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Bandits on bikes — motorbike trafficking critical to armed groups’ mobility in the Sahel

Bandits on bikes — motorbike trafficking critical to armed groups’ mobility in the Sahel
Residents on motorcycles drive around the barricade of a closed street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 1 October 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Assane Puedraogo)

Motorbike bans are a strategy frequently used by Sahelian states seeking to inhibit insurgent activity, given armed groups’ reliance on this form of transport. But the collateral damage caused to communities and their livelihoods is substantial.

On 13 February 2023, Beninois authorities implemented temporary motorbike bans in municipalities affected by violent extremist armed groups. Cobly and Matéri municipalities in the country’s north-western Atakora department banned circulation on motorbikes between 9pm and 6am until further notice, and on 17 February, Tanguiéta municipality followed suit.

The strategy of banning motorbikes has been frequently used by Sahelian states trying to inhibit armed group activity, given their reliance on this form of transport. 

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have all used bans or curfews at various points in the armed conflict taking place in the Sahel over the past decade, as have neighbouring states affected by violence, such as Nigeria and, most recently, Benin.

The widespread use of this strategy reflects the importance of motorbikes to violent extremist groups in the Sahel, particularly Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Jnim) and Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel), as shown in Figure 1.

Motorbikes are the prevalent form of transport for Sahelian non-state combatants, given their multiple advantages for the terrain they operate in. Yet motorbikes are also immensely important to a huge majority of Sahelian residents, meaning responses tackling motorbike use engender significant collateral damage.

Motorbikes are cheaper than cars, much more fuel-efficient, manoeuvrable on poor road conditions, fast and repairable. Heavy motorbikes are especially important to navigate areas that are sandy, hilly or present poor road conditions.

Motorbikes’ centrality to Sahelian livelihoods makes them one of the most widely trafficked commodities in the Sahel, and one of the most understudied trafficking sectors in West Africa. 

This article, and a forthcoming GI-TOC research report, dive into the Sahel’s motorbike trafficking trade, underscoring how it is central to resourcing armed groups, and highlighting the need for alternative response frameworks.

Conflict events involving motorbikes in the Sahel, 2019 to 2023. Note: Includes all battles and violence against civilians involving motorbike use by Jnim and IS Sahel. (Source: Acled)

Illicit motorbike supply chains

It is worth considering what alternative approaches could limit armed groups’ ability to move on motorbikes. The bans on motorbikes have shown limited success, but numerous disadvantages. Bans have seriously restricted the mobility of residents in the affected areas, and have severely impacted local economies, schooling and many other aspects of daily life.

Other parts of West Africa where motorbike bans have been used to counter armed groups have cautionary tales for the Sahel. Nigeria has experimented with motorbike bans to halt the violence perpetrated by armed groups and bandits, and reduce clashes between farmers and herders.

In Zamfara State, commercial motorbike operators have been the principal victims of the policy. In the Diffa region of Niger, the motorbike ban may have increased youths’ attraction to Boko Haram, since the armed group offered them motorbikes they could no longer obtain.

Could Sahelian armed groups instead be prevented from obtaining motorbikes in the first place? The dispersed nature of motorbike trafficking, the lack of regulation and the limited capacity of law enforcement services to address vehicle crime pose challenges to this.

Motorbikes may be one of the most widely trafficked commodities in the Sahel, even if they do not attract the same level of policymakers’ attention as other illicit commodities. Obtaining data on the number of motorbikes illegally imported from coastal states is particularly difficult, but demand for them is extremely strong and Sahelian armed groups alone appear to be obtaining new motorbikes in the thousands each year.

Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) research has found that armed groups typically buy new motorbikes rather than second-hand ones. There is an extensive trade in second-hand motorbikes in the Sahel and a widespread problem of motorbike theft — a crime that is often extremely violent.

These stolen motorbikes are often broken down to sell as spare parts or are altered by mechanics to be resold. However, it appears that armed groups prioritise the reliability of new motorbikes over the lower cost of used ones, owing to the rugged terrain they operate on and the high-risk operations in which they engage.

The motorbikes that armed groups purchase follow many of the stages of the journey taken by motorbikes for the licit markets. Most of the motorbikes imported by Sahelian nationals come from China, and they are shipped to major ports in the coastal states of Togo, Nigeria, Benin and Ghana.

From there, licit traders importing motorbikes into Burkina Faso or Niger must declare them at the border for customs duties. Jnim and IS Sahel, however, are instead believed to be in contact with illicit motorbike traders. These traffickers may use a variety of methods, such as bribery or concealing motorbikes in containers of other goods when moving them over Sahelian borders.

Another common approach is to employ young drivers (referred to as passeurs) to drive the motorbikes over unguarded parts of the border or through crossings known to be favourable to smugglers.

