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How Lack of Regional Cooperation Aides Criminals in the Horn of Africa?


Globalization and information technology have increased the free movement of people, goods, and information from one territory to another, highlighting the interdependence and interconnectedness of the world's people and economies. However, the world's increasing interconnectedness, while generally a boon for society, also benefits criminals. They exploit the blue sky of globalization by increasingly becoming transnational and borderless. One of the manifestations of this is the existence of illicit networks in the Horn of Africa and their linkages to the global criminal world.

The Horn of Africa is plagued by several types of transnational organized criminal networks. The region's criminal entrepreneurs are engaged in the illicit trade of goods (including drugs, charcoal, sugar, and small arms and light weapons), human trafficking including the smuggling of migrants, as well as piracy, crimes against wildlife, and cattle rustling. Small arms are smuggled into the Horn of Africa largely through either Djibouti or Sudan. For instance, as recently as March 10, 2020, the Ethiopian government seized two containers of weapons smuggled illegally via Djibouti's port by an international weapons trafficking group. The Horn of Africa is also used as both a transit and destination point by drug traffickers, primarily to ship heroin from Afghanistan and cocaine from Latin America. A 2018 report by Interpol stated that in 2017, 500kg of cocaine was seized in Djibouti's port. Human beings are trafficked from East Africa to Gulf countries, Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Estimates indicate that 25,000-30,000 people were victims of trafficking in the region between 2009 and 2013. The Horn of Africa is also emerging as a major source and a transit route for illicit trafficking in wildlife products and live animals. This illegal wildlife trade and poaching is pushing species like rhinos and elephants to the brink of extinction. Huge amounts of illicit charcoal are smuggled from Kenya and Somalia to Gulf countries. Moreover, the illicit charcoal trade negatively impacts the region's environment and wildlife by advancing deforestation. Cattle rustling — a traditional problem for East Africa's pastoralist population — has also become a transnational organized crime business.

The drivers of and facilitators for the emergence and expansion of illicit networks in the Horn of Africa include: limited governance capacity of the region's states as well as their neo-patrimonial and clientelistic nature; the Horn's porous borders coupled with weak cross-border cooperation and information-sharing among countries; the cash-intensive nature of the region's economy which leaves the region prone to money laundering and other financial crimes; and the high demand for illicit goods and services within the region.

Illicit networks in the Horn of Africa undermine the security of the states in the region. Transnational organized crime challenges state security and development in a variety of ways including: by infiltrating state bureaucracy and financial systems through corruption and/or intimidation; by intensifying the fragile region's conflicts through the supply of small arms and light weapons; and in some instances, by engaging in electoral processes and supporting the election campaigns of corrupt politicians. Conversely, organized criminal groups in the Horn of Africa also take advantage of weak cooperation among states by that too often allow criminals to shelter their illicit wealth within their national borders and thereby elude transnational law enforcement efforts. This incongruity is because whereas porous borders in the Horn of Africa facilitate transnational organized crime, territorial considerations nonetheless constrain inter-state countermeasures.

The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime of 2000 — to which almost all of the Horn of Africa states are signatories — was designed not only to combat specific criminal acts but also to overcome challenges to international cooperation. Moreover, the Horn of Africa has mutual legal assistance and extradition conventions on criminal matters endorsed by its regional economic community — the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). These conventions, as well as other instruments dealing with organized crime, clearly recognize the advantage of state-to-state cooperation and coordination in information-sharing and in taking multilateral law enforcement measures to combat and prevent transnational illicit networks. Beyond IGAD, there are additional regional platforms for combating transnational security threats in the Horn, including the Eastern Africa Police Chiefs' Cooperation Organization (EAPCCO), Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG), Regional Center on Small Arms in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and Bordering States (RECSA), and East African Standby Force (EASF).

Though these normative and institutional frameworks are in place, the region's progress in combating and preventing transnational security threats is limited and has not yielded the desired result. Every state in the region conducts national law enforcement operations that combat transnational security threats. However, these unilateral efforts are insufficient and not coordinated with neighbors. As a result, rather than defeating the illicit networks, these actions merely displace crime and criminals from one state to another. Furthermore, individual states sometimes attempt to direct the activities of regional organizations, such as IGAD, in pursuit of their own interests, which in turn compromises the regional organization's ability to maintain neutrality.

An additional challenge is that the advancement of foreign policy through proxy forces in neighboring countries is part of the "normal" pattern of state relations in the IGAD region. States in the Horn all too often take advantage of local tension or conflict to support rebel movements in neighboring states. Throughout the IGAD region, there has been a history of state-sponsored subversive activities to destabilize and endanger the security of neighboring states, in what some observers call the time-honored principle of "my enemy's enemy is my friend." This aggravates inter-state rivalries, creates mutual suspicion, and develops an eye-for-an-eye mentality — all of which have weakened the region's ability to combat and prevent the illicit criminal networks that are so pervasive.

To better combat the debilitating effect of transnational organized crime, the countries in the Horn of Africa should do more to develop a common counter-strategy and implement it multilaterally. Specifically, the region's states have to surrender some degree of their sovereignty to the regional organizations, either by agreeing to be bound by regional rules and decisions or by giving an institutional secretariat some independent authority. This, in return, might become a platform for enhancing cross-border cooperation and information-sharing, implementing joint border controls, and conducting multilateral law enforcement operations. Further, IGAD, EASF, EAPCCO, and RECSA should lead and encourage their member states to come together and cooperate more robustly on the strategies and approaches for combatting illicit financial flows and organized crime. Building more professional state institutions, specifically law enforcement and security actors, is also a crucial task. Lastly, as IGAD prepares its protocol on the Free Movement of Persons — a good platform to enhance regional integration — it should also take measures to prevent the protocol from being exploited by criminal entrepreneurs.

Messay Asgedom Gobena is a current Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program during the spring 2020 term. He is a Ph.D. Candidate studying Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University's Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS). 

About the Author


Messay Asgedom Gobena

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Ph.D. Candidate in Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Ethiopia
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