Organized crime in Nigeria has become both more sophisticated and violent, according to a new report released today by Nigeria's National Institute of Security Studies and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Organized crime, which includes cultism, maritime crime, trafficking in drugs, wildlife, and persons; migrant smuggling and more has become one of the main drivers of insecurity in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s strategic location along global shipping routes between the Americas, Europe and Asia, large-scale transport infrastructure, and porous borders make it an attractive target for criminal organizations that use the country as a base and transit point for their operations.
Youth unemployment and widespread multidimensional poverty provide a large pool of potential recruits for criminal organizations. Governance gaps combined with an abundance of natural resources often located in remote areas offer strong incentives for engaging in criminal activities.
The report, Organized Crime in Nigeria: A Threat Assessment, identifies several types of organized crime enterprises prevalent in the country.
Cults are expanding their activities in Nigeria and abroad. While they are not inherently organized criminal groups, they serve as enabling organizations for a range of criminal activities. Cults use their collective capacity for violence to extort businesses, enable corrupt politicians, or regulate illegal activities.
“We are not government workers and have no salaries to depend on, other than our cult activities,” said one cult member. “We approach clubs and bars operating within our territories to make demands. When they fail to attend to those demands, then we attack and rob the place.”
Cults and politics are sometimes intertwined in Nigeria. According to one cult member: “Politicians and traditional rulers always use us to do their works, like [the] carting away of ballot boxes, especially during election period[s]. They buy us guns and bullets to ensure we disrupt the election process, and [to] also kill, no matter who is involved, so that our own candidate can win the election.”
Maritime criminals, often referred to as ‘pirates’, are adapting their tactics to evade law enforcement efforts and maximize their profits. From robberies of ship stores and crew property to the hijacking of oil tankers, they now attack ships with the purpose of kidnapping crew members for ransom.
Meanwhile, kidnapping – sometimes on a large scale, as with the abduction of the Chibok girls – has become a serious security threat in Nigeria.
Nigeria remains a hub for the transnational cocaine and heroin trade and has recently emerged as a hub and a source for the illegal extraction and trafficking of wildlife and forestry products, in particular ivory, pangolin, and rosewood.
Trafficking in persons continues to stand out, not only as a major criminal market but also for the physical and psychological toll it takes on its victims, most often Nigerian women and children. Today, most victims are trafficked within Nigeria and the region for sexual exploitation, forced labour or domestic servitude. Victims of trafficking continue to be rescued in Europe and the Americas and, increasingly frequently, the Middle East and Asia.
Finally, though the number of Nigerian migrants fell significantly in 2019-2021, those who do decide to make the journey often see no alternative to using a smuggler, due to a lack of access to travel documents or legal migration pathways. Nigerian nationals are involved in migrant smuggling at every stage of the journey: as recruiters in Nigeria, as smugglers who accompany the migrants, and as “receivers” in destination countries.
Organized crime has dire consequences for the well-being of Nigerians, and indeed the world. “Organized crime imperils global peace and security, undermines sustainable development, and violates and impedes human rights,” said Ghada Waly, UNODC Executive Director.
UNODC’s Organized Crime Strategy Toolkit outlines four categories of recommendations to counter organized crime: prevent, pursue, protect, and promote. Taken together, such an approach can help Nigeria address the drivers of organized crime, including a lack of economic opportunity and youth unemployment, multidimensional poverty, corruption and more.
“By dedicating our collective talent, energy and resources to this task, we can defeat the scourge of organized crime and give Nigeria the prosperous future it deserves,” noted A.S. Adeleke, head of the National Institute of Security Studies, while presenting the report at the launch event.