In the next three posts, I want to set up a few important questions about the illicit antiquities trade in Nigeria. First, I want to consider some of the problems with the rules of thumb for estimating the scale of illicit business (in general); then, I want to review some evidence for the structure of the illicit oil trade in Nigeria; finally, I want to review some evidence for the structure of the illicit antiquities trade in Nigeria, and ask if the interpretation fits the evidence… Then I really need to finish writing a proposal…
The real value of invisible business
Naturally, it’s very difficult to estimate and compare clandestine economies. It doesn’t help that “estimates” are often actually guesstimates, reckonings, that apply one rule of thumb to everything everywhere. And it certainly doesn’t help that there are actually two rules of thumb that are used independently of each other, applied to whichever bit of information the person has to hand: (1) the illicit economy is ten (to twenty) per cent of the licit economy; and/or (2) the illicit goods intercepted are ten per cent of the total trafficked.
The illicit art and antiquities trade is variously valued as the third-, fourth-, maybe not third- or fourth-, or maybe fifth-largest black market. I suspect, I reckon, that at least (illicit) drug smuggling, human trafficking, the sex trade (which is sometimes counted as an element of human trafficking), gun running and oil bunkering are larger illegal commodity trades (though unrest and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa have enabled and caused a spike in the illicit antiquities trade).(fn1)
But a lot of the discussion appears to be at least as much about competition to be experts on the (third-)largest trade as it is about scientific analysis and effective policy. Although that’s understandable and (partially) excusable as a response to the competition for resources to perform the analysis and implement the policy (which may be a necessary evil), a lot of it appears to be a bizarre self-pitying pissing contest. All of those are major trades, all of those do major harm.
The incalculable harm of illicit commodity trades
The discussion can be particularly frustrating because no measure of an illicit trade’s economic value is a measure of its social harm. The value of siphoned oil from Nigeria may be far greater than the value of conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but their harms range from intergenerational environmental poisoning in Nigeria to slave labour and slaves’ rape in the DRC (and it would be grotesque to even try to rank them).
The monetary value of the trade in Syrian antiquities may be far greater than the monetary value of the trade in Malian antiquities but, because so little of