Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Challenging Organised Crime: the Quasi-Illegality of Migration in Nigeria

On the 13th of February, the Southernising Criminology Discussion Group in the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology hosted Dr. Corentin Cohen, Prof. Philippe Frowd, Dr. Ini Dele-Adedeji, Dr. Elodie Apard, and Dr. Precious Diagboya for the launch of the special issue of Trends in Organized Crime: Rethinking Organized Crime in Africa. The research in this Special Issue has been an almost decade-long journey and centres on the understudied Nigerian region and the importance of localised insights that challenge the taken-for-grantedness of a Western-centric conception of Organized Crime.


Sophia Kjeldbjerg


Time to read

6 Minutes

A southernising criminology approach decentres the dominance of Western methodological and epistemological perspectives and theories. In the Special Issue, Nigeria is re-centred as the generator of meanings and understandings relating to migration flows. This challenges the justification of Western borders’ securitisation through a ‘migration crisis’ lens. While policymakers from the West intertwine migration flows from Nigeria with human trafficking, legitimising the punitive securitisation of borders, the Special Issue challenges this uni-linear epistemological policy discourse by centring the history of the Nigerian economy as migration-dominated and drawing on insights by local actors. The authors are critical of issues that are criminalised and turned into transnational security issues, rather than viewed through the lenses of, for example, public health and development. The Special Issue guides readers through analyses that nuance policies countering organised crime as potentially causing more harm than good. The authors draw on the concept of quasi-illegality to capture the ambiguity of what is considered criminal and not, and by whom, in Nigeria, to achieve this. 

Dr. Cohen is concerned about the processes inherent to how we know what we know, evident in policymaking. In Europe, there is an image of Nigerian co-fraternities as profoundly illegal. France views them through the lens of human trafficking and prostitution, Italy views them as organized crime, the Netherlands as drug trafficking, and the United States as primarily engaging in online scams and fraud. These mixed perspectives first raise the point that so-called knowledge about co-fraternities is not objective, that is, taken from neutral, so-called scientific data, but serves the political goals of policymakers in a given context, at a given time. Cohen highlights that co-fraternities originated as university student societies in Nigeria in the 1960s and were politicized by military regimes to police universities, control dissent, and connect the elites with the streets. Prompted by the so-called 2015 migration crisis, European police institutions have rediscovered and made co-fraternities visible by falsely linking them with changing illegal migration flows. This linkage is often described with racist undertones, in a process that alludes to border securitisation against racialised ‘others’. The Italian police, with the help of sensationalised media coverage, depict co-fraternities as the Nigerian mafia taking over Europe in a profoundly far-right xenophobic discourse that depicts all Nigerian immigrants as members of these gangs.

Cohen’s research highlights the feedback loop of circular knowledge, whereby most reports come from police reports tainted by racist undertones. Co-fraternities are reduced to the mafia to link them to illegal migration and justify European border securitisation processes. This positions Nigerian migrants as threats as a whole rather than considering individualised contexts. The knowledge is reinforced in policymaking and invisibilises research pointing out the flaws in this discourse. Policymakers in this area have not considered academic knowledge production specifically relating to co-fraternities as crucial to their consideration of organised crime, despite the relevance. Policymaking institutions draw on sources like police reports, investigations, and existing policies, and do not take the necessary distance to deal with the data from these reports in a critical manner. Cohen reiterates the importance of detaching oneself from one's position as a researcher and critiques the lack of reflexivity in the policymaking institutions that oversee localised differences and subsume them into a generalised whole.

Dr Precious Diagboya draws on 80 interviews over five years to show that human trafficking is not considered to be a crime by many locals in Agadez, Nigeria, but a normal economic human activity. Agadez is a popular migrant centre in Nigeria with a high rate of human trafficking for sexual exploitation as defined by foreign agencies and NGOs who view human trafficking as an illicit activity. Depending on who she was interviewing, using the words human trafficking and organised crime could be unproductive, as migration was not understood through these concepts. Further, her positionality as both an insider and outsider in interviews meant that she could access data as an insider to the anti-trafficking sector and easily apply for permission. However, when interviewing traffickers and travel agents she was an outsider, and it was hard to get much information from them when framing human trafficking as a criminal issue. It was a human activity that people embarked on to survive and reap success. Those interviewed on sex work implicated in migration challenged the idea that sex work was illicit, likening it to normal work, and opposed its criminalisation. Dr Diagboya conducted interviews with law enforcement actors, the judiciary, rehabilitation officers, travel agents, victims of human trafficking and their family members, and migrants. Local actors who were involved in migration and their families did not talk of the exploitation and violence that some people go through during migration but spoke of the result of eventually earning money and appearing successful in society. Interacting with local actors who did not perceive human trafficking as illicit did not challenge Dr Diagboya morally because of her position as an insider, and the understanding that the activity stems from pressure for survival. Indeed, Dr Diagboya draws on strain theory to show that people embark on activities defined as illicit by authorities to make a living and find social success, through processes of strain, contextualised in individual circumstances. Authorities define what is moral and immoral, and in the case of the criminalization of migration flows from Nigeria to Europe, overlook the history of Nigeria as a migration economy.

