On 29 August 2023, the Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organised Crime (ENACT) project delivered the seminar Gold, guns and instability: transnational organised crime in East Africa. The seminar shed light on the intricate web of challenges gripping the region.
ENACT, a European Union (EU)-funded action of the Global Illicit Flows Programme, used this seminar to delve into the delicate interplay between the conflict, crime and instability confronting East African countries. ENACT is managed through a consortium of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), INTERPOL, and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).
The situation across East Africa remains complex. Civil war rages in Sudan, while Ethiopia treads the uncertain path of a recently brokered peace deal. Responding to a counter-offensive, Somalia faces al-Shabaab attacks, further deepening the crisis. Humanitarian emergencies have uprooted millions from their homes, while Kenya experiences widespread public protests against escalating living costs and taxes. These challenges collectively erode political leadership, undermine governance structures, and amplify public discontent, potentially providing fertile ground for the expansion of organised crime networks and the proliferation of corrupt practices.
The seminar’s focal point was the critical nexus between conflict, organised crime, and instability. The EU’s representative emphasised that the disruption caused by conflict significantly weakened governance and the rule of law. This in turn creates opportunities for organised crime to infiltrate society and corrupt officials, thereby perpetuating a cycle of instability.
Compounding the problem, says Kouassi Yeboua, a senior researcher at the African Futures and Innovation programme based at the ISS in Pretoria, is that East Africa boasts a growing youth population. Nearly half of its inhabitants are aged between 15 and 29. High unemployment rates among young people, coupled with limited access to education, have contributed to increases in criminality.
Rumbi Matamba, an analyst from the East and Southern Africa Observatory of GI-TOC, followed Kouassi with a presentation of data from ENACT’s 2021 Africa Organised Crime Index. She elaborated on the strong relationship between conflict and crime. Matamba highlighted two contrasting countries, Kenya and Somalia. Despite Kenya’s relative safety, it has seen an upsurge in specific criminal markets like arms and human trafficking. This surge is augmented by the influence of state-embedded actors. In contrast, strife-ridden Somalia has experienced a marginal reduction in criminal activity, possibly attributed to fluctuations in specific criminal markets or actors.
The seminar continued with presentations on the current security situation around Lake Victoria and Ethiopia, as well as arms trafficking in Uganda and the pacifying of Kenyan political gangs. Willis Okumu, a Nairobi-based senior researcher at ENACT, said Lake Victoria had been neglected by the governments of the three countries that shared its border – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. This has led to an increase not only in illicit trades such as drugs and sex, but also in pollution and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
In Ethiopia the situation is fragile, as the recent conflict and fairly new peace deal has left the country less resilient to organised crime. Addis Ababa-based ENACT senior researcher Tadesse Metekia said there had been a significant increase in illegal gold trafficking, as well as in drugs and human trafficking.
In Uganda, gun violence reached a peak during March, April and May 2023, due to raids by regional tribes on the border with Kenya linked to livestock theft. However, the Ugandan Police official presenting believes this recent spate of gun violence and firearm trafficking throughout the region can be tamed by strengthening cooperation between security agencies and neighbouring countries.
Ken Opala, analyst at the East and Southern Africa Observatory of GI-TOC, explained why 2022 wasn’t business as usual among Kenya’s political gangs. Opala said constitutional reform, significant pressure from the International Criminal Court, political parties’ coalitions, preparedness of security services, and new constitutional governance were crucial to maintaining peace in Kenya.
As the region grapples with these complex challenges, the seminar demonstrated the importance of the ENACT project. With a mission to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime, the project has created a platform for collaborative analysis and dialogue, based on local criminal intelligence analysis and evidence-based research. This platform, exemplified by the seminar, seeks to address the intricate dynamics of conflict, crime, and instability, fostering cooperative efforts and innovative strategies for peace and security in East Africa.