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A Region Under Siege

The abject poverty being experienced in the West African Sub-region has weakened the capacity of most states to effectively enforce laws in their territories. Basically,…

The abject poverty being experienced in the West African Sub-region has weakened the capacity of most states to effectively enforce laws in their territories.

Basically, permutations of factors have made the region a fertile ground for growing organized crimes. “West Africa is affected by a number of illicit commercial flows. Some of these originate in the region, such as those involving stolen oil, undocumented migrant labourers, or sex workers. Others are destined for the region, such as toxic waste, firearms, or counterfeit medication. Still others merely transit the region, such as cocaine. In each case, though, these flows leave their imprint on West Africa,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was quoted in a 2009 report on West Africa.

The extent of instability in the sub-region can be measured on the number of coups and attempted coups which amounts to 58 since countries in the region got independence. And United Nations has rated three countries as “least developed countries,” two including the five countries with the very lowest levels of human development.

Weak governance and high poverty level predisposes West Africa to all shades of crimes and “criminals are exploiting these conditions to traffic a range of products through the region: drugs (mostly cocaine from South America to Europe); cigarettes; weapons and ammunition; people (destined for illegal migration or the sex trade); counterfeit medicines; toxic waste (including e-waste); oil; and natural resources (like hardwood and diamonds).

 In some cases, the value of trafficking flows dwarfs local economies.  This trade is putting a fragile region at greater risk – undermining rule of law; deepening corruption; polluting the environment; violating human rights; stealing natural resources; depleting human resources; and jeopardizing health. This makes West Africa more prone to political instability and less able to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,” the report revealed.

It has been discovered that most illicit activities taking place on the sub-region have global connections. The transnational crimes are caused by external market forces but beneficiaries abound within the sub-region. As the UNODC would put it, “Collusion between corrupt elites and opportunistic criminals enriches the few, impoverishes the many, and undermines public institutions. States are being hollowed out from the inside. Democracy and development falter, while crime and corruption flourish.”

The reasons for this phenomenon may not be far fetched. The insatiable appetite of rich countries for drugs, cheap products (oil and diamonds), cheap labour and the opportunity to dump and make profits from counterfeit drugs that cannot be sold elsewhere has always been the incentive to perpetuate these crimes. On the other hand, most countries in West Africa lie on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean which has long been a transnational trade route. At least, two hubs have been discovered as flourishing havens for cocaine trafficking. The southern one appears to involve cocaine trafficked into the Bight of Benin and then routed into Togo, Benin and Nigeria.

According to the report, the northern hub involves the two Guineas (Bissau and Conakry) as entry points, as well as possibly, Sierra Leone and Mauritania as air destinations. These drugs could be shipped to Senegal, Mali and the Gambia for air couriering. During the height of the trafficking, Bamako was a key hub for air couriers, despite the fact that it is situated some 1,000 kilometres from the coastal countries that were receiving the cocaine. The reason for this inland detour may have been commercial: cannabis had long been imported from Mali, and the dealers buying it may have got a good “exchange rate” for payment in cocaine. At least 1,400 couriers have been arrested carrying the drug to Europe from West Africa on commercial air flights since 2004. These flights originated in most West African countries, although Côte d’Ivoire appears to be underrepresented, especially when passenger volumes are taken into consideration. Based on both maritime and airport seizures, it appears there were at least 11 very large seizures of cocaine made in West Africa or off the coast in 2007, but only four in 2008 and none to date in 2009.

In 2006, 36 percent of the cocaine couriers detected in one network of European airports were on flights originating in West Africa. In 2008, only 17 percent were. Similarly, West Africa-related European airport seizures recorded by INTERPOL in their COCAF database show a reduction from 476 incidents in 2007 to 212 in the first half of 2008, 118 in the second half of 2008, and just 56 in the first quarter of 2009, which would also suggest a reduction of about 50 percent. This would indicate that about 14 percent of Europe’s cocaine transited West Africa in 2008, or some 20 tons. At a wholesale price of about US$50,000 per kilogram in West Europe, this would be valued at one billion US dollars.

