Sun, Jul 01, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Hurdles await West African anti-crime initiative

COOPERATION:The EU-funded data-sharing scheme aims to make it easier to fight crime in the region, where criminals can easily hide between jurisdictions


Facing a rising crime wave from drug-running to human organ smuggling that siphons money into terrorism, 16 West African states have launched an unprecedented data-sharing scheme to fight illegal activity, but observers say the initiative faces sizable hurdles.

The scheme — which aims to set up a cybernet where national police forces are to pool information on wanted individuals, criminal records, illegal weapons, and stolen cars and documents — brings together 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), plus Mauritania.

The EU-funded West Africa Police Information System (WAPIS) has been in gestation for several years and would ultimately be hooked up to Interpol’s global criminal databases.

It would be “crucial to effectively combating transnational organized crime and terrorism,” Interpol said.

Interpol Secretary-General Juergen Stock said that smuggling in drugs, weapons, humans, fake drugs and even human organs is rife in West Africa.

He put regional criminal turnover at “more than US$3 billion annually,” added to which is maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, estimated to have cost coastal states about US$800 million last year.

The WAPIS scheme was launched to much pomp on Tuesday in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s economic hub, in a ceremony gathering security ministers, police chiefs and national security heads from across the region.

Defenders of WAPIS say the scheme would be a boon for police forces battling an escalating wave of crime in West Africa, where criminals and terrorists find an easy place to hide in the cracks between different jurisdictions.

“It will be a key solution for strengthening security in the region,” Ivorian Minister of Interior and Security Sidiki Diakite said.

“Cross-border crime is continually rising,” said Francis Behanzin, a general from Benin who is an ECOWAS commissioner in charge of political affairs and security, adding that transnational crime was also becoming more “hybrid” — with more and more crime being used to raise funds for terrorist activities.

“Organized crime has colossal means at its disposal, as well as determination — sometimes it is better organized than states themselves,” he told journalists.

However, the rollout of the WAPIS program shows just how badly states are struggling to keep up.

It was introduced as a pilot scheme in 2012 in Benin, Ghana, Mali and Niger — Tuesday’s launch marks the next phase in which it would be extended to the 12 other partners over the next four years, starting with Burkina Faso, Chad, the Ivory Coast and Mauritania.

The first step would be to computerize police records — most of them are still on paper, a presentation document showed.

Cross-border crime-busting projects in West Africa have a history of more than 20 years, but they have had only faltering progress.

In 2005, ECOWAS leaders agreed a deal to create an “Office for Information and Criminal Investigation,” but the protocol was never ratified, Behanzin said.

Before this week’s meeting, national police and security chiefs had not met for four years, he said.

“The security services in the countries of West Africa do not cooperate enough,” he said, describing their relationship as marked by “competition.”

EU envoy to Ivory Coast Jean-Francois Valette said that cooperation was a learning process, as national police forces have a “natural reflex to keep information to themselves.”

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