A triangle of vulnerability: Changing patterns of illicit trafficking off Africa’s Swahili coast

A triangle of vulnerability: Changing patterns of illicit trafficking off Africa’s Swahili coast
Jelbut dhow on fire off the coast of Pemba, Mozambique, 15 December 2019. (Source: SERNIC, Mozambique)

Organised crime networks trafficking people, drugs, wildlife products and other goods are increasingly using the ancient Swahili coast trade routes between Africa, Pakistan and the Arab world. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) investigates.

On 5 May, a Jelbut dhow with 10 Pakistani sailors on board was towed into Beira harbour in Mozambique. The crew claimed to have been drifting for two months without fuel and living off fish. Jelbut dhows (medium-sized fishing vessels) from the Makran coast of Pakistan and Iran are the main delivery mechanism for heroin from Afghanistan to the east coast of Africa. The dhows are met out to sea by small fishing boats, which then land their heroin consignments at local fishing harbours. While some of it supplies an increasing local market in Africa, most of the heroin makes its way to Europe and North America.

Crew from heroin dhow after being rescued from the sea, 15 December 2019. (Source: SERNIC)

Jelbut dhow on fire off the coast of Pemba, Mozambique, 15 December 2019. (Source: SERNIC, Mozambique)

It wasn’t an isolated incident. In December 2019, two heroin-trafficking dhows were intercepted off the coast of Pemba in northern Mozambique. The first was torched by the crew, destroying 1.5 tons of heroin. Three sailors lost their lives; 12 Iranian nationals were arrested. Ten days later, a second dhow laden with 430kg of drugs was successfully intercepted, and the Pakistani crew of 13 arrested.

Jelbut dhow towed into Beira, May 2020. (Image: Carta de Mocambique)

Back in Beira, on 19 May, two weeks after the Jelbut dhow had docked, a commercial fishing vessel returned to the harbour. The captain was surprised to see the dhow. He had last spotted it in April further north, moving inshore at night and then offshore during the day for three consecutive nights. He remembered it because it had no flag, no name, and did not respond to radio calls.

This pattern of trade and trafficking using dhows along the Swahili coast has existed for centuries.

Modern trade shaped by historical routes

The Swahili coast – stretching from Somalia to northern Mozambique and including Comoros – has a 2,000-year history of trade. It fits within a broader Afro-Arabian network that stretches from the Makran coast (modern-day Iran and Pakistan) to northern Mozambique. Zanzibar has historically functioned as a political and economic centre in this trade network and still plays an important role. At the turn of the 19th century, 75% of all ivory traded from Africa went through Zanzibar.

During the early 20th century, the colonial powers consolidated their control. Nevertheless, the established coastal trading patterns based on family networks are maintained to this day, in both licit and illicit economies.

A triangle of vulnerability

The sites for illicit trade along the Swahili coast shift over time, exploiting local political and economic conditions.

The routes and modalities of various illicit trafficking flows along the Swahili coast. A triangle of vulnerability for illicit trafficking is emerging between northern Mozambique, Zanzibar and Comoros.

A new study by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) investigated illicit economic flows in key sites on the Swahili coast. The findings highlight three main areas currently vulnerable to illicit trafficking. At one apex of the triangle is Zanzibar, a major hub for illicit trade for decades, but currently assuming greater importance. Further south is northern Mozambique, a region experiencing conflict, instability and weak governance, and increasingly a key route for heroin trafficking, and other illicit markets. The final apex of the triangle is the Comoros islands, 290km offshore. Comoros is not yet a major trafficking hub, but perennial political instability and connections to the wider subregional trafficking economy make it especially vulnerable as illicit trade continues to evolve.

These three apexes are linked by illicit economies and trade routes that take little heed of modern political boundaries.

Four major illicit flows underpin the illicit economies of the Swahili coast. First is the steady growth in the volumes of heroin being smuggled down the east coast of Africa. Second, there is a growing Asian market for illicit wildlife and timber products from Africa and Madagascar. Third, this research has found a surge in the prevalence of synthetic drugs in the Indian Ocean islands, and more recently Mayotte and the Comoros. The final flow is the movement of migrants from the Horn of Africa to South Africa.

