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Single African Market creation faces the reality of huge volume of smuggling and illicit trade in the continent

Reading the data of the World Wildlife Crime Report 2024 of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), one can understand why border controls in Africa are so tight and barriers to trade so high. Sub-Saharan Africa is the paradise of illicit trade, a trade that national States try to crush through strict and some time invasive controls at borders. Only wildlife materials account for 19 percent share of seizures worldwide, putting the continent on the top of the list of the regions where this kind of illicit trafficking is more common. But illicit trade in Africa, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, is not limited to wildlife. The UNODC report depicts a worrying scenario where illegal firearms, drugs, smuggled gold, meat, counterfeit medications and even cash trafficking are widespread, with organized criminal networks that thrive from profits derived from these businesses. Commenting the results of an operation on illegal trafficking that covered eight African countries, the report concludes that such convergence of criminal interests in different illicit trade sectors “is an area of increasing research and concern”.

These conclusions do not come as a surprise. ENACT, a project funded by the European Union that analyses transnational organised crime in Africa so to increase awareness and knowledge of this phenomenon, publishes the Africa Organised Crime Index, which measures and assesses levels of organised crime on the continent by ranking African countries and regions according to their levels of criminality. The latest edition of the Index indicates East Africa as the highest-scoring region on the continent for overall criminality, followed by West Africa. East Africa also ranks among the top five regions for criminality in the world, as a hotbed of illicit activities and a stronghold for criminal actors, whose influence is aggravated by prolonged conflicts that make the region especially vulnerable to the threat of organized crime. In this region, Kenya is indicated as a particular prolific hub for organised crime, in particular in the areas of human trafficking (8.0 position in a 0 to 10 scale); human smuggling (7.5); extortion and protection racketeering (7.0); arms trafficking (7.5); trade in counterfeit goods (7.0); heroin trade (7.5); cocaine trade (6.0); cannabis trade (6.5); synthetic drugs trade (5.5); cyber dependent crimes (8.0); and financial crimes (7.5).

On these premises, one wonders how the project of creation of a Single African Market where persons and goods move with minimum hindrance can been achieved. The need to reduce controls on people and merchandises at internal borders (which is one of objectives of the AfCFTA), needs to face the reality of the huge volume of smuggling and illicit trade flows that permeate African borders on a daily basis.

This is why it will be essential to develop adequate collaborative mechanisms between the security agencies of African States (including Customs), in order to discourage and neutralize these phenomena. In this regard, two possible solutions can be: 1) the development of intelligence information exchange systems between these agencies and 2) the definition of joint risk management strategies and practices that leverage on these information exchanges, as well as on additional information provided by border and local communities through appropriate networks of informants, for which specific online channels and hotlines will need to be established to report such activities. The organisation of joint (inter-agency) patrols at the borders among African States can reinforce these practices.

Some African nations, including Kenya, have already experimented with these systems. It is now time to raise them to a regional and continental level, by encapsulating them into the context of specific regulatory frameworks that define their operating methods. Problems of continental scale cannot be addressed by working in isolation: they need to be addressed collectively by African States. This should be accompanied by mass sensitisation, public education and awareness campaigns on illicit trade to sensitize the general public on its dangers and the importance to contribute to the unrooting of this trade. Of course, the road is long. But we have to start somewhere, or nothing will change.

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