Reports indicate that cocaine is a drug consumed recreationally by an estimated 16 million people per year globally. “Just uder 1,000 tons of pure cocaine is produced each year, a large share of which is seized by law enforcement (estimated at 42 percent in 2007). Despite the high interception rate, the drug remains extremely profitable, with the most recent estimates placing the value of the global cocaine market at some US$70 billion. Since drugs are consumed in a single use and large share are consumed by addicts, this value is realized with some predictability every year. If a significant share of this value could be diverted to West African dissident groups, it could provide a major source of funding. It could also be used to foster corruption among public officials assigned to control ports and borders and in other areas of law enforcement, including the courts. In extreme cases, access to drug related graft could even motivate action by coup plotters or regional secessionists.”

Perhaps, one of the greatest threats to the rule of law in West Africa is rooted in the smuggling of a licit commodity: oil. The illicit industry is said to make an estimated US$60 million a day. This is despite the fact that only one ECOWAS country produces large amounts of oil: Nigeria. But Nigeria accounts for over half the population of the region and over 60 percent of the regional GDP. Oil comprises 95 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings and up to 80 percent of budgetary revenues. In turn, Nigeria is a key trading partner for the other countries of the region, so a large share of the region’s population is dependent on the oil sector. 

Oil bunkering, vandalism, and violence in the Niger Delta are having multiple implications for rule of law in Nigeria. Oil theft realizes cash and brings in arms for the militants and provides a strong disincentive for negotiating with the government. Oil theft has been discovered to be carried out by stealth, which involves tapping a pipeline and draining the oil at night.

“One 2006 report put the cost of the barges at N6-10 billion ($45-74,000), with a capacity of up to 5,000 barrels. The vessels seized by the Joint Task Force (JTF), the interagency body tasked with fighting oil theft, during the military course of 2008 had storage capacity of between 84 and 12,000 tons and comprised 44 barges, 50 wooden boats, 58 tankers and 56 surface tanks. Most of the seizures of illegal oil and vessels took place in the Eastern Delta until fairly recently. This might indicate that theft was concentrated in this area but recent evidence suggests that the military, possibly with the connivance of local politicians, took a softer line on oil theft in the west until early 2008. More recent interdiction work suggests bunkering activity is spread throughout the Delta region.”

 While bunkering has drawn so much attention, the lack of accounting for the oil pumped out of the ground opens the door to corruption-based theft, either by well-connected professional criminal groups or by the government or corporate companies themselves. In 2003, a motion sponsored by the Chairman of the House Committee on Petroleum, Rep John Halims Agoda, alleged that the Federal Government was losing over N100 billion ($770 million) annually to large scale fraud and illegal bunkering by the oil companies.

“Some analysts believe that illegal bunkering actually began in the late 1980s as a method of enabling the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to export crude oil beyond its OPEC quota. According to this line of argument, the NNPC pioneered bunkering, and militant groups simply took it up. Today, there are several ways oil can be stolen without the need for tapping a pipeline. Oil company employees can be bribed into allowing unauthorized vessels to load. Authorized vessels can be “topped” – filled with oil beyond their stated capacity – and the excess load sold on. Oil revenues can also be embezzled, or money made through the sale of export credentials and other paperwork,” UNODC reported. .

Three markets can be identified for the stolen oil: Domestic, regional and intercontinental. A sizeable proportion of the stolen oil is sold within Nigeria.

This is possible because Delta crude is of exceptionally high quality, with low sulphur content, and requires minimal refining. “There is evidence that a large amount of the stolen oil is processed in rudimentary local refineries, a technology that may have been developed during the blockade of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). In 2008, at least 300 illegal refineries were destroyed by the military in the Delta.”

The report added that oil and refined petroleum products – whether licit or stolen – have long been smuggled from Nigeria to much of the rest of West Africa, because Nigerian subsidies have traditionally made diesel and petrol substantially cheaper in Nigeria than elsewhere in the region, particularly in Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. “In 2004, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded that the trade was so vast that it had substantial implications for Nigerian monetary policy and the value of the CFA franc.”

