The Anthropology of Transnational Crime Control in Africa: The War on Drugs and the Fight against Human Trafficking


The aim of this anthropological project, which is closely connected to the SPP-project "The Fight against Counterfeit Medication" (Julia Hornberger), is to explore how the making of order and disorder is reconfigured in sub-Saharan Africa under the influence of newly emerging regimes of transnational crime control in Sierra Leone and South Africa, namely the war on drugs and the combat against human trafficking. Building on the findings of phase I of the project (02/2011-02/2013), the objective of phase II is to (a) substantially broaden the empirical foci of the case studies and (b) develop an encompassing conceptual framework that helps us asking more specific comparative questions with regard to how technologies of crime control translate across different (local, regional, international) security contexts. This conceptual framework distinguishes between two modes of security: ‘security of flows' and ‘security of closure'. In particular, it examines by means of multi-sited ethnographic methodologies how efforts to secure the flow of goods, ideas and people articulate with security efforts aiming at the blockage of such flows. Under the security paradigm, we argue, ‘crime' has become a constitutive social and political category, and sub-Saharan Africa has become a kind of laboratory for the unfolding of new security regimes. Thus, by comparing a West African country and South Africa, and by comparing two different (yet interrelated) fields of crime control, this project seeks to make a contribution to the objectives of the Priority Programme by asking how technologies of crime control translate across different contexts, and how creative interferences with these technologies by a range a variety of state and non-state actors produce new forms of vernacularized security in Africa.

            The sub-project "The War on Drugs in Sierra Leone" (Michael Bürge) examines how technologies of drug control are translated into and adapted in a context characterized by the existence of diverse interests that partly contest, partly overlap and in part reinforce each other. International law enforcement agencies see Sierra Leone as a nodal point in global flows of cocaine from Southern America to Europe, threatening regional stability and global health and security issues. As a consequence, it is attempted-in some degree in cooperation with local crime control agencies-to curb the flows of cocaine and other threatening substances. However, these attempts are challenged by lacking infrastructure and a shortage of professional manpower on the side of national law enforcement agencies as well as a lack of interest by the national government which instead prioritizes the acceleration of flows of commodities and capital through the country. Thus, taken together, this study explores how national law enforcement officers adapt technologies of crime control in their daily work while they are exposed to and have to relate to contradicting policies and interests - as well as to those controlling flows of drugs challenging the law.

             The sub-project "The Fight against Human Trafficking in South Africa" (Anna Hüncke) explores which technologies and systems of signification are applied in anti-human trafficking with a focus on the South African-Zimbabwean border area. By depicting illicit and forced migration practices as an issue of international humanitarian concern and by attributing an international urgency to the securitization of the South African border region, anti-human trafficking has become part of agendas of national stability and transnational crime control. The study is particularly mindful to the ways anti-human trafficking campaigns and actions in South Africa are linked to discourses of sex work and sexuality. On the backdrop that the proposed legislation on human trafficking has long been pending in parliament, that empirical evidence of cases is scanty and that South African law enforcement officials are put under pressure to detect the crime, the case study seeks to analyze ways in which migrants' self-presentations and law enforcement officials' and other stakeholders' (changing) perceptions of migrants interact with each other and are influenced by the discourse of human trafficking.

Starting date:

February 2011 (PhD project 1: March 2011, PhD project 2: July 2011) 

Research areas: 

Project ‘The War on Drugs’: Sierra Leone
Project ‘Human Trafficking’: South Africa


See interactive map