Indeed, Dr Elodie Apard nuances policymakers’ narrow conceptualization of Agadez as a human trafficking centre. Authorities’ discourses on migration in Nigeria create confusion between legal migration, the circulation of people, illegal migration, and transnational criminality, lumping different processes into one to create a singular object of border control. Nigeria has been a crossroads of trade routes for centuries, and the economy of migration circulation is a major source of income. However, European Union (EU) financial support is also vital to Nigeria’s economy but is conditional upon Nigerian authorities’ commitment to limiting migration flows towards the EU, especially since the collapse of Libya, and the so-called migrant crisis. Due to the increase in migration controls through the Sahara, people migrating and their transporters employ avoidance strategies that take them through more risky, dangerous journeys. Many NGOs mobilize the humanitarian argument of preventing people from dying in the desert, as part of campaigns against illegal migration. This is also central to the Nigerian state’s discourse of migration and forms the basis of coercive measures against migration. For example, the 2015 law provides a 5 to 10-year custodial sentence to any person providing transportation for migration. The criminalisation of transportation, an activity that has been rooted in centuries of Nigeria’s history, and economic operators, has had disastrous consequences for local economies, particularly in the northern region. A problem with this law is its preventive aspect, so transporters are arrested on Nigerian territory on suspicion of illegal migration facilitation rather than acts, so before they have crossed a border and thus committed a crime. The law does not distinguish between irregular migration and actual human trafficking and encompasses those involved in a single, unhelpful category, with devastating consequences for many livelihoods.

Dr Ini Dele-Adedeji’s fieldwork describes the troubled situation of transporters in Nigeria who are stuck between legality and illegality. In an observatory analysis of commercial sectors, Dele-Adedeji shows that the illegal status of migration does not resonate with locals, who have benefited (in)directly from the trans-Saharan transportation economy and experience the law as an infringement on their economic livelihoods. This transportation continues, but due to its illegality, occurs under risky conditions created by law enforcement, and the use of less chartered desert routes by transporters to avoid detection. This transportation is legally prohibited by the Nigerian state, but morally, socially, and economically resonates with the wider public in Agadez. This quasi-legality highlights the liminal stages between the legal and illegal. Official reports by the Nigerian state and other government-affiliated bodies state a reduction in migration from North Nigeria, but the figures do not reflect the reality on the ground. This points to a need to not take the data used to justify migration policies for granted and harks back to Dr Cohen’s point on the unhelpful circular knowledge production in policymaking.

To conclude, this Special Issue evaluates the concept of organised crime as migration flows within and around Nigeria to question the assumption of illegality in a historical economic activity, used to justify border securitisation. The framing of an issue as legal or illegal depends on whose conception dominates a given discourse. Localised research is crucial, as policymaking that is distant from the lives it seeks to regulate can have adverse consequences. The methodologies and theories involved in southernising criminology importantly de-centres policy discourses that narrowly consider organised crime through a Western legal lens, without localised knowledge. This creates a circular feedback loop that reifies a narrow conception of human trafficking. This Special Issue seeks to challenge this circular knowledge process by re-centring important, localised narratives. It does not presume a moral stance about locals’ understandings of the activity framed by policymakers as human trafficking, but rather gives due space for these understandings to challenge the uni-linear flow of information coming primarily from the West and state elites in conceptions of organised crime. 

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Kjeldbjerg. (2024) Challenging Organised Crime: the Quasi-Illegality of Migration in Nigeria. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2024/03/challenging-organised-crime-quasi-illegality-migration. Accessed on: 13/04/2024