowing to West African states, coca cultivation rose to record levels in 2021.24 In Europe, the main destination market for cocaine transiting West Africa, the cocaine market is expanding.25 Mounting evidence suggests that the volume of cocaine moving through West Africa could be higher than ever.

Criminal market changes, West Africa, 2019–2021.

Figure 2 Criminal market changes, West Africa, 2019–2021.

Source: ENACT, Africa Organised Crime Index 2021,

The cocaine trade is key from the perspective of political dynamics. In line with other high-value transit commodities, cocaine typically engenders protection networks which reach into the highest levels of state.26 In Guinea-Bissau, according to the authorities, cocaine was tied to the February 2022 alleged coup attempt, which, if it had been successful, would have brought the total number of coups in West Africa in 2021 and 2022 to eight.27 High-value narcotics have repeatedly played a prominent role in electoral financing in Africa, with cocaine particularly central across West Africa.28

Events in Guinea-Bissau illustrate how cocaine is sometimes closely intertwined with important political developments, and point to the continued importance of cocaine in financing elections in the country. In June 2022, the Supreme Court acquitted Seidi Bá, the country’s most high-profile cocaine trafficker, who was convicted in absentia in 2020. Bá was acquitted alongside fellow ringleader Mexican Colombian national Ricardo Monje.29 Bissau-Guinean magistrates and legal experts labelled the procedural breaches and legal errors in the judgment ‘astonishing’.30

The timing – one month after legislative elections were called and five months prior to their scheduled date – underscores the likely financial drivers for appeasing the acquitted ringleaders. Commenting on the acquittal, Rui Landim, a Bissau-Guinean civil society activist, noted that ‘everything is in place to adulterate the elections, to eradicate the rule of law. Today we are not facing the risk of interference by organized crime in the electoral process, today we are facing evidence of state capture by organized crime.’31

With legislative elections in Guinea-Bissau currently scheduled for March 2023, tracking the role of cocaine in financing electoral campaigning will be key.

Illicit gold trade – moving towards formalization?

Gold mining has long been associated with conflict, violent extremism and instability in West Africa, and for good reason. Armed groups have established control over several mining sites in the region, or else are benefiting through other mechanisms, such as the illicit taxation of gold mining and gold flows.32 But the gold sector is also a critical source of livelihoods across the region. Although governments may seek to curb informal and illicit gold mining activity in order to deprive armed groups of revenue, crackdowns on artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) are often counterproductive, ‘resulting in a downward spiral of distrust, tension and violence’. The complex relationship between the gold sector, instability and violence in West Africa is explored in a recent GI-TOC report, ‘Beyond blood: Gold, conflict and criminality in West Africa’.33

A gold site operated by Endeavour Mining Corporation in Houndé, Burkina Faso. In May, tensions between artisanal miners and the authorities in Houndé broke out in violence.

A gold site operated by Endeavour Mining Corporation in Houndé, Burkina Faso. In May, tensions between artisanal miners and the authorities in Houndé broke out in violence.

Photo: Reuters/Anne Mimault

Crackdowns on ASGM show no signs of abating. The ongoing crackdown on informal gold mining in Ghana continued into 2022. In September, for example, 164 miners engaged in the practice (known as ‘galamsey’) were arrested in the Ashanti region and their equipment seized.34 In Burkina Faso, an escalation in tensions between artisanal miners and the authorities in the city of Houndé culminated in violence in May 2022, following government efforts to clear ASGM miners from a gold site for an industrial mining operation.35 The clashes resulted in the deaths of two miners.36

In many West African countries, ASGM may be legal on paper, but in practice, formalization is difficult, and authorities have long viewed it with suspicion. This attitude towards ASGM continued into 2022, although it was accentuated by ever-growing fears of jihadist financing, which has spurred crackdowns in many areas.

Mauritania, however, stood out in contrast, with the government having made significant efforts to encourage formal artisanal gold mining, deploying an approach to regulation that is focused more on the regulation of processing plants, which are tightly controlled, than on the mine sites themselves. In 2022, authorities in Chad demonstrated willingness to move towards the formalization of gold mining by officially reopening northern Chad’s largest goldfield and deploying the national mining company to regulate gold mining activities.37 Niger, another major player in the region’s gold sector, has already taken steps towards the regularization of gold mining in recent years, and a number of authorized gold mining companies operate across the country, including in the north.

It is possible, therefore, that there may be cracks emerging in the de facto prohibitive approach to ASGM. Looking forwards, this potential shift would certainly be a good news story for the region, and stakeholders should seek to capitalize on the arguably increased political space for reform.


