import bans

The rebel’s ride: How motorbike trafficking fuels conflict in West Africa

By Eleanor Beevor

Posted on September 5, 2023 10:31

A crowd gathers at a scene of multiple bombings at Kano Central Mosque November 28, 2014. Gunmen set off three bombs and opened fire on worshippers at the central mosque in north Nigeria’s biggest city Kano, killing at least 35 people on Friday, witnesses and police said, in an attack that bore the hallmarks of Islamist Boko Haram militants. REUTERS
A crowd gathers at a scene of multiple bombings at Kano Central Mosque November 28, 2014. Gunmen set off three bombs and opened fire on worshippers at the central mosque in north Nigeria’s biggest city Kano, killing at least 35 people on Friday, witnesses and police said, in an attack that bore the hallmarks of Islamist Boko Haram militants. REUTERS

Motorbikes are now deeply embedded in the battle tactics of the JNIM and the Islamic State in the Sahel region.

Vehicles often become emblems of war. This is not just the case for vintage aircraft or battle-defining tanks. The Toyota pickup truck is an enduring favourite of non-state armed groups such as Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. More than that, it has had a series of inter-state battles named after it.

Although pick-ups, often along with 4x4s stolen from NGOs, are still important to the Sahel’s armed groups, it is motorbikes that are becoming far more important in West Africa’s biggest battleground.  

Motorbikes are now deeply embedded in the battle tactics of Jama’at Nasr al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the dominant non-state armed group in the Sahel, and the Sahelian faction of Islamic State. They are a constant feature of their propaganda images, and certain brands of motorbikes are deeply associated with armed groups.  

Civilians killed

A new report from Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime documents how these armed groups – and in particular JNIM – are buying hundreds of motorbikes each month. These motorbikes are not sourced from the huge stock of stolen vehicles already in circulation around the region, most of them are brand new. 

Motorbike swarm attacks have been some of the most notorious battles in the Sahel. In January 2021, more than 100 civilians were killed by armed men riding over 100 motorbikes who descended on the villages of Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumdareye in Tillabéri, southwest Niger. 

This adoption of motorbikes by non-state armed groups has spread far beyond the Sahel.

We fear that these people could be taken over by terrorists because they know the roads, the villages and the ways to obtain motorbikes quickly.

In the Lake Chad Basin, combatants from the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS) – the two main rival Boko Haram factions – also depend on motorbikes for much of their movement.

Meanwhile, separatist fighters in western Cameroon rely on motorbikes to traverse remote and mountainous terrain. The speed, fuel efficiency, durability on rough roads and the ability to access remote, off-road places that motorbikes offer have been game-changing for the operations of armed groups in West Africa and beyond.  

“Heavy” motorbikes have become so important to Sahelian armed groups, and so closely associated with them, that they have been singled out for bans by the affected governments. These include large models of the Aloba, Sanili, Hajoue and Boxer makes, which can seat multiple people, have strong shock absorbers and are well-suited to armed groups’ tactics and operating environments.

In Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and most recently Benin, governments have tried circulation bans in certain areas, where anyone moving on a large motorbike is presumed to be a combatant and therefore a legitimate target. In Burkina Faso, they have also imposed sales and import bans on these brands. 

Bans reducing violence?

Assessing the effectiveness of these bans is tricky, given the variety of forms that the bans take, and the places that they are applied to. However, observers are unanimous that there are many downsides to these bans, while positive effects are harder to find.

For a start, there is scanty evidence that bans reduce violence over an extended period. In June 2021, a ban on circulating two-wheeled vehicles at night time was put in place in the Sahel and Est provinces of Burkina Faso, two of the most conflict-affected provinces in the country.

JNIM was behind 372 violent incidents against civilians or armed forces in 2021. Despite the ban being in place throughout 2022, levels of violence instigated by JNIM were very similar, with 365 incidents in the same two provinces, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The agency collects information on the dates, actors, locations, fatalities, and types of reported political violence and protest events around the world. 

Why aren’t these bans working? There are many answers to this question. In some places, both civilians and combatants have adapted, sometimes by driving smaller motorbikes not covered by the bans, if the terrain allows. In many cases, it is simply impossible for the military to survey and respond to all motorbike use in places covered by bans unless they have air assets in place.  

However, there are two other factors that need to be reckoned with. The first is the sheer demand for motorbikes around the region. The second is that this demand has made motorbikes one of the most widely trafficked commodities in the Sahel. This makes genuine control over supplies of motorbikes extremely difficult. It also means that the bans may be boosting traffickers’ businesses while forcing legitimate sellers out of business.

A police officer in Cinkassé, Togo, from where thousands of motorbikes are sold to Burkina Faso, now under a nationwide import ban of heavy motorbikes, said: “We have noted a loss of business for normal traders. We have written to the authorities to alert them to the threat posed by the unemployment of former workers in the motorbike sales and transport industry.

“We fear that these people could be taken over by terrorists because they know the roads, the villages and the ways to obtain motorbikes quickly.”

Transforming lives

Understanding motorbike trafficking requires understanding how much motorbikes have transformed the lives of Sahelian residents, and the economies they live in. There has been an astronomical rise in the use of motorbikes in West Africa since the early 2000s.

Cheaper models of motorbikes produced in China and India became increasingly available around this time. These overtook more expensive Japanese motorbikes in the West African market, making a motorbike an attainable item for many more households.

Motorbikes are not just cheaper than cars. They are more fuel efficient, and in many ways better suited to the region’s geography. Navigating an urban traffic jam on a motorbike is much faster than in a car. In rural areas, a motorbike can far better navigate an unpaved, bumpy road, and can get far off-road to access places that cars simply cannot reach.

