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Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa


Summary highlights

  1. In the wake of the Sudan conflict, fuel and arms smuggling spike in Chad and the broader Sahel.

    Fuel and arms smuggling from Chad into Sudan have spiked following the conflict in Sudan and are likely to prolong the war and make it more violent. In the longer term, refugees fleeing the war may also boost the demand for northbound human smuggling. Chad, already beset with threats from various armed groups, is now also threatened by the potential involvement in Sudan’s war economy of Chadian fighters, many of them current or former rebels. These seasoned combatants are set to profit from Sudan’s war by tendering their services as mercenaries. Funds, weapons, vehicles and combat experience obtained in Sudan are likely to be redirected to Chad over time. As the Sudanese conflict continues to provide an environment for illicit economies to thrive by fostering violence and displacement, effective and crime-sensitive international mediation becomes increasingly critical for regional stability.

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  2. Farmers and herders increasingly targeted as kidnapping for ransom reaches record levels in Cameroon’s Nord region.

    Kidnapping for ransom has been a significant security issue in northern Cameroon for over 20 years. However, since 2020, the phenomenon has increased, particularly in the Nord region’s Mayo-Rey department bordering the Central African Republic, where the number of people kidnapped almost doubled between 2019 and 2022. Perpetrators have also expanded in terms of the profiles of their victims, with farmers increasingly targeted. The escalation of the kidnapping has been driven in part by the growing lucrativeness of the livestock and farming sectors in the region, as well as rising insecurity in neighbouring countries. Criminal evolution in response to military measures in Cameroon raises questions about the limitations of securitized approaches to illicit economies such as kidnapping for ransom and highlights the need for alternative strategies that address the drivers of insecurity to accompany such responses.

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  3. Trafficking of high-calibre firearms is fuelling deadly violence in Bawku, northern Ghana.

    In November 2021, a long-standing chieftaincy dispute between members of two ethnic groups, the Mamprusi and the Kusasi, reignited in Bawku, a town in northern Ghana on the border with Burkina Faso. While Ghana has a long history of artisanal weapon manufacturing, it has generally been spared the levels of conflict experienced in other countries in coastal West Africa. However, as the demand for weapons surges domestically and the conflict in the Sahel region rages on, sophisticated, high-calibre weapons have spilled over into Ghana, predominantly from Burkina Faso, rendering the local clashes increasingly deadly. Civilians are bearing the brunt of this violence, which is enabled by and exploited for commercial and political interests.

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  4. Can cocaine seizures act as indicators of political instability in West Africa?

    Clusters of material cocaine seizures could provide rare insights into the political protection shielding this murky trade, and more broadly serve as indicators of political instability. Analyzing recent cocaine seizure trends, alongside other drug market indicators, in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Ghana – each a transit point in international cocaine trafficking routes to Europe – challenges existing narratives and indicates fractures in the political protection system in Guinea, and seamless protection in Guinea-Bissau and Ghana. We test the value of using seizure patterns to assess current and future political instability in West Africa.

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About this issue

The eighth issue of the Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in West Africa takes readers on a geographic journey, starting from the far east of the Sahel region, then moving south-west into Cameroon, before travelling along the coast to Ghana and finally arriving in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. In doing so, this edition explores illicit economy dynamics in different contexts with various levels of conflict and violence.

It begins by exploring the impact – past, present and likely future – of the brutal war in Sudan on illicit economies in neighbouring Chad and the wider region. Next, we examine kidnapping for ransom in northern Cameroon, a particularly pernicious form of criminality that has become increasingly pervasive in the country in recent years. We then turn our attention to a highly localized conflict in northern Ghana, where a combination of artisanal guns and high-calibre weapons are enabling deadly violence, which is increasingly affecting non-combatants. Finally, the last story of this Risk Bulletin considers the cocaine trade and its link to political instability.

The economic, security and humanitarian fallout from Sudan’s conflict is reshaping illicit economies far beyond its porous borders, most notably in Chad and the broader Sahel region. While these illicit economies are not the focus of the current stalemate in Sudan, they are crucial components of the war economy feeding and sustaining the conflict. The crisis has already resulted in a surge in arms and fuel smuggling, and is also likely to boost demand for northbound human smuggling along established routes. This situation poses a significant threat to regional stability, providing armed groups with the resources to prolong the conflict and intensifying the security and economic challenges faced by vulnerable communities.

Since 2020, the phenomenon of kidnapping for ransom, a major security threat in Cameroon, has increased, particularly in the Nord region. The escalation of the kidnapping industry has been driven in part by the growing lucrativeness of the livestock and farming sectors in the region, as well as rising insecurity in neighbouring countries. While the perpetrators previously engaged primarily in road ambushes and cattle rustling, their criminal activities have evolved in response to predominantly military-centred government measures, pushing them towards kidnapping instead. This development raises questions around the limitations of securitized approaches to illicit economies such as kidnapping for ransom and highlights the need for alternative strategies that address the drivers of insecurity to accompany such responses.

In Ghana, the protracted conflict between the Mamprusi and Kusasi ethnic groups began in Bawku in the 20th century, stemming from a dispute over the town’s chieftaincy. After a long period of relative peace, the conflict flared up again in November 2021 as members of the two tribes engaged in violent clashes. Since 2021, an increased flow of weapons from abroad, predominantly high-calibre arms from Burkina Faso, has significantly contributed to higher levels of violence in Bawku, which is taking a toll on civilians.

Lastly, we analyze how cocaine trade insights can shed light on current, and potentially future, political instability. We consider twinned hypotheses: that cocaine seizures tend to cluster in periods when the political system is damaged and law enforcement agencies are able to operate with greater independence; and that seizures may act as a barometer of pending instability resulting from power struggles or fracturing political systems. We examine the contrasting cases of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Ghana to explore how seizure patterns can provide insight into political instability in West Africa.