It is also on record that many African governments force their state owned refineries to purchase crude oil at the market rate but expect them to sell refined petroleum products at a fixed, subsidized rate. Ghana’s Tema Oil Refinery, in particular, has built up massive debts over many years as a result of the subsidy policy. As a result, senior managers might be tempted to purchase stolen crude oil.

Another evidence that much of the trade is regional is found in the nature of the bunkering vessels detected. Many of these were coastal tankers and vessels with regional. Six Ghanaians were recently arrested on board a vessel with 4,000 tons of oil.

“But although a share of the oil is sold within the Gulf of Guinea, it seems that there is insufficient demand within the region to absorb 150,000 barrels of stolen oil per day, especially since much licit trade in petroleum takes place within the region. In addition, the crews of vessels that operate within the Gulf of Guinea are likely to be overwhelmingly African but most of the crew members seized on illegal oil bunkering vessels by the Nigerian military have come from other parts of the world.”

Recently, 22 Filipino operatives were arrested with 84 barrels of crude oil on a ship lifting oil from vandalized pipelines. Despite indications that much of the stolen oil is shipped to ports beyond the region, the destination market for this oil remains unclear. The fact that a shipment of oil can change ownership several times while at sea contributes to the opacity of the trade. Countries frequently mentioned in association with illegally bunkered oil include China, North Korea, Israel, and South Africa. Lebanese brokers are frequently mentioned. It has also been suggested that the oil is sold on the Rotterdam spot market, using forged or fraudulently obtained paperwork.

The Niger Delta militants are the groups most often associated with illegal oil bunkering, but they are but one of many elements involved in the crime. In 2003, Brigadier-General Elias Zamani, then commanding a Delta peacekeeping force, was asked whether oil was being stolen by local people, the security forces, government officials or an international element. His reply was: “All.”

Mostly, the line between the state and the militant groups is not as clear as is often portrayed. While many of the groups started out as ethnic self-protection societies or protest groups, some were drawn into the high-stakes world of Delta politics. In a patronage system similar to that of the “area dons” found in Jamaica’s garrison communities, many of the militant groups have been funded and armed by local political leaders to help them rig elections.  This victory gives the patron the opportunity to loot the preferential share of oil revenues assigned to the oil producing states. In between elections, these armed groups may freelance in crimes against the oil companies – including kidnapping, extortion, and illegal bunkering – all committed in the name of fighting for the people of the Delta.

“They commit these crimes with a sense of impunity, due to their connections to their political patrons. It may be that some of the revenues find their way back to their sponsors, or that license to loot is simply one component of the patronage agreement.”

There are a great variety of armed groups operating in the Delta region, and it is likely that most, if not all, of them profit from illegal bunkering. Some of them have asserted their involvement in oil theft. The leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force Mujahid, Dokubo Asari, has openly admitted to gaining the funds to arm his group through the sale of stolen crude oil. He has argued that he was simply taking back the oil that was stolen from the Ijaw.

It also appears that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the most prominent militant group, is involved in stealing oil in addition to its kidnapping activities. MEND was formed, in part, in protest against the arrest of Mujahid Asari Dokunbo. When Brigadier General Wuyep Rimtip, the new Joint Task Force commander for the western part of the Delta, stepped up the fight against the oil racketeers and replaced several army battalions suspected of complicity, MEND warned that it would retaliate. In October 2008, Rimtip said: “There is a connection between militancy and illegal bunkering. It is their main source of sustenance. They use the proceeds from the sale of stolen petroleum products, whether refined or crude, to procure arms and take care of their needs.”

The oil bunkering groups have set territories and violently discouraged newcomers from entering the business. A Port Harcourt-based researcher into Niger Delta affairs estimated that up to 1,000 people were killed between January and November 2008 in conflicts, at least, in part motivated by control of oil turfs. Uniformed officers get their cut for providing information, looking the other way, or actively protecting the bunkerers.  Employees of the state oil company can also cash in on their positions by supplying information and access. Even the beleaguered farmers and fishermen who can no longer support their families on the oil-tainted land can profit from the odd compensation claim. Local communities can also be “settled” for allowing bunkering to occur on their land.