  1. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger), 1 December 2022,

  2. Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa, The number of civilian casualties is growing in West Africa as conflict areas increasingly overlap with illicit economies, Risk Bulletin – Issue 5, GI-TOC, October 2022,

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa, The strategic logic of kidnappings in Mali and Burkina Faso, Risk Bulletin – Issue 4, GI-TOC, October 2022,

  5. Four countries in West Africa, among which are Togo and Ghana, experienced kidnapping incidents in 2022 after registering none in 2021. 

  6. For the purposes of this Risk Bulletin, West Africa refers to the following countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cabo Verde, CAR, Chad, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. 

  7. ACLED,

  8. ACLED,

  9. In some states, such as in Akwa Ibom, Plateau and Enugu, for example, the number of kidnapping incidents surged by between 240% and 350% in 2022. In Zamfara State, the epicentre of kidnapping in Nigeria, incidents of kidnapping doubled, from 36 to 72 incidents in 2022. 

  10. Including the Federal Capital Territory. 

  11. Although there is no recorded incident of kidnapping in the ACLED data, local media have reported several kidnapping incidents. See for example, Gombe police arrest 4 teenagers over alleged kidnapping, Daily Trust, 11 December 2022,; Chima Azubuike, 27 residents kidnapped every month, Gombe gov laments, Punch, 23 December 2022,

  12. Ogaga Oriemu, Naira redesign: Cash withdrawals, ATMs limits heavy blow on looters, kidnappers, others – Experts, Daily Post, 7 December 2022,

  13. Data from ACLED shows that the number of kidnapping incidents in Burkina Faso decreased from 262 in 2021 to 219 in 2022; in Mali, there was a similar decline from 184 to 170 between 2021 and 2022. In 2020, the figures for the two countries were 62 and 89 respectively. 

  14. ACLED,

  15. Kars de Bruijne, Laws of attraction: Northern Benin and risk of violent extremist spillover, Clingendael, June 2021,

  16. Interviews with civil society stakeholders in Bounkani region, Côte d’Ivoire, September 2022. 

  17. Ibid. 

  18. ENACT, Organised Crime Index Africa 2021: Evolution of crime in a Covid world, A comparative analysis of organised crime in Africa, 2019–2021,

  19. Camillus Eboh, Record 1.8 tons of cocaine seized, Nigeria’s drugs agency says, SWI, 19 September 2022,–nigeria-s-drugs-agency-says/47913306

  20. Momodou Jawo, DLEAG seize cocaine worth over 1 billion dalasis, The Point,

  21. US and Liberian seize 520 kg of drugs, Africanews, 4 October 2022,

  22. Burkina Faso: ‘record seizure’ of more than 115 kg of cocaine, Africanews, 25 May 2022,

  23. Salif D Cheickna, Côte d’Ivoire: Une importante quantité de cocaïne évaluée à plus de 41 milliards de FCFA saisie, FratMat, 23 April 2022,

  24. UNODC, Colombia: Monitoreo de territorios afectados por cultivos ilícitos 2021, October 2022,

  25. EMCDDA, Europe’s changing role in expanding cocaine and methamphetamine markets, May 2022,

  26. Lucia Bird, Cocaine politics in West Africa: Guinea-Bissau’s protection networks, GI-TOC, July 2022,

  27. Lucia Bird, ‘A very strange coup attempt’, GI-TOC, 4 February 2022,

  28. West Africa Commission on Drugs, Not just in transit: Drugs, the state and society in West Africa, June 2014,

  29. Lucia Bird, Grim outlook for Guinea-Bissau elections: The fall and rise of Seidi Bá, GI-TOC, September 2022,

  30. Interviews with three magistrates, Bissau, June-July 2022. Inputs from Ruth Monteiro, former Minister of Justice, July 2022. Both cited in Lucia Bird, Grim outlook for Guinea-Bissau elections: The fall and rise of Seidi Bá, GI-TOC, September 2022, 

  31. Interview with civil society activist, Bissau, July 2022. 

  32. Eleanor Beevor, JNIM: A strategic criminal actor, GI-TOC, August 2022,

  33. See Marcena Hunter, Beyond blood: Gold, conflict and criminality in West Africa, GI-TOC, November 2022,

  34. Scores of illegal miners arrested in Ashanti region, The Signal Room, 19 September 2022. See also Operation Halt II: Soldiers seize 30 excavators from galamseyers - Lands Minister, 15 October 2022, GhanaWeb,

  35. Marcena Hunter, Beyond blood: Gold, conflict and criminality in West Africa, GI-TOC, November 2022,

  36. Two dead in protest over arrested Burkina gold miners, Africanews, 26 May 2022,

  37. Tchad: la SONEMIC annonce la reprise de l’orpaillage à Kouri Bougoudi, Alwihda Info, 19 September 2022, See also, Chad wants to stop gold smuggling to Libya estimated at $91m every week, North Africa Post, 15 June 2022,