Thursday, February 24, 2011

Africa: The Challenge of Organised Crime and Urbanisation

Source: ISS

Erin Torkelson, Researcher, Organised Crime And Money Laundering Programme, ISS Cape Town Office

Over the past decade, thousands of Kenyan youths, living in Kibera on the outskirts of Nairobi, have affiliated themselves to the Mungiki – a criminal gang that considers itself to be an ideological extension of the Mau Mau’s resistance against the British. Within Kibera, the Mungiki command tremendous power and have begun to serve as a parallel authority, collecting ‘taxes’ by extorting money from landlords, building contractors, taxi operators and illicit brewers in return for ‘protection’ from petty crime. The brutality of these ‘protection’rackets (the Mungiki are known for gruesome murders) has prompted the state to endorse campaigns of terror within Kibera, resulting in extra-judicial killings. The resort to excessive violence by law enforcement has strengthened the conviction of the local community that non-state forms of protection, provided by the Mungiki, are essential. Incidences like this beg the question: what happens when criminal organisations come to be seen as more legitimate forms of authority than the state?

This is not a new question. In the narco-states of Latin America, terms like ‘criminal governance,’ ‘parallel governance’ and ‘securo-commerce’ have become a central part of the discourse around gangsterism and urban violence. Criminal governance, the most often used of these terms, refers to the creation of alternative justice and security arrangements led by local strongmen and funded by the proceeds of illicit enterprise. Urban areas that have been marginalised or neglected by the state are most susceptible to the formation of parallel security arrangements. As we can see from the Mungiki example, criminal governance is not restricted to Latin America and is clearly manifest in African cities as well.

Today, some of Africa’s urban centres have become sites of violence and conflict. Due to the increasing interdependence of nation-states, sovereign warfare is far less prevalent and only viable against disconnected or powerless states. In contrast, this same interdependence – international flows of people, goods and capital, improved communication and transportation networks – has made urban centers increasingly vulnerable to civic violence from non-state entities. Cities have become complex geographies where criminal groups are increasingly able to challenge national governments for authority and control – organised crime, terrorism, religious and sectarian riots and protests over perceived state failures are just a few examples of contemporary civic conflict. Of these, violence resulting from organised criminal networks is arguably the most common threat to Africa’s urban centres.

The rise of criminal networks and their ability to form parallel systems of authority has been spurred on by globalisation, urbanisation and corruption. With regards to globalisation, gangs throughout the developing world have accumulated power over time – aided by socio-political changes that resulted from the end of the Cold War – and now have close connections with global criminal networks and multi-trillion dollar illicit markets. In Cape Town, for example, the Americans and the Firm have joined forces with the Chinese Triads to exchange abalone for the raw ingredients needed to make amphetamines. With these increasingly global business arrangements, the profitability of gangsterism has become almost limitless and has fueled rapid expansion. Against this backdrop, escalating confrontation between criminal gangs and democratic governments seems inevitable.

Moreover, the rapid urbanisation of Africa’s cities has frequently resulted in “grey areas” that fall outside the rule of law and the ability of the state to provide protection and social services. Local authorities have frequently abandoned these areas, creating a power vacuum that is seized by those profiting off of illegal economies. Criminal networks use their money and influence to exert power within their communities through violence, fear and also beneficence. Were gangs to be entirely predatory, the surrounding community would likely to cooperate with police to root out criminal groups. In the absence of effective state social services, however, criminal gangs secure loyalty from the community by providing employment, supporting local business, and funding sporting events and university scholarships.

Likewise, criminal uber-entrepreneurs use their profits to secure loyalty from strategically positioned officials and the formal security apparatus as well. One of the findings of a recent organised crime review suggests that almost all illegal goods are transported across borders at official customs points. This means that criminal gangs bribe law enforcement agents to ensure their safe passage. In other cases, criminal gangs do not use bribery directly, instead offering authorities the opportunity to benefit from illegal profit-making opportunities. Research in Zambia suggests that the police and army often collude with human smugglers to rob vulnerable international migrants travelling through the country. What results is a series of contradictions where legitimate state authorities can be involved in criminal business (bribery, highway robbery) and illegitimate non-state actors can be seen as more acceptable providers of social services and protection (bursaries, employment).

Often, solutions proposed to eradicate organised criminal networks do not take into account the underlying context that empowers and sustains them. Such solutions are geared primarily toward stronger policing and state repression, while paying insufficient attention to deficiencies in other state capacities. Governments around the world are responding to civic conflict with militarised police: China is building a million-man para-military force and the US has increased the use of SWAT teams twenty-fold. These militarised police forces can become armies of occupation, and if corrupt, can serve to exacerbate urban conflict. Much of the money invested by the Mexican and American governments in an armed response along the border has been diverted to fund criminal networks themselves. Likewise, as described above, the violent suppression of the Mungiki in Kenya helped to consolidate their power and popularity amongst local youth.

Alternatively, other more passive solutions result from gradual geographical changes, which are dictated by the purchasing preferences of the urban elite. The community of Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg, was established as a result of the massive capital flight out of the urban core and into costly security enclaves. These privatised security complexes do not address the root problem of criminal governance, and only ameliorate its negative effects for the wealthy. Ironically, the most successful of the criminal elite are able to exercise their class power, moving away from informal areas of occupation to wealthy, well-policed suburbs. This type of class migration contributes to the power vacuum in informal areas, by physically relocating the tax base that funds police and welfare programmes.

It is clear that neither of these solutions has ended the criminal governance structures present in Africa’s cities, and other options must be found to make them safer.