“The armed forces have often been implicated in the trade. In January 2005, two Nigerian admirals, Samuel Babatunde Kolawole and Francis Agbiti, were found guilty by a court martial of helping to steal an oil tanker and trying to sell stolen oil to an international crime syndicate. The vessel was captured off the Nigerian coast with a cargo of 11,000 barrels of oil, at that time the country’s largest seizure of stolen crude, but later disappeared. Although found guilty, they were merely sacked and demoted but were not sentenced to prison.”

Further cases have come to light more recently. In July 2007, ten officers, including a rear admiral, were retired because of “formal intelligence reports” that they were involved in smuggling stolen crude oil. Chief of Navy Staff Ganiyu Adeleye admitted, “They were involved in oil bunkering.”

Omolubi Nuwuwumi, a member of the Waterways Security Committee, a local government-run body that investigates kidnapping, said that some members of the military moonlight for criminal gangs or rebel groups. “The soldiers are deeply involved. There is no bunkering activity that is taking place in the Niger Delta that the military is not involved in,” Nuwuwumi said, “Eighty percent of soldiers in the region own the best cars – these are people who did not own a motorcycle before coming to the Delta.”

It also seems clear that oil industry employees are involved. Numerous analysts and commentators have concluded that illegal oil bunkering would be impossible without some collusion by industry insiders. In November 2007, 14 workers at the NNPC oil depot at Calabar were arrested for facilitating oil theft. The thieves were actually caught inside an oil tank by JTF personnel. One of the accused claimed that some police officers were also involved in the operation.

Pipeline breaks due to sabotage almost doubled between 1999 and 2004, from 497 to 895. As a result, the amount of oil officially lost in pipeline ruptures increased from 179,000 to 396,000 metric tons per day over the same period. At a press conference in September 2008, Nigerian Environment Minister, Hajia Halima Alao revealed that there had been 1,260 registered oil spills from all causes, including many from theft, between January 2006 and June 2008, of which 419 had occurred during the first half of 2008.

Mrs. Alao said that this reflected “a progressive trend of theft and sabotage.” The money accruing to the thieves surely depends on where and how they sell the oil. But analysts considering the issue have suggested a 50% discount on the world price would be sufficient inducement to attract large buyers. At a price of US$20 per barrel of stolen oil, 150,000 b/d would generate a daily income of three million dollars, almost all of which would go to criminal or corrupt parties. This would represent about one billion US dollars per year.

“While there is considerable debate as to how to define “counterfeit medicine”, it has been clear from the mid-1980s that profits are being made producing pharmaceutical products that appear to be genuine but contain little or no active ingredients. The groups producing these fake drugs particularly target markets in developing countries, where the regulatory capacity to detect defective products is low,” UNODC reported.

Findings have revealed that West Africa has been the target of a range of counterfeit medication, including anti-malarial medicine, antibiotics, anti-tuberculosis drugs, and anti-retrovirals (ARVs) Many of these products are imported, particularly from South and East Asia, but some come from the local pharmaceutical industry, which is seriously under-regulated.

“The drive to make affordable treatment as widely available as possible has contributed to the development of an informal market in medicines in West Africa. Today, a large share of patients acquire their medication independently from small shops or street vendors. This has had the unintended consequence of creating a fertile ground for the introduction of counterfeit medications. The shopkeepers distributing these drugs have little capacity or economic incentive to screen for counterfeits,” UNODC added.

With evidence of the presence of organized criminal networks in counterfeit pharmaceutical trafficking, global illicit market is estimated at about US$438 million. “The demand is high and prices are high, especially for evolving anti-malarial drugs. As with other sectors that are not heavily regulated, good profits can be made with a minimal risk of serious criminal prosecution; laws are not harmonised or heavily enforced either in supplier countries in Asia or recipient countries in Africa. A study of how legislation in certain market sectors affects crime concluded that “Several organized crime groups have shifted their attention from smuggling of narcotics and weapons to Counterfeit medicines. INTERPOL has found emerging evidence that counterfeiting was linked to organized crime and terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda.”