Larger models of motorbikes can seat two, three, or even four at a push, and can carry reasonably heavy loads. As a result, motorbikes rapidly began to replace donkey carts, camels and hand carts, not just in domestic life, but in the operations of small businesses. 

In both rural and urban areas, motorbikes bring produce to the market, take people to schools and hospitals, and move all manner of goods. However, what is true for motorbikes and cities is doubly so for rural villages, where alternative transport options are much more limited. In some landscapes, there are simply no substitutes for heavy motorbikes, as no other vehicles can navigate the roads. This is why motorbike bans can be devastating to local economies, and are widely resented by the people affected. 

It is also why motorbike traffickers have a constant demand for their products. Even in areas under bans, civilians may feel they need to take the risk of using one. Armed groups have no interest in obeying these bans, particularly if they do not see a significant risk of an airstrike.

How does motorbike trafficking in the Sahel work?  

The Sahelian smuggling economy is born in large part from the higher prices for goods in the landlocked states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Their immediate southern neighbours, including Benin, Togo, Nigeria and Ghana, all of which have major seaports, enjoy comparatively cheaper goods.

This has led to the smuggling of all kinds of goods across the borders of the coastal states into the Sahel, and motorbikes are no exception. 

Trafficked motorbikes are often diverted from the licit supply chain upon their arrival in these major seaports, including Lomé, Cotonou, and Lagos. Motorbike dealers said their suppliers for untaxed motorbikes were mostly importers based in these port cities.

The importers, some of whom were said to be from diaspora communities, would order motorbikes from Asia, and declare a portion of the import to sell formally. However, according to estimates from both motorbike dealers and law enforcement officers, between 40% and 50% of some motorbike shipments would not be declared, and would instead enter the illicit motorbike trade – either in the coastal states or to be smuggled into the Sahel.

The trafficking of motorbikes over borders happens typically in one of two ways. Motorbikes can be hidden in large trucks carrying other goods, or they can be driven over the border by riders known as “passeurs”, who might also be carrying other smuggled goods on the motorbikes.

Both approaches often also involve the bribery of law enforcement and border guards. Once at their final destination, they can either be sold directly to buyers by the traffickers, or to local motorbike sellers. 

There is no chance of obtaining clear, regional-level data on how many motorbikes are trafficked into the Sahel every year, or how many end up in the hands of armed groups. Still, piecemeal information allows for some guesswork. At the border crossing of Cinkassé in Togo, on the border of Burkina Faso, a police officer estimated that at least 3,000 motorbikes would be trafficked through that crossing alone each year.

While Cinkassé is a well-known smuggling hub on the borders separating the Sahel from the coastal states, it is far from the only one.  

Thousands trafficked

Moreover, the demand for motorbikes almost everywhere in the Sahel means they can be sold in small towns and villages, without necessarily depending on major market towns. Individuals or small groups taking bikes over remote, rural stretches of the borders may easily find buyers. Tens of thousands of motorbikes can thus be assumed to be trafficked into Sahelian states each year. 

In keeping with the group’s tendency to give local commanders a degree of autonomy, local units appear to take charge of buying their own motorbikes. Incidents of both direct purchases by JNIM from trafficking networks and from local sellers were documented. 

Depriving civilians of this essential item is deeply damaging to local economies, and counter-productive to counter-insurgency.

Not all small-scale motorbike dealers will buy trafficked motorbikes or sell them to armed groups. However, many such dealers consulted in armed group-affected areas of Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Niger and Mali admitted both to selling motorbikes to armed groups and to have bought them from traffickers.  

Although many of these sellers would not have had any choice but to sell to JNIM, they added they were grateful for the business and that the combatants were excellent customers. Sellers in several small towns in JNIM-affected or controlled areas reported that the combatants would place advance orders for new motorbikes every month, often over a dozen at a time, and would pay above market price and in cash.

A trader in the Est Province of Burkina Faso said: “For me, it is more profitable to work with these armed groups because they do not negotiate the price and pay the money on the spot. I can even borrow money to buy more motorcycles. In their areas, I don’t pay taxes and my goods are safe.”  

In other cases, JNIM appears to receive new motorbikes directly from the “passeurs” or from traffickers themselves. In Tamou, a village near the border between Niger and Burkina Faso, local police said JNIM had received over 80 motorbikes in the course of several deliveries by a network of local youths, during a two-month period in 2022.  

Supply networks

These figures are only snapshots. However, if similar patterns hold true for JNIM units around the region, then the group is purchasing hundreds of new motorbikes every month. Prices, even of trafficked motorbikes, vary widely depending on seasonality, availability, the seller’s price and the model of the bike. However, the range between a heavy motorbike of the type favoured by JNIM is between $640 and $1,070. 

Estimating their total annual expenditure on motorbikes is impossible, but any guess at what this figure might be makes clear just how vital motorbikes have become to Sahelian armed groups. There is good reason to think they are equally important to other West African insurgencies, and that similar trafficking networks may be behind those groups’ supplies.  

Regrettably, countering trafficking rarely has easy solutions, especially when the goods being trafficked are as important to stability as they are to instability. For as long as reliable public transport and good quality roads are lacking for many civilians, motorbikes will be essential to daily life. Depriving civilians of this essential item is deeply damaging to local economies, and counter-productive to counter-insurgency.

Bans on sales, imports and circulation of motorbikes are blunt instruments, which have likely benefitted trafficking networks while damaging licit suppliers and civilian livelihoods. Greater efforts to stop trafficking at the points of diversion, particularly at regional ports, and clamping down on corruption at border crossings, would be a step in the right direction.

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