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date: 22 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Organised crime and criminal networks are an outcome of Africa’s weak systems of state reach and governance, and in turn they further undermine effective state-building. Defining “organized crime” is challenging in the African context. African policy discussions did not use this term until recently, and it is so broad that it covers an enormous range of activity. Nevertheless, it is arguably now generally used and accepted, denoting organized illegal activities by a group of people over time that generate a profit. Such terminology is also now widely referred to internationally and in a UN Convention (which defines an “organized criminal group” but not organized crime itself) to which almost all African states have subscribed. The term “criminal networks” is often also used in African debates, denoting the more flexible and dynamic criminal arrangements that characterize the continent. Organized crime and criminal networks in Africa appear in many different forms, shaped largely by the strength of the state, and the degree that political elites and state actors are themselves involved in them. Broadly, organized crime can be said to occur along a continuum on the continent. On one side are well-established and -organized mafia-style groups such as the hard-core gangs of the Western Cape in South Africa or militia style operations engaged in ‘taxing’ local populations and economic activities, both licit and illicit. In the middle of the continuum, are relatively loose, and often highly effective, criminal networks made up both of Africans (West African criminal networks being the most prominent) and a range of foreign criminal actors seeking opportunities. On the other end, are sets of criminal style entrepreneurs, often operating as companies (the Guptas in South Africa, for example) but with a variety of forms of state protection. Illicit financial outflows in particular are a serious concern, but governance and regulatory reforms will be far more critical than the suppression of illicit markets themselves by law enforcement agencies, given also evidence that suggests a high degree of collusion between some African police and criminals in several illicit markets. Violence too remains a key tool for criminal control and advancement at all points along the spectrum, with the strength of the state and the collusion between state actors and criminal groups often determining the form, intensity and targets of that violence. That is one reason why the link between organized crime and conflict on the continent remains a concern, with actors (who in many cases exhibit criminal or mafia-style attributes) seeking to enhance their resource accumulation by control or taxation of criminal markets. Given this and other factors, the impact of organized crime on Africa’s development is severe, and although in some key markets the illicit economy provides opportunities for livelihood and a source of resilience, these opportunities are negated by the extent of environmental damage, the growth of drug use among the poor and marginalized, human rights abuses of migrants and those being trafficked, the violence engendered, and the economic distortions introduced.

Keywords: organized crime, Africa, trafficking, corruption, violence, African politics

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