Are illicit economies driving conflict in West Africa?
Innovative mapping project seeks answers

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Arms trafficking, cattle rustling, and kidnap-for-ransom are major illicit economies fuelling instability in West Africa, according to new research and a first-of-its-kind monitoring tool from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).

Within this flagship project of the Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa (WEA-Obs) at the GI-TOC, the Illicit Economies and Instability Monitor (IEIM) is a new metric to assess how much specific hubs drive instability in the region. Illicit economies and instability are complex and intertwining phenomena, but the dynamics of the connection between crime and conflict are often misunderstood. The deteriorating security situation across areas of West Africa, the Sahel, Cameroon and the Central African Republic underscores the importance of better understanding this relationship.

The report

“This work presents an important step forwards in better understanding the complex relationship between illicit economies and instability in West Africa, and supporting policy-makers in designing tailored and crime-sensitive stabilisation programmes”
says Mark Shaw, Director of the GI-TOC

The tool

Covering 18 countries and 280 hubs of illicit activity identified across West Africa, the Sahel and Central Africa, the illicit hub mapping initiative, the Illicit Economies and Instability Monitor (IEIM) and the accompanying report visualise illicit economy hotspots, transit points and crime zones in the region. Until now, there has been no systematic attempt to evaluate the impact of regional illicit economies on conflict and instability.

The mapping tool offers an extensive overview of illicit economy hubs and dynamics across West Africa, the Sahel, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. The accompanying Illicit Economies and Instability Monitor (IEIM) assesses the degree to which each illicit hub drives instability in the region, analysing illicit economies as vectors of instability.

The key findings of this mapping project are outlined in the report Organized crime and instability dynamics: Mapping illicit hubs in West Africa. They include:

1 - Of the 280 illicit hubs identified across the region, one in four are significant vectors of conflict and instability, concentrated primarily in the Sahel and Central Africa.

2 - Arms trafficking is a major market in most illicit hubs with strong links to instability, highlighting the close relationship which has repeatedly been identified between arms trafficking and instability.

3 - Together with illicit weapons, cattle rustling and kidnap-for-ransom were identified as crucial illicit economies fuelling instability in the region, often featuring in arms trafficking hubs, highlighting the high degree of weaponization that is often linked to them.

4 - Transport infrastructure, such as seaports and airports, are key nodes in regional and global illicit economies, with several seaports playing an important role as transit points for commodities flowing to conflict areas – and thus conflict actors – across West Africa.

5 - State-embedded actors are found to be major actors in seaports and airports identified as illicit hubs, in particular where the cocaine trade features as a major illicit economy, indicative of the high degree of protection enjoyed by the market. Protection networks for high-value commodities, such as cocaine, are likely to reach the highest levels of state, which makes the illicit economy particularly important when considering political instability across the region.

About the Global Initiative

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime is a network of professionals working on the frontlines of the fight against the illicit economy and criminal actors. Through a network of global civil society observatories on the illicit economy, we monitor evolving trends and work to build the evidence basis for policy action, disseminate the expertise of our Network and catalyze multisectoral and holistic responses across a range of crime types. With the Global Initiative’s Resilience Fund, we support community activists and local NGOs working in areas where crime governance is critically undermining people’s safety, security and life chances.

About the West Africa Observatory

The Observatory, established in 2021, encompasses researchers working across wider West Africa and the Sahel. The Observatory works to shed light on the political economy of transnational organized crime in the region, focusing on the links between illicit markets, instability and conflict. The Observatory applies a partnership approach, working with and supporting civil society across the region. As part of this, the Observatory maps the hubs, routes and flows of illicit markets, and the key actors, assessing their implications for regional stability, conflict, governance and social tension in the region. The countries falling within the scope of the observatory are Nigeria, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Cameroon, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Gambia, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Cabo Verde, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Chad.