Small Wars Journal

SWJ Memo: Diaspora Vulnerability in Italy and Nigerian Organized Crime

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 8:22am

SWJ Memo: Diaspora Vulnerability in Italy and Nigerian Organized Crime  

Sammie Wicks

Talking Points

  • Nigerian Organized Crime groups have established themselves in diaspora communities outside of Africa 
  • Insecurity in North African countries such as Libya have facilitated illicit activity from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe
  • Native-organized crime groups and Nigerian criminal organizations have established illegal partnerships


This memo describes how Nigerian Organized Crime affects both host nations and Nigerian diaspora communities as it specifically relates to Italy. Further, this memo argues that Nigerian organized crime has entrenched itself in Italy and persists as a significant threat to Nigerian diaspora communities in Italy. This sophisticated threat is made even more challenging because of the way that Nigerian organized crime organizations interact with the community, preying on Nigerian immigrants in Italy while using this same vulnerable population as a protection from law enforcement.

These gangs engage in a myriad of illicit activities. Nigerian organized crime groups in Italy have been reported to participate in narcotics distribution and human trafficking, specifically, forced prostitution. These gangs will continue to grow in influence and power and see an increase in profits if Libyan National Army General Khalif Haftar's offensive in Tripoli devolves into a full-fledged civil war. A worsening of the security and political landscape in Libya would directly impact Europe’s ability to stem the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa while increasing regional insecurity in the Maghreb and Sahel.


Nigerian organized crime groups have established a powerful presence in Italy. The most significant area of operation for these organizations is in Palermo, Sicily[i]. Italian law enforcement officials believe that Nigerian groups have entered into partnerships with the Cosa Nostra, where Nigerian groups are subordinate to Italian organized crime. During a highly publicized trial in Palermo against 14 Nigerian defendants, Italian prosecutor Gaspare Spedale described the defendants as belonging to a mafia-type organization[ii]. The 14 defendants in this case were alleged members of the Black Axe Gang, a transnational criminal organization that originated in Nigeria. Created in the 1970s as a Nigerian student fraternity at the University of Benin City[iii], this group has a vertical organizational structure and operates under strict rules. The skull and crossbones are embraced as unique symbols of imposed dominance, and specific religious rites have also been associated with the group.

Many of the areas where the group operates have seen demographic changes because of immigration. These population changes have provided the group with a recruitment base and cover within the population and have also provided the group and similar Nigerian criminal organizations with vulnerable victims who may be intimidated into noncooperation with local police.

Some of this activity has been curbed because of Italy’s as well as other European countries’ support of the Libyan Coast Guard and the success of the force in stemming the flow of migrants crossing into Europe transiting Libya[iv].

Economic and Social Impact 

Italian police data suggest that 90% of the prostitutes in Palermo are of Nigerian descent[v]. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 80% of Nigerian women arriving in Italy are potential human trafficking victims[vi]. Many of these women come from Edo state in the South of Nigeria and are lured to Italy with the prospect of employment[vii]. As the birthplace of Black Axe, Benin City is the capital of the same state that many of these women call home. Black Axe has been accused of engaging in sex trafficking, prostituting this same group of vulnerable Nigerian women.

Black Axe engages in these activities with the blessing of the Cosa Nostra, whose presence in Palermo has decreased because of a successful anti-mafia campaign in the city. Italian organized crime's presence has decreased in the town; however, it has not been to the extent that Nigerians can act with autonomy. Italian police report that Black Axe and other groups pay a tax (pizzo) to the Sicilian Mafia. Further constraints have also been placed on Nigerian Organized Crime by Sicilian organizations. It is reported that Sicilian organizations prohibit Nigerians from owning guns, allowing them another level of control. However, this restriction does not keep Nigerian groups from engaging in violence.

Instead of using firearms, Nigerian crime organizations use edged weapons such as axes and machetes, which have been used against members of the community who have refused to bend to the will of the organization.


The Italian government should adopt a comprehensive response to combatting Nigerian organized crime in Italy that uses national and local tools. The approach should broadly operate under the four Ps frequently associated with countering human trafficking: prevention, prosecution, protection, and partnerships. 

Within prosecution, Italian police should continue to use legal frameworks created to counter the Italian Mafia as a strategy in order to combat Nigerian organized crime. The Italian government should also continue to support efforts to stem the flow of migrants from Nigeria. This can be accomplished by continuing to provide vessels for the Libyan Coast Guard. However, more attention should be given to the conditions that migrants are held in after being detained at sea and transported to Libyan facilities. This line of effort would crosscut prevention and partnerships as deterrents.

The Italian government must also strengthen its relationship with their Nigerian counterparts especially in the south of the country.  This relationship could come in the form of capacity-building and formalized intelligence-sharing. Furthermore, nongovernmental groups and civil society organizations should be provided with support in performing outreach in African immigrant populations in Italy. Currently, many of these groups are overwhelmed and do not have the capacity to engage with the sheer volume of vulnerable immigrants entering the country. If such an effort is pursued in concert with job creation for migrants, it may help reduce vulnerability and susceptibility to sex trafficking while providing alternate income sources. Supporting these groups and their work provides protection through public-private partnership-building.


Nadeau, B. L. (2018, February 01). 'Migrants are more profitable than drugs': How the mafia infiltrated Italy's asylum system. Retrieved from

Africa Center for Strategic Studies. (n.d.). The Illicit Superhighway: Transnational Organized Crime in Africa – Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Retrieved from

Publications | Content Types. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Pike, J. (n.d.). Military. Retrieved from

Tondo, L. (2016, June 11). Mafia at a crossroads as Nigerian gangsters hit Sicily's shores. Retrieved from

Admin2. (n.d.). Fourteen members of Nigerian Mafia "Black Axe" condemned in Palermo. Retrieved from

The Latest: Italy to provide vessels to Libyan coast guard. (2018, August 07). Retrieved from

No Escape from Hell | EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya. (2019, March 11). Retrieved from

The Human Conveyor Belt Broken. (2019, April 23). Retrieved from

End Notes

[i] Tondo, L. (2016, June 11). Mafia at a crossroads as Nigerian gangsters hit Sicily's shores. Retrieved from

[ii] Admin2. (n.d.). Fourteen members of Nigerian Mafia "Black Axe" condemned in Palermo. Retrieved from

[iii] Ibid

[iv] The Latest: Italy to provide vessels to the Libyan coast guard. (2018, August 07). Retrieved from

[v] Tondo, L. (2016, June 11). Mafia at a crossroads as Nigerian gangsters hit Sicily's shores. Retrieved from

[vi] Black Axe. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[vii] Ibid

Categories: Nigeria - Italy - organized crime

About the Author(s)

Sammie Wicks is a Crisis Response Officer and Emergency Response Team Coordinator who specializes in human trafficking, terrorism, and transnational organized crime.



Fri, 06/09/2023 - 6:06am

I heard that Italian goverment legalized gambling because all of that crimes. And now they are compared to the US legalization. See it here

Frediana Costa

Thu, 07/28/2022 - 4:10am

Articolo fantastico finora. Mi sono davvero divertito. Hai qualche interesse per casion? Vorrei aggiornarvi su questo caso italiano clicca qui per maggiori informazioni. In realtà, questo tipo di giochi da casinò rimuoverà lo stress e rinfrescerà la tua mente. Le persone che sono sole e non portano nessuno a spettegolare per loro questo tipo di giochi sono altamente raccomandate.


Fri, 09/24/2021 - 9:53am

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