The Criminal Side of Ebola

AFRICA, 20 Oct 2014

Ian Ralby – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Health Crisis is only one effect of the Ebola outbreak. Long term effects on the region’s ability to combat crime and provide safety and security for its citizens threaten to outlast the epidemic. International efforts should take a holistic approach at addressing the effect Ebola is having on organized crime in West Africa. 

The estimates concerning the spread of infection in West Africa are uncertain, but the impact is already dramatic. With a confirmed count of over 4,000 deaths, Ebola could cause more fatalities in the coming months than the combined toll of the wars of the 1990s that ravaged the region. As the infection has now appeared in the US and Europe, the Global North is devoting increased attention to the outbreak and its global health implications. Few are focused on the less obvious consequences the disease is having on West Africa. The effective lockdown of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia has tremendous economic consequences for those three countries; their fragile post-conflict markets are shut off from the world, grinding progress to a halt. Ghana, though not one of the ‘infected’ countries, has, for example, cancelled all conferences within its borders for the next three months. Countless international projects and programs aimed at assisting the region’s development are on indefinite hold, pending a clear improvement of the situation. However, the impact Ebola is having on criminal activity in the region is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the outbreak.

On the one hand, the story is bizarrely positive: thanks to Ebola, criminal trafficking routes through the region have slowed and in some cases stopped completely. The risk of infection as well as border and internal control measures have done more to stop the movement of guns, drugs and humans than any intervention program.   Even oil theft in the Gulf of Guinea has allegedly slowed as the fear of infection has spread to Nigeria. So merely looking at trafficking and transnational crime that requires movement of materials or people across land, one could say that Ebola has had an ironically helpful impact on counter-criminal activity in West Africa. But there is more to the story.

Despite being a coastal region, West Africa has been so challenged by issues of insecurity and underdevelopment on land over the last few decades that it has suffered an acute case of “sea blindness” – a general unawareness of and disregard for the maritime domain. In 1973, Liberia was the top exporter of fish in all of Africa; in 2013, it exported no fish at all. A lack of fisheries governance has led to rampant illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in West Africa – one of the world’s most abundant fisheries. Liberia and Sierra Leone have both made notable efforts, assisted by organizations like the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Sea-Change, to crack down on IUU fishing over the last few years. Last year, for example, Liberia assessed $6 million in penalties for illegal fishing. Despite such efforts, EJF estimates that Sierra Leone, one of the most pro-active countries in the region, still lost roughly $29 million worth of fish in 2013 on account of IUU fishing. One of the side-effects of Ebola, therefore, is to afford the opportunity for the IUU fishing community to engage in illicit activity with relative impunity on account of valid arguments against landing the catch in ‘infected’ countries. While IUU fishing does not make headlines as much as piracy, it accounts for $23 billion in losses each year, has an increasingly damaging impact on the marine environment, threatens long-term food security and, most importantly in this context, serves as a key nexus crime to other illicit activity including piracy and trafficking. This dynamic also brings up one of the most damaging criminal-related side-effects of Ebola: the cessation of counter-crime initiatives and capacity building throughout the region.

Countless international organizations, foreign aid programs, civil society organizations, and regional bodies, as well as local actors, have been working throughout the region for years to combat domestic and transnational criminal elements. Criminal activity not only impedes development in West Africa, but has negative consequences for Europe and beyond. The current outbreak has shut down many of those efforts indefinitely. The consequence of that pause in counter-criminal activity may be a long-term setback in development and capacity building initiatives, as the organizations involved in the projects that have been affected cannot wait around for the situation to improve. Since many of the efforts are regional in nature, involving countries both within and outside the ‘infected’ area, the impact is felt throughout West Africa.   The dismantling of counter-criminal efforts, in turn, affords sophisticated organized criminal organizations the opportunity to find new avenues for trafficking, theft and other illicit transnational enterprise that will open up as the situation evolves. The current rise in IUU fishing, for example, provides one such opportunity. Furthermore, when freer movement becomes possible again, there will be limited capacity left within the region to address the resurgence of criminal activity.

While the health crisis certainly is and should be the top priority, domestic and international efforts to address the predicament will need to look at the full impact the disease is having on the region. These criminally-related second and third order consequences (which do not even address the petty crime and security concerns arising out of the desperation within the ‘infected’ area), have long-term global implications. If Ebola is not addressed effectively and quickly, the resulting death toll, economic impact and destabilizing tendency could carry on long after the virus is eradicated.


Dr. Ian Ralby is Founder and Executive Director of I.R. Consilium through which he and his team work with governments and organizations on solving complex security-related problems.  A leading expert on the regulation, governance and oversight of private security companies, Dr. Ralby frequently advises on and assists with matters involving international law, international security and maritime affairs.  He has worked extensively with governments in West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans among others.  He holds a BA in Modern Languages and Linguistics and an MA in Intercultural Communication from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; a JD from William & Mary Law School; and both an MPhil in International Relations and a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge.

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