Pathways out of Crime

Learning lessons from British policing to counter the drivers and enablers of serious and organised crime in Africa

How is a Liverpool game considered a work trip? When it’s about innovative and exciting ways of tackling organised crime among vulnerable children and young adults.

The Premier League, alongside thousands of other national and local sporting and social organisations, are critical providers of support, care and mentorship to vulnerable and disadvantaged people in their communities. From teaching toothbrushing to offering internships, England’s leading football teams sponsor hundreds of projects to protect and improve the lives of the most vulnerable – often people that conventional government services struggle to reach.

Part of this work focuses on protecting vulnerable people from being drawn into Serious and Organised Crime (SOC).

Traditionally, policing in the UK has focussed, understandably, on the criminal end of the spectrum: investigating, arresting and prosecuting criminals to enforce the law. But even where this has led to successful conviction of high-level gang leaders, new criminals have quickly stepped in to take their place. In recent years, cutting edge work by major constabularies has increasingly focused on why young people embark on the criminal pathway in the first place, and on how to starve organised gangs of fuel for their recruiting pipelines.

Academic studies have identified some key factors that correlate with future serious criminality. If you witness domestic violence, fall victim to sexual abuse, fail to attend or drop out of school, suffer mental illness – alongside a host of other early-life experiences – you are more likely to become vulnerable to recruitment into serious crime. So UK police forces and their partner social welfare agencies have begun to proactively support the people most at risk, building their resilience to grooming and coercion by organised criminal gangs and cutting their criminal journeys off before it is too late.

One of the first constabularies to pioneer this approach, Merseyside Police have seen startling success in reducing long-term violent crime and rebuilding cohesive communities – success which has seen the force ranked ‘outstanding’ in the latest PEEL Assessment for their disruption and prevention of organised criminality. Based on concrete evidence that it works, this approach and similar methods are now being adopted and rolled out by multiple partner police forces nationwide.

So approaches which aim to pre-empt vulnerable young people’s descent into serious criminality, and divert them before they get there, are being proved effective in the UK. But can they be applied in other overseas contexts?

TAG International has been working in partnership with Liverpool Football Club Foundation in Nigeria, supported by Home Office funding, to take lessons from Merseyside to Lagos, from Anfield to Zamfara. At the heart of the Foundation’s work is the idea that criminals aren’t born but are a product of their environments. Organised criminal groups actively target, groom and recruit young people, pulling them along a journey from antisocial behaviour to higher and higher levels of offending. As their criminal activity stigmatises them and isolates them from their communities, the gangs move in to provide an alternative sense of belonging, forcing them further and further on their crime journey.

Of course like all ‘global best practice’, this can never be about a ‘cut and paste’ transfer of approaches and methods from one context to another. The challenge is to adapt what works in the UK to contexts which are very different in scale, criminal typography, economic inclusivity and community structure.

Nigeria, a vast country of more than 200 million people (though in reality nobody knows precisely how many) is beset by an array of criminality which the UK has never experienced. Armed tribal groups and bandits in the North profit from lucrative illicit cross-border trade routes. ISIS cells close to the calm capital of Abuja threaten mass casualty attacks. Pirates and fuel-theft syndicates in the southern delta siphon off legitimate oil into the illicit market. In Lagos the cybercrime market is booming. A pervasive culture of ‘cultism’ – loosely recognisable as organised gangsterism but with a spiritual spin – has put down deep roots in Nigeria’s social and political institutions. Communities with little or no trust in the police routinely go to war against one another and government authorities in a rolling series of micro-conflicts which organised criminal groups easily exploit to circumvent provincial jurisdictions and operate at scale.

This is the context into which TAG and its Merseyside Police partners have been working to introduce preventative approaches to policing and to divert young people to alternative, more positive life pathways.

A year in and our programme is still learning, still piloting and testing, and still building a footprint in some of the most challenging states of this vast federation. At its centre is a network of Crime Prevent Partnerships, community led organisations made up of local leaders, government officials and police officers at the regional and district level. These partnerships are deploying a set of bespoke analysis, research and planning tools to unpack the social and crime profiles of the worst criminal hot-spots, identify vulnerable groups and individuals, and design bespoke interventions to build their resilience and offer them a legitimate alternative to a deepening cycle of exploitation, crime, prison and – tragically often – violent death.

Our interventions cover sports, gaming, hair and make-up, vocational training, mentoring and counselling, back-to-school programmes, cyber tournaments and internships. Each intervention is bespoke to, and designed specifically to address, the drivers and enablers of serious criminality in each location. But they all have a common purpose: to build connection and trust. Each element of this work aims to strengthen resilience across TAG’s five Vulnerability and Resilience Pillars. Our hypothesis is that those with stronger social support networks, a greater sense of opportunity, the thinking skills to critically appraise the criminal ‘offer’, enhanced self-confidence, and healthier perceptions of masculinity, at-risk young people will become more able to resist the lures and coercions of criminal groups.

To quote a Nigerian teacher friend of mine, “before correction must come connection”.

It is communities themselves, not western development organisations, national government police forces or social support agencies, that must lead the vital work to build – and rebuild –connection between communities and those who have fallen between the cracks. The Crime Prevention Partnership are not necessarily police-led, chaired by a variety of community representatives as chosen by the committee, including tribal, religious and community leaders as well as Provisional Government or Police representatives. Engagement with vulnerable youth is through trusted community groups, and money is democratically and fairly distributed to those who need it most.

In other words, the success of the programme to date lies in its lack of visibility.

The Nigerian Police Force, the British Government and TAG international fade into the background behind a collective of trusted, legitimate and networked local partners. Coordinated and amplified under the Brighter Futures brand, it is our aspiration that our visibility continues to diminish as others step up to the challenge. Nigerian private sector champions, with a vested interest in stable, crime-free communities, are already beginning to fund interventions, while state-level steering groups are looking at new locations to expand into. The Nigerian Police Academy are adding our training materials to their core curriculum to embed preventative approaches in the national operating philosophy for fighting crime.

For TAG, success is obsolescence, and we are immensely encouraged by the pace at which Nigerian partners are taking up the mantle and we are becoming surplus to requirements. We are under no are under no illusion that there are any short-term fixes for the problem of organised criminality in Nigeria. As in the UK and elsewhere, it is a multi-generational one. But we and our Merseyside Police partners are proud that we are beginning to see the that UK counter-crime models are planting the new seeds in the places which need them most.