Drug trafficking

Heroin trafficking is the most significant drug flow along this coast. Zanzibar has been a key landing site since the 1980s and remains so today. Northern Mozambique is playing an increasingly central role in this trade. Heroin trafficking started here in the early 2000s, run by politically connected networks that bought protection for their routes. These networks still exist, but newer networks that are also involved in human smuggling and the ivory trade have become important.

In Comoros, illicit trafficking is made up of small amounts of illegal goods brought from its neighbours, goods moving through Comoros to other markets and occasionally goods moving from Comoros to neighbours.


In Comoros, illicit trafficking is made up of small amounts of illegal goods brought from its neighbours, goods moving through Comoros to other markets and occasionally goods moving from Comoros to neighbours.

The heroin comes ashore at small landing sites in Zanzibar, the southern Tanzanian coast and northern Mozambique (as far south as Angoche). Most of the heroin is then smuggled by road to South Africa, and then on to the main markets in Europe and North America. Some is smuggled by drug mules directly from East Africa to the same markets. However, the local heroin consumption market in Africa is also increasing significantly – requiring increased supply. The dynamics of the southern and eastern African heroin markets were recently revealed in another GI-TOC study, which used an innovative pricing survey to identify the spread of primary and secondary heroin markets into all corners of the region.

Other drug flows are also on the rise. Cocaine arrives in Pemba and Zanzibar by sea in goods containers from Brazil, and with drug mules on flights. Most of the cocaine is then smuggled to Europe by means of drug mules; some supplies a growing local market.

Minor amounts of heroin, hashish and cocaine are smuggled to Comoros from Zanzibar for the small domestic market there. However, much more of a problem is the marked increase in the availability and use of synthetic cannabinoids (locally known as chimique – which translates as “the chemical”), especially among youths. This drug is allegedly imported from China to the Indian Ocean islands, including Mayotte, from where it is shipped to Comoros. Its use has spread rapidly across all three main Comoros islands over the last four years – exemplifying the vulnerability of Comoros to illicit trafficking.

Wildlife and timber trafficking

Ou Haiqiang is arrested on arrival in China on ivory trafficking charges. (Source: screengrab from video on the website of the Environmental Investigations Agency)

On 5 January 2019, Ou Haiqiang, a Chinese national, was repatriated to China to face ivory-trafficking charges. Ou was the third and final Africa-based facilitator in the Shuidong syndicate to be arrested by the China Customs’ Anti-Smuggling Bureau – working in collaboration with the Tanzanian, Mozambican and Nigerian authorities. In 2015, the Shuidong syndicate boasted that it controlled 80% of illicit ivory to China. Earlier generations of the same families had been smuggling ivory from Zanzibar since the 1990s. The families were also involved in the legal trade of marine species to China – of sea cucumbers and fish maws. Ou and the current crop of Shuidong ivory traffickers became involved in both legal and illegal businesses out of Zanzibar around 2008. In 2015, by which time the Zanzibar ivory route had become too well known and seizures made losses unacceptably high, they shifted their smuggling base to Pemba, northern Mozambique.

The Shuidong syndicate is among the groups that have recently exploited the centuries-old trade vulnerabilities of the Swahili coast. They built local relationships and combined trading in licit and illicit products to profit from the ease with which goods are moved from places like Zanzibar and Pemba across the Indian Ocean.

Live pangolin for sale in a village in Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve. (Photo source, SERNIC)

There is no evidence of current major ivory trafficking from this coast, although it was an epicentre of the ivory trade from 2012 to 2018. However, traffickers are aware of pangolin scales, sourced from Uganda and South Sudan, being shipped from the region. They are also aware of the demand for lion teeth and claws, and that these can be sourced from the large lion population in northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania.

Rare and valuable tortoises are trafficked from Madagascar to Comoros, and sometimes to Zanzibar, before being air-freighted to Asia. Mainland Tanzania used to export tens of thousands of fish, birds and reptiles annually for the global pet trade – worth tens of millions of dollars per annum. This was temporarily banned in 2016, but these regulations do not apply to Zanzibar and there has been a recent increase in live reptile trade from Zanzibar. To be deemed legal trade, these have to be locally captive-bred animals, and not transported from the mainland; however, there are no breeding centres on Zanzibar. 

