Five Ways Maritime Insecurity Facilitates Illicit Trade in Africa

Shipping maritime illicit trade

Our Stable Seas Maritime Security Index examines maritime illicit trades and eight other connected maritime security issues. Much of this material is drawn from our work on this project. To learn more, please visit

The true scale of global illicit trade is hard to pin down; recent estimates are that illicit trade accounts for $1.6 to $2.2 trillion in annual global revenue. Trends indicate that Sub-Saharan African countries are increasingly important to this trade as emerging consumer markets, supply hubs, and transshipment points. This is evident across a range of sectors from narcotics to wildlife products and weapons. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in African waters too is a big challenge.

Global illicit trade is ever-adapting and increasingly sophisticated. For example, a recent investigation implicates the militant organization Hezbollah in an intricate global narcotics, weapons-trafficking, and money-laundering operation. Narcotics are trafficked from South America via West African waters to Europe. Money derived from the narcotics trade is then laundered through secondhand cars purchased in the US which are then exported to Africa. Revenue from this “billion-dollar criminal enterprise” allows Hezbollah to purchase weapons and explosives and fund its insurgent campaigns. Without West African littoral states complicit in facilitating this trans-Atlantic illicit trade, Hezbollah and other organized criminal groups, would find it significantly more difficult to move contraband transnationally.

The maritime domain is integral to the bulk trafficking of contraband. Port enforcement in the vast majority of African countries is no match for the sheer scale of global illicit trade. It’s actually a problem worldwide—each year more than 500 million containers are shipped, but only about 2 percent of these containers are inspected.  

Among the most prominent contraband in African littoral states are counterfeit medicines. In one law enforcement operation extending through sixteen African countries, 243 maritime shipping containers were inspected, with 150 of these containers found to contain contraband medicines.

Only through improving governance capacity within states, which includes building resilient maritime enforcement capacity and awareness concerning the evolving threat landscape, will complex challenges like illicit trade be addressed.

Over the coming days we will explore five ways maritime insecurity facilitates illicit trade in Africa. We argue that the high prevalence of illicit trade activity, including the trafficking of narcotics, wildlife, arms, and counterfeit contraband, is a direct result of the majority of African littoral states having a poorly governed and insecure maritime domain.