Big hurdles await West African anti-crime initiative

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 sizeable hurdles.

The scheme – which aims to set up a cybernet where national police forces will 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.

Known as WAPIS – the West Africa Police Information System – the EU-funded scheme has been in gestation for several years and will ultimately be hooked up to Interpol’s global criminal databases.

It will be “crucial to effectively combating transnational organised crime and terrorism”, according to the international police agency.

Interpol’s secretary general, Juergen Stock, said that smuggling in drugs, weapons, human beings, fake drugs and even human organs was rife in West Africa.

He put regional criminal turnover at “more than $3 billion (2.58 billion euros) annually,” added to which is maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, estimated to have cost coastal states around $800 million last year.

The WAPIS scheme was officially 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 this vast, complex and varied region.

Defenders of WAPIS say the scheme will 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,” predicted Ivorian Interior Minister Sidiki Diakite.

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