ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar: “Illicit Trafficking in Africa”

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 07/06/2012

(Editor’s Note: Illicit trafficking in Africa is tied to global trafficking and can include the transport of illegal drugs, weapons, and human beings. It is exacerbated in many regions by difficult-to-control borders. “Illicit Trafficking” was the featured topic of a June 26, 2012, plenary session for the 14th annual Senior Leaders Seminar sponsored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The June 18-29 seminar took place in Arlington, Virginia, and was attended by 70 security sector professionals and other government leaders from 40 Africa nations.  Academic discussions at the Africa Center are conducted under a strict policy of non-attribution to allow free and open sharing of ideas. However, several presenters agree to allow portions of their presentations to appear on the record in order to promote broader awareness of issues.)

Dr. Benjamin P. Nickels, Assistant Professor of Transnational Threats and Counter-Terrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), gave a presentation June 26, 2012, on Illicit Trafficking in Africa during a two-week seminar hosted by the Africa Center. The presentation’s purpose was to sketch the challenges of illicit trafficking in Africa, focusing on threats, trends and responses.

Dr. Nickels presented illicit trafficking as “the illegal transfer of people and things across international borders.” It was further sorted into four essential elements — action, object, actor, and context. The latter element – context — was elaborated upon to help differentiate trafficking from trade. It was argued that the illegality essential in labeling an action as trafficking primarily arises in the context of crossing borders. Alluding to the ongoing salience of borders in Africa, it was stated that the fundamental illegality of objects is about border control.

As the plenary aimed to examine the impact of illicit trafficking in the security and development of Africa, three threats were concentrated upon as being of particular interest in the security of African states and citizens: drug trafficking in Western Africa, arms trafficking in Eastern Africa, and human trafficking in Southern Africa.

Cocaine smuggling in Western Africa was offered as an example of current drug trafficking operations on the African continent. Generally, drug trafficking is geographically dispersed within the region, in addition to having in recent years increased in volume, value and complexity, Dr. Nickels said. The development of a “home market” was also discussed, as what were once transit countries begin to become consumer countries.

Dr. Nickels referred to arms trafficking in Eastern Africa specifically as the trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Africa has roughly 16 percent of the 640 million small arms and light weapons of the world, he said. Additionally, SALW were described as ideal for trafficking, as they are light, easy to conceal and difficult to track. Citing the Lord’s Resistance Army as an example, the connection between SALW and youth in Africa was highlighted for its dually unsettling value. As such weapons are trafficked in part because children as young as 8 can use them, small arms and light weapons pose a particularly troubling threat to the security of Africa’s citizens.

Human trafficking is differentiated from human smuggling as a crime against the individual and arguably “nothing less than a new name for slavery,” Dr. Nickels said. On the increased across the continent since 2005, human trafficking now finds a particularly important hub in Southern Africa, he said. Predominantly, women and children are used for sexual exploitation and forced labor. Though Southern Africa was stated to be the most active site of human trafficking on the continent, the reach of such illicit practice was acknowledged to spread across the continent and beyond.

Illicit trafficking was lastly framed within the larger context of transnational security threats. At the core of this framework was globalization and its association to trafficking in Africa. The global flow of illicit trafficking has, in turn, necessitated a new approach to combating such a security threat.

The presentation concluded with a brief discussion on the current responses to illicit trafficking in Africa in which transnational, regional and global responses were stressed as crucial. Plenary participants said a global approach must be created to address the challenge, as illicit trafficking in Africa is increasingly tied to illicit trafficking in the world.

Summary prepared by Jane Koné, an English and Portuguese double major at Georgetown University. Ms. Koné is a 2012 summer intern at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

View Photos of the Event