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Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa


Summary highlights

  1. 3R rebel group in the Central African Republic loses territory and control over the illicit cattle economy, damaging legitimacy and offering entry points for state intervention.

    The rebel group 3R (Retour, Réclamation and Réhabilitation) rose to prominence in 2015, providing security to Fulani cattle herders in western Central African Republic in return for illegal taxation. After the death of leader Bi Sidi Souleymane – known as Sidiki Abbas – in 2021, 3R lost significant territorial control to government forces. As a result, the group has lost income from taxing the cattle market and, in desperation, has turned to more predatory, opportunistic criminal tactics. These have caused 3R to lose legitimacy, perhaps providing an opportunity for the state to rebuild the social contract with local communities by providing a better governance alternative.

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  2. Beyond Prigozhin: Russia’s continuing mercenary, military and criminal engagement in Africa.

    After the death of Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin and several of his closest lieutenants in August, many international observers have wondered about the fate of the Wagner Group and Prigozhin’s economic, military and criminal activities in Africa. Yet, while Wagner is a unique organization, it is not the only mercenary or ‘grey zone’ Russian actor with its sights set on Africa, as the recent forays of former arms trafficker Viktor Bout into politics and business exemplify. Other Russian private military companies also appear to be making moves to expand into Africa. These often interlinked private actors and proxies can be seen as part of a broader military–business complex through which Russia seeks to influence events overseas.

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  3. Intercontinental drug trafficking networks operating via West Africa have begun trading hashish directly for cocaine.

    Since at least 2020, a new dynamic has appeared in intercontinental drug flows. Criminal networks are exchanging hashish produced in Morocco directly for cocaine originating from Brazil. The same ship will often transport cocaine one way and hashish the other. Many vessels travel via West Africa, dropping off cargo for later pickup. This new trend towards bartering hashish for cocaine could be a step-change in the capacity of maritime trafficking networks to transit larger quantities of cocaine via West Africa and the Sahel.

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  4. The Niger coup has led to a halt in cross-border law enforcement cooperation against armed banditry in north-west Nigeria.

    After a coup that toppled the democratically elected government in Niger on 27 July 2023, the Economic Community of West African States implemented sanctions on Niger and ordered its members to close their borders with the country. For Nigeria, which shares a border over 1 600 kilometres long with Niger, the measures led to the collapse of a cross-border security collaboration against armed bandits operating in Nigeria’s north-west border areas. Nigeria’s security forces have noticed a spike in the number of bandit attacks in border areas, which they have linked to a corresponding increase in ammunition smuggling into the country. Reduced cross-border cooperation has had negative security implications, and the border closures have had significant humanitarian and economic consequences for border communities.

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About this issue

This ninth issue of the Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in West Africa aims to show how organized crime dynamics in West Africa are linked to wider political and economic trends, both regionally and globally. Our research into cocaine trafficking networks operating via the West African coast, for example, has found that there is a new trend where these networks exchange hashish directly for cocaine. This trend, which has emerged due to favourable economic conditions in the globalized illicit drugs trade, has significant implications for West Africa and the Sahel, where drug trafficking networks traverse some of the most politically unstable countries in the region. The particularities of illicit markets and corruption at the local level are linked to these global market forces.

Similarly, Russia’s Wagner Group has been making waves across Africa, even after the death of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercenary group’s operations, including widespread human rights abuses and involvement in the minerals sector that have led the US to designate the group as a ‘transnational criminal organization’, is impacting regional security in West Africa and the Sahel. Geopolitical forces are at work here: the Wagner Group’s role in Africa is part of the wider geopolitical contestation between Russia and the West in light of the war in Ukraine.

One of the crises that has gripped the region in recent months is the fallout of a military coup in Niger on 27 July. In response, the Economic Community of West African States imposed sanctions on Niger and ordered its members to close their borders with the country, and the region remains at an impasse. This breakdown in regional communication has had many impacts, including a severance of cross-border law enforcement cooperation between Nigeria and Niger. This has led to an increase in bandit attacks in border areas. Here, regional political dynamics have had a measurable effect on organized criminal activity.

These stories exemplify how the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s research always aims to provide context when analyzing organized crime, combining granular detail of how illicit economies operate on the ground with the broader regional and global factors that shape them.