Other criminal markets

The drug and wildlife markets of the Swahili coast do not operate in a vacuum. The unique political economies of these three specific sites predispose them to criminal exploitation and trafficking. This includes human smuggling from the Horn of Africa to South Africa, and from Madagascar and central Africa via Comoros to Mayotte (an overseas department of France).

Zanzibar is a key point for the smuggling of many kinds of goods. Firstly, it is a free port, so no import duties or taxes are levied. This creates an opportunity for goods to be imported into Zanzibar and then smuggled duty-free to the mainland. Sugar and rice, in particular, are alleged to be smuggled via Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania in large quantities, undermining tax-revenue generation. Clove smuggling is also a substantial illicit economy – smugglers buy cloves directly from the farmers for a higher price than the state company pays, ship them to Mombasa and sell them on the open market.

Discrepancies in tax regimes also shape smuggling routes between Comoros and Mayotte. The EU border around Mayotte presents an opportunity for smuggling goods that are banned, restricted or heavily taxed in the EU. For example, cigarettes produced in Comoros are now found on the small boats that make the dangerous crossing bringing migrants to Mayotte. In return, stolen goods make their way from Mayotte to Comoros – including vehicles stolen in France, and expensive smartphones that can be bought in Comoros for €50.

Northern Mozambique and links to extremism

In northern Mozambique, illicit trafficking used to entail a few key commodities (eg, heroin, timber and ivory), controlled by economically powerful traders with high-level support from the local political elite. There is evidence now that there are multiple networks and multiple markets, with a diversification of products that are trafficked. This expansion has driven a surge in low-level corruption to facilitate and protect these illicit economies.

Local law-enforcement officials are aware of the expansion and diversification of illicit economies, but feel powerless to combat it. They see themselves as watching from the sidelines as rule of law breaks down, which is fuelling a sense of loss of government control. This builds on the impression that government has neglected northern Mozambique. Social services and infrastructure are perceived to be inadequate, and economic opportunities for young people are considered to be non-existent. The local licit economy is viewed as being captured by the elite, or by foreigners who are allowed access to the resources under corrupt systems, while locals are forcibly removed from newly created concessions.

The result is that local people are aligning themselves with other systems that provide some form of structure or protection against a government that they perceive to be failing them. In some cases, they turn to the illicit economies and align themselves with criminal groups. In other cases, they are joining the violent religious extremist group that speaks of imposing sharia law and rejecting corruption.

The illicit economy in northern Mozambique helped shape the conditions that led to the current insurgency in Cabo Delgado and may drive future instability. The locations of recent attacks – which include coastal landing sites, transport hubs and areas rich in natural resources – suggest that the insurgents may be targeting the illicit economy as a more substantial source of future revenue. Over time, control over the illicit economy may begin to shape the actions of the group.

An uncertain future

Zanzibar, Comoros and northern Mozambique are linked by trafficking routes and criminal networks that operate across borders. The historical factors that gave rise to their modern political economies make these societies vulnerable to corruption and exploitation by criminal groups.

Going forward, the Covid-19 pandemic casts an uncertain future and may exacerbate the problems of this already volatile region. Vulnerabilities to corruption, illicit trafficking, and state abuse may become fault lines that widen under the stress already placed by the pandemic on states and societies. Understanding and monitoring the current vulnerabilities affecting Zanzibar, Comoros and northern Mozambique may, therefore, form a basis for anticipating the future patterns of trafficking, and possibly conflict, in this region. DM

Alastair Nelson is GI-TOC’s director, Conservation Synergies. He coordinates the GI’s Resilience Fund work in Mozambique and is also conducting research into illicit trafficking, with a particular focus on the illegal wildlife trade, in Mozambique, Tanzania, the Comoros and Madagascar. He has 25 years’ experience implementing and leading field-conservation programmes in the Horn of Africa, east and southern Africa.

This article draws on a new report, Triangle of Vulnerability: Changing patterns of illicit activity off the Swahili Coast, published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally.

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