Risk Bulletin Download PDF

Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Drug distribution markets are key to the economic resilience of the Yandaba, perpetrators of significant political violence surrounding the 2023 elections in Kano, Nigeria.

    Significant violence during the 2023 electoral process in Kano underscores how violence – and the threat of violence – shape Nigeria’s elections, despite new legislation and increased security deployments. The key actors behind this violence – the Yandaba, who carry out acts of violence on behalf of politicians during election periods – are also key players in Kano’s criminal markets. Between election cycles, the Yandaba draw revenue from drug trafficking to sustain themselves; profits from domestic distribution of drugs are central to the Yandaba’s economic resilience. To protect democratic processes from being subverted by violence, responses must address Yandaba’s entrenched role in Kano’s politics by targeting their political sponsors and increasing the reputational cost to those who finance political violence.

    Read more

  2. Decreasing tensions between peace agreement signatory groups in Mali may benefit trafficking flows.

    Recent developments indicate that the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement, made between the Malian government, the Plateforme des Mouvements du 14 Juin 2014 d’Alger (Algiers Platform of 14 June 2014) and the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (Coordination of Azawad Movements – CMA), may be on the verge of collapse. However, while tensions between the military government in Bamako and the CMA are at breaking point, signatory armed groups, which used to fight one another, have grown closer. With security, political and criminal interests intertwined in northern Mali, any shifts that take place in the political landscape are likely to influence illicit economies. Although it is too early to determine how the changing security landscape will affect illicit economies in northern Mali, preliminary analysis suggests the decreasing hostility between signatory groups may benefit trafficking flows.

    Read more

  3. Motorbike trafficking is critical to armed groups’ mobility in the Sahel.

    Motorbike bans are a strategy frequently used by Sahelian states seeking to inhibit armed group activity, given armed groups’ reliance on this form of transport. While the movement of armed groups is, to an extent, limited by such measures, the collateral damage caused to communities and their livelihoods is substantial. Motorbikes’ centrality to Sahelian livelihoods makes them one of the most widely trafficked commodities in the Sahel, and one of the most understudied trafficking sectors in West Africa. We dive into the Sahel’s motorbike trafficking trade, underscoring how it is central to resourcing armed groups, and highlighting the need for alternative approaches that would succeed in reducing the supply of motorbikes to armed groups while limiting the harm to communities.

    Read more

  4. ISWAP’s extortion racket in northern Cameroon experiences growing backlash from communities.

    Since establishing themselves as the dominant faction of the group formerly known as Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have tended to refrain from the levels of violence against civilians carried out by the other Boko Haram faction, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad. However, a reported increase in ISWAP violence directed at civilians may be linked to growing resistance to ‘taxes’ they impose among the communities they seek to control. In 2022, military responses to ISWAP heightened the group’s need for additional resources, which they have sought by upping their tax rates on communities. However, as ISWAP’s imposed system of taxation shifts from a consensual arrangement to one more akin to extortion, residents of Cameroon’s Lake Chad region are increasingly reluctant to adhere to it, raising concerns of escalation in the targeting of civilians in the region. Any erosion of ISWAP’s legitimacy could create entry points for debunking its hold on local criminal economies, and position as an alternative governance provider.

    Read more

About this issue

In the wake of Nigeria’s 2023 elections, a key theme of the seventh issue of the Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in West Africa explores how the intersection between politics and criminal economies shapes instability in Nigeria and looks across the region to Mali. We also trace armed group supply chains – scrutinizing the motorbike trafficking trade, which underpins armed group mobility in the Sahel – and how Islamic State West Africa Province’s (ISWAP) mafia-style protection racket in northern Cameroon is engendering growing pushback from communities, with drastic impacts on violence meted out against civilians.

In the first quarter of 2023, despite new electoral legislation and the mobilization of security forces, violence, and the threat thereof, strongly influenced electoral outcomes in Nigeria. Political gangs – many with entrenched interests in criminal economies – were at the centre of much of this violence. The first article of this issue focuses on the role of Yandaba gangs in perpetrating electoral violence in Kano, underscoring how drugs trafficking operates as a crucial element of the gang’s economic resilience, illustrating a trend seen across the country.

In northern Mali, although tensions between the military government in Bamako and groups signatories to the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement are at breaking point, signatory armed groups are increasingly bound together in the face of a common threat – Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel). The second article of this issue explores how, in a region where security, political and criminal interests intertwine, these recent shifts in the political landscape may influence illicit economies, potentially benefitting trafficking routes in northern Mali.

The third and fourth articles form part of a broader workstream focusing on armed groups’ criminal behaviours and supply chains. First we investigate a vastly understudied yet critically important illicit economy – motorbike trafficking – exploring the purchasing habits of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and IS Sahel, and considering the questionable effectiveness of prevalent responses to the recognized importance of motorbikes to armed groups – motorbike bans. Finally, we consider the consequences of growing extortion of communities in northern Cameroon by ISWAP – a central player in the area’s licit and illicit economies – with steep increases in taxation engendering a spike in violence against civilians. Throughout the issue, we consider how these dynamics can inform responses, and explore the effectiveness of existing response frameworks.