Sometimes, to understand Africa, you need to study what its thieves steal the most

Elections aren’t the only things stolen in Africa. Data shows that the favourite item with thieves across several countries is the mobile phone.

Well before the train, car or aeroplane, and modern warfare with its missiles and drones, a wise man said you could never know a man (and woman, we might add) until you either trekked on a long journey with him, fought against him, or fought alongside him.

The same thing could be said of nations; the way a country makes war, how it wins or loses them and how it treats prisoners of war, reveals a lot about its character. 

Likewise how it travels. Thus the absence of an efficient mass transport system, and chaotic minivan travel in most of Africa, perhaps reveals most about how shambolic most national, city, and local governments really are – compared to Japan or Singapore, for example.

These days, to gauge national attitudes and dreams, we rely mostly on opinion polls, market surveys, and tracking lifestyle trends.

However, there might be much better data that says more about different African countries – crime. What people steal, and here we are not talking about elections or grand corruption because that is often driven by greed and politics, gives you a glimpse into what life people aspire to; what they need so desperately they are willing to risk their lives for it; what they covet; what the demand is in the underground market where these items are sold (which in turns reveals a great deal about the demand in the overground legal market); and what the people who are robbed value. 

For example, figures show that in Africa people value jewellery more than we imagine. However, just how much precious jewellery people have in their homes only becomes apparent after a robbery.

People will steal items they need, items that can be easily sold and those that are easy to steal. Here are some of the most popular with thieves in Africa: 

Mobile phones top the list
Like many other parts of the world, data shows that one of the most stolen items across several African countries is the mobile phone.

In the case of Nigeria, for example, the 2012 Crime Victimisation and Safety Survey – which surveyed 11, 518 respondents, nearly half (47%) of them indicated they had been relieved of their mobile phone. 

The theft of mobile phones has remained the number one crime committed in Nigeria in the past two years. Of these Android and Nokia phones were the most popular targets of thieves. Mobile phones have the perfect profile for “stealable” objects – they are easy to carry, and sell on quickly for a good price.

That it remains top of the list of stolen items suggests that Africans are hungry to be connected, but the cost of a good handset is still unaffordable for many. As a “connectedness index”, the theft of mobile phones reveals that the African is every inch a global citizen. 

Handbags and wallets
Rivalling mobile phones closely, are handbags and wallets. Thus in South Africa, official crime statistics for 2012/2013 showed that street or public robberies where mostly handbags or wallets were snatched stood at 60,262 incidents. That is 166 cases every day.

Handbag and wallet thefts are about the cash the thieves expect to find there. African cities and countries are growing more unequal, expensive, and jobless, so handbag and wallet thefts are a crude measure of deprivation. But economists and security officials have also noted that the rising number of young people in urban areas too is driving the increase in  street level crimes. So the youth bulge partly expresses itself in the number of wallets and handbags stolen.

Cars and crime syndicates
Cars are among the most valuable items stolen. Because they are hard to steal (as most will have some form of security feature in them), are hard to  hide, and not easy to sell, car thefts tell a different story from snatched wallets —they speak to the existence of organised crime networks.

Big cities and economies on the continent like Lagos and Nairobi, have comparatively high car theft/jacking rates. However South Africa, the country with the most cars on the continent, takes the biscuit here – if only because it has some of the best  official crime statistics to work with. In 2012/2013 it had 9,990 car thefts, i.e. 28 motor vehicles a day on average in 2012/2013. Most of these cases were the work of organised crime syndicates. In East, southern and West Africa, many stolen are sold across borders, which is why a lone wolf cannot run this operation.

So despite the sloppiness you might see around, Africa has world-class organisation—just that it is its criminal syndicates, not governments or companies, that are highly organised. 

Cattle and the peasant
Most Africans, though, don’t live in cities yet. They live in the countryside and villages, and their economies are often different from the ones in the cities, so are their crime habits. They will not steal a mobile phone, because it is not hot enough.

The peasants and other folks upcountry, in keeping with their agrarian character, steal a lot of cattle. Some of these cattle (and goats and sheep) still end up in neighbouring countries and far away markets in the Middle East, yes, but it is what they  can steal in the countryside that they can sell quickly and for very good money.

Thus in Uganda, according to Uganda Bureau of Statistics information, there were 3,575 reported cases of cattle theft two years go. And prosecution rates here surpass the ones for city crimes - 3,099 of these were prosecuted.  
In Tanzania, according to admittedly old data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in 2007, 15.8% of reported crimes were cattle theft – this came third only to corruption and consumer fraud. UNODC also reported that in Ghana in 2008, 18% of reported crimes were cattle theft. Cattle theft speaks to us about the resilience and dynamics of agrarian Africa.

Telephone and electricity cables
The most complex and expensive theft that involves both individuals and organised crime gangs, is of electricity and telephone cables. In countries like Kenya and South Africa, cable theft is reaching epidemic proportions.

In Kenya their vandalism has handed the communications industry a body blow, leading to losses amounting to approximately $5.6 million a year. A single incident in 2008 saw monopoly Kenya Power lose nearly $420,000 in electricity cable theft.

South Africa is equally plagued. According to the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) Copper Theft Barometer, State-owned transporter Transnet, as well as parastatals like power company Eskom and Telkom, lose between $2.8 million and $3.7million a month to copper cable theft.

Some of the cables are re-exported, and others sold to medium size smelters. The handicraft sector, and sections of the  beauty industry – makers of necklaces and bracelets – get quite a bit of laundered wire from the vandals’ booty.

Wire and cable theft are a pointer to the level of activity in what Kenyans call “jua kali” industry, the artisanal sector, and also the creative arts – those cool ethnic earrings and bracelets so popular with tourists and expatriates, and which sell for top dollar in exotic boutiques in cities like New York and London.

He might not be a hero, but if you want to understand Africa, sometimes you have to follow its villain, the thief.


Research by Samantha Spooner. Twitter:@samooner


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