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West Africa Organized Crime and the Libya Conflict

JURIST Guest Columnist Stephen Ellis, a historian at the African Studies Centre, says that the recent influx of refugees from Libya has exacerbated the problem of organized crime in West Africa and has caused emerging complications that are generating increased attention from the international community...

The call for greater efforts to curb transnational organized crime, drug trafficking and piracy in West Africa by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reflects an initiative by the government of Togo, which held the chair of the UN Security Council in February. Togo was keen to use its chairmanship to convene a debate on an issue that is particularly topical, being already on the agenda of the African Union (AU).

Sources close to the UN report that South Africa and Morocco encouraged Togo to take up this particular issue, largely in order to make a point about the consequences of the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011. An influx of refugees from Libya has fueled unrest in the Sahara, especially northern Mali.

It also appears that attacks as far south as Nigeria have been influenced by events in Libya, at least indirectly. Permanent members of the Security Council that took part in last year's armed action in Libya — France, the UK and the US — were keen that any text emerging from the Security Council should avoid explicit mention of a link between the upsurge of fighting in the Sahara and Sahel zones and the NATO operation in Libya.

In December 2011, the UN's Department of Political Affairs led an inter-departmental mission that included officials from the AU to assess the impact of the Libyan crisis on the Sahel region. Delegates estimated the number of people returning from Libya to Niger, Mali, Chad and Mauritania at approximately 420,000. Their arrival has added to severe problems of food shortages in a dry and inhospitable region. It found that the situation had enabled al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to "develop recruitment and local support networks for gathering information, supplying arms and ammunition, and other logistics." In addition, there has been a proliferation of arms, including rocket-propelled grenades and surface-to-air missiles, that were previously held in Libyan government arsenals. The delegation's report noted "an increase in terrorist and criminal activities" in the region since the start of the crisis in Libya just over a year ago. It suggested that the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram has established links with AQIM and that some of its members have even received training in AQIM camps in Mali. The report states that seven of Boko Haram's members were arrested while crossing Niger on their way to Mali "in possession of documentation on manufacturing of explosives, propaganda leaflets as well as names and contact details of AQIM members." On January 20, 2012, members of Boko Haram killed more than 170 people in shootings and bombings in Nigeria's northern commercial capital of Kano.

In effect, many countries in west and north Africa, as well as the US and many in Europe are increasingly concerned about the organized crime issue in West Africa more generally. Large quantities of cocaine have been transiting through the region since the mid-2000s en route from South America to the growing consumer market in Europe. Although some observers, basing themselves on seizure and arrest statistics, believe that the flow of cocaine through West Africa may be slowing compared to its high point four or five years ago, others think that it has become a long-term concern and that falling seizure figures simply reflect the traffickers' use of new methods. The ultimate worry is that money from the cocaine trade could fund violent extremist movements in the region, with AQIM posing the biggest concern of all. While there is no hard evidence that AQIM is involved in the drug business, few observers doubt that it taxes drug cargoes passing through territory it controls in the central Sahara.

Stephen Ellis is a historian at the African Studies Centre and the VU University of Amsterdam, with a broad range of interests in contemporary history and politics. His long term research concerns the history of Nigerian organized crime. He is also a member of various editorial boards, including of the journal African Affairs, of which he is a former editor. He coauthored the book Madagascar: A Short History with Solofo Randrianja.

Suggested citation: Stephen Ellis, West Africa Organized Crime and the Libya Conflict, JURIST - Hotline, Mar. 9, 2012, http://jurist.org/hotline/2012/03/stephen-ellis-africa-crime.php.

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