Migration of the Nigerian mafia

16 May 2017 | Carla Bernardo. Image by Pascal Parent via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Until recently, Hillbrow in Johannesburg was the stronghold for Nigerian criminal syndicates in South Africa.
Until recently, Hillbrow in Johannesburg was the stronghold for Nigerian criminal syndicates in South Africa.

Since the 1980s, Nigerian organised crime has migrated around the world. They established strong roots in Italy and, from the 1990s, in parts of South Africa. Valentina Pancieri, postgraduate researcher and police officer on sabbatical, is investigating the motivations for migration of Nigerian organised crime into these two nations.

Throughout history, there have been factors that force or motivate criminal organisations to move. These range from new opportunities and competition to the threat of law enforcement.

The birth and initial migration of Nigerian organised crime are closely linked to three historical events, says Pancieri, who is in her second year of PhD research in the Institute for Safety Governance and Criminology.

The first is the discovery of oil in the 1950s that resulted in a surge of wealth and accompanying corruption. The second is the economic depression in the 1980s and the third, widespread corruption. These three events meant many skilled Nigerians migrated in search of employment opportunities.

As legal operations moved along with ordinary immigrants, so organised crime moved with its role-players.

“It is very important to note that not all Nigerian immigrants are involved in crime,” says Pancieri. “Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa so it has a greater chance of having a higher number of people involved in criminal activities.”

Those Nigerian criminals were quick to learn from their counterparts in the host nation, modernising operations and building on existing networks.

Many unemployed graduates with good IT skills took advantage of the information boom in the 1990s, and became leading players in cybercrime as the notorious ‘419ers’.

So began Nigerian transnational crime.

From organised crime to Italian mafiosi

In Italy, Nigerian criminal groups are allegedly establishing successful partnerships with native mafia families. They are thought to be adopting the structure and operational methods of the families, using intimidation to run their businesses and seeking to govern both legal and illicit enterprises through criminal protection.

Nigerian criminal groups have been so successful in mimicking the notorious families that Italian police started addressing them as ‘mafia’.

Pancieri agrees with her native police force, saying that they tick many of the boxes for organised crime: an active structure, sustained international partnerships and a well-planned criminal strategy.

The move to South Africa

Another country in which Nigerian mafia became established was South Africa.

“Crime moves when there are push and pull factors in place,” says Pancieri.

In addition to the ‘forced migration’ of Nigerian political and economic instability, Pancieri lists new or booming markets and a demand for mafia services as motivations to move.

The arrival of a large number of Nigerian immigrants to South Africa began in the mid-1990s as the country was undergoing its transition from apartheid to democracy. With their home country in turmoil, South Africa proved easy to enter due to Nigeria’s contribution to the liberation struggle.

New markets and a demand for mafia services

In Italy, the families had satisfied the demand for many illegal services, but Nigerian organised crime established themselves through the demand for Nigerian prostitutes. In South Africa, Nigerian syndicates first established themselves in Johannesburg in the late 1990s. As a virgin territory for organised crime, it was well suited to establish a new criminal venture, bringing in cocaine and crack.

In that period, nightclubs started hiring Nigerian bouncers as security, replacing white ones who were more prone to violence and attracted unwanted police attention. This acted as a marketing asset for the Nigerians involved in drugs, who could enlarge their market through selling in clubs.

While Nigerians never controlled the security industry, through their established South American contacts, they began importing cocaine, which is not produced in South Africa and for which local criminals had very few contacts.

Nigerians soon established themselves as controllers of the cocaine and crack supply chain.

To this day, cocaine is still not available in large quantities on the South African market and Johannesburg remains the headquarters for Nigerian illicit activities in South Africa.

Friends and family

In addition to markets and demands, “ethnic ties are very important to the way crime moves”, says Pancieri.

According to her research, Nigerian mafia will, prior to establishing themselves in the host country, seek out and join those with a shared background.

“You want to do business – legal and illegal – with people from your culture and language,” she says.


The presence of established criminal organisations serves as a deterrent for Nigerian mafia. In Cape Town, gangs control the Cape Flats, feeding its supply of cheaper, more addictive drugs –predominantly to impoverished communities.

“You won’t find Nigerian syndicates selling drugs on the Cape Flats,” says Pancieri. “Nigerian criminals do not appear to want to fight.”

How to curb Nigerian mafia
Instead, when they first arrived in Cape Town, Nigerians set up shops in the affluent and relatively gang-free Sea Point to expand their business into the drug trade and sex trafficking.

But they did not stay there. Through collaboration between police, law enforcement and the local neighbourhood watch, Nigerian syndicates were pushed out of Sea Point, forcing them to find a new stronghold in the city’s northern suburbs.

The Sea Point case demonstrated South African police’s ability to break organised crime.

“But it is not an easy structure to eradicate,” says Pancieri. “You need to be trained, equipped and conducting wiretapping investigations. You need to be monitoring people.”

Pancieri, who is a police officer herself, stresses the need for dedication and patience. “You need to understand who does what, how they enter the country and what motivates them to come,” she says.

Pancieri hopes that the understanding that results from her research will strengthen transnational police operations in their fight against Nigerian crime, and enable judiciary systems and social support agencies in their work with criminals, criminal networks and victims.

“Until something related to police intelligence work is done, Nigerian criminal syndicates will always be successful,” she says.

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