Today, there remain several well known hubs and routes for weapons trafficking between the states of the region. The Tudu market in Accra is often mentioned as an open market for regional buyers. Several borders are targeted by traffickers, including Benin/Nigeria, Burkina Faso/Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia/Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau/Senegal, Gambia/Senegal, Liberia and Sierra Leone/Guinea, Algeria/Mali, Chad/Niger and Nigeria/Niger.

It has been reported that between 1998 and 2004, more than 200,000 small arms were seized or collected in the region, at least 70,000 of which were subsequently destroyed. While impressive,  these numbers are small in proportion to the estimated number of small arms present in West Africa (estimated at between 7 to 10 million), and only a fraction of these need fall into the wrong hands to pose a security threat. In Côte d’Ivoire there are said to be at least “tens of thousands” of weapons circulating while a peace deal stalls, exacerbating crime and threatening upcoming elections. A United Nations Disarmament Research Institute (UNIDIR) report assessing Sierra Leone’s weapons collection programs points out that, “The extent of the reduction is largely unknown as there were no estimates of weapons in circulation immediately after the war. Only testimonies about the hardship of finding weapons now, compared to the war years, provide the evidence of notable reductions.”

Recently, reported prices range widely according to product and location: from US$100 for a single-barrel craft weapon in Ghana to US$6,000 for an automatic rifle in Niger Delta. Reported profits likewise range from US$75 to US$5,000 per weapon. Despite the porosity of the borders and the relative ease of movement for traffickers, markets remain quite segmented due to conflict, highly uneven presence of customs officials, and wide geographical differences in supply and demand. Data on legal arms transfers to Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana all bear out a shift away from actual arms acquisition, with shotgun cartridges and other ammunition the biggest-ticket item. Because of the absence of available seizure data (particularly in Nigeria, which has the highest population and one of the most actively funded customs programmes), it is more reliable to extrapolate from the available data about legitimate arms transfers.

According to Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) report in 2007, about 120 units of arms and ammunitions were sold to Nigeria by different European countries and the USA, totaling about US$22, 034, 696 million.   Criminal activity puts money in the hands of criminals. It provides leverage to corrupt officials. In some cases, it buys weaponry and ammunition. In these respects, the more money involved, the greater the threat to the rule of law. The highest value flows are cocaine and oil, each worth about a billion dollars at the wholesale level. Both would have been worth even more in the recent past: oil because prices tripled in mid-2008, and cocaine because volumes were twice as high in 2006.

But the absolute value of a flow cannot suffice to represent the threat it poses. The value of some flows, such as cocaine, is largely realized outside the region, while in other markets, such as those for stolen oil and counterfeit cigarettes, a large share of the money remains in West African hands. For instance about 11 billion cigarettes are trafficked into West African consumer markets which realizes about US$774 million for the region. The direct threat to rule of law being that it encourages corruption and amounts to loss of tax revenues. Thus, in terms of instability, oil and cigarettes have the potential to bring more resources to locally-based “strong men”, who may use this leverage to undermine the rule of law.

Not all threats to the rule of law boil down to hard cash. For example, as at 2008, 20, 000 West African migrants amounting to US$15 million were trafficked to Western Europe through Libya, Morocco, Senegal, Mauritania and Gulf of Guinea. While more difficult to quantify, threats to human rights are every bit as invidious to the rule of law as those that threaten political stability and many of the lower value flows represent serious abuses of human rights.

“While market-related violence attends cocaine and oil markets, some of the smaller flows are lethal in themselves. For example, counterfeit medication effectively prevents the sick from receiving treatment, and untold numbers of West Africans are dying as a result. Close to 400,000 West Africans die of malaria every year, and a good share of these were victims of bogus medicine. This racket devalues human life, cultivates popular cynicism, and generates an environment of lawlessness and distrust.”

Keeping in mind the small sizes of most West African economies, the effects of the flows of  the crimes on these economies is nothing but disastrous. “These countries are mostly dependent on exporting a small number of primary commodities, the value of which is generally on the order of between one and 10 billion US dollars per annum. Contraband flows valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars can quickly rival the value of the illicit economy, a situation completely without parallel in the developed world”, the report revealed.