Jnim and IS Sahel are far from the only buyers of smuggled motorbikes. However, it appears that particular traffickers can become regular suppliers for armed groups. A Nigerien mediator who had dealt with armed groups said that around 2017, elements of Jnim and IS Sahel in Tillabéri shared a motorbike supplier until the supplier attempted to pass off the motorbikes he delivered as a different brand, at which point the relationship ended.

Although dealings with particular traffickers can be advantageous, and likely to form part of their present supply chain, the market for smuggled motorbikes is diffuse and they can be obtained in other ways. Small regional towns host regular markets to which a motorbike seller may bring dozens of bikes. Armed groups have reportedly sent local youths to buy the motorbikes for them and deliver them to their bases.

Armed groups: a prolific customer base

What is striking is the large numbers of motorbikes armed groups appear to be buying. A researcher in the Malian Gourma area estimates that each markaz (plural marakiz, a command structure of local units) will order from several dozen to a hundred new motorbikes per month. Marakiz vary substantially in size, with smaller ones numbering around a hundred fighters and the largest numbering several hundred fighters. Therefore, it is not possible to extrapolate exact totals from this data. However, the number of conflict events involving motorbikes has increased in recent years, as shown in Figure 2.

motorbike trafficking

Conflict events involving motorbikes since 2019. Note: Includes all battles and violence against civilians involving motorbike use by Jnim and IS Sahel. (Source: Acled)

Data provided by the police department of Tillabéri, Niger, indicates comparable numbers. According to data provided by community members to the police, Jnim fighters in Tamou (Niger) and neighbouring Boutou (Burkina Faso) received 68 new motorbikes in three separate deliveries by local youth between May and July 2022.

Tamou is a well-known smuggling hub and it is likely that motorbikes are distributed to other Jnim units further afield from this area. Nevertheless, this means that dozens of motorbikes are being delivered monthly to Jnim in one location.

Given how widespread motorbike smuggling is, it must be assumed that numerous other Jnim units are receiving similar numbers of new motorbikes every month and that the group, therefore, obtains several hundred new motorbikes every year, if not thousands.

This is a significant expenditure for Jnim and IS Sahel, and motorbike prices appear to be rising. Armed groups presently pay between CFA600,000 and CFA800,000 (approximately €915 to €1,200) per motorbike. Motorbike prices in the Sahel have risen substantially in recent years, with motorbike sellers and users saying that the average price was CFA450,000 to CFA550,000 for similar motorbikes (approximately €680 to €840) before 2019.

In addition to a rise in demand, the price increase is largely a result of the heightened insecurity in Burkina Faso, the primary transit country in the motorbike supply chain, which has made moving motorbikes through the country increasingly difficult.

It also makes for a lucrative trade for the suppliers of armed groups, although their participation in the trade may not be entirely voluntary. A motorbike dealer who admitted having sold motorbikes to Ansar ul-Islam combatants in Est Province, Burkina Faso, and to IS Sahel combatants said that although he would have been obliged to sell to the armed groups when they asked him to, he still appreciated their custom since they did not attempt to haggle, they paid upfront and would even lend him money to obtain larger consignments of motorbikes. Elements of armed groups pre-financing motorbike purchases supports perceptions that these actors are building longstanding supplier relationships.

Targeted interventions: A balancing act

The fact that numerous local dealers and traffickers regularly work with armed groups makes the smuggled motorbike trade a dispersed one that is difficult to counter. Attempts to trace smuggling routes for motorbikes are less fruitful than for other commodities since residents all over the Sahel have a need for them.

Countering motorbike trafficking would require a number of resource-intensive efforts and needs to be done without penalising people who own motorbikes informally. One of the reasons motorbike theft is commonplace is that many owners do not formally register their ownership of them or obtain formal documents since the process is perceived as expensive and time-consuming. Likewise, many owners who buy their motorbikes second-hand do not update the existing registration.

Simplifying the registration process and ensuring that bribes cannot be solicited during it would help to encourage registration. This may go some way in helping traceability, but the ease with which motorbikes can be broken down, or with which licence plates or vehicle identification numbers can be removed or altered, means that registration alone may have a limited impact.

Likewise, law enforcement does not usually have the capacity to respond to vehicle crime. A better approach may be intelligence gathering on individuals supplying armed groups with large quantities of motorbikes on a regular basis and interrupting their supply chains.

However, it will be necessary to ensure that these efforts do not have similar effects to the motorbike bans when it comes to impacting civilian livelihoods. DM

This article draws on research from an upcoming GI-TOC report entitled ‘Motorbikes in the Sahel: Theft, traffic and armed group usage’. This article appears in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s quarterly Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa (WEA-Obs) Risk Bulletin. The GI-TOC is a global network with more than 600 Network Experts around the world. The Global Initiative provides a platform to promote greater debate and innovative approaches as the building blocks to an inclusive global strategy against organised crime. If you would like to subscribe to the risk bulletin and receive updates from the WEA-Obs, please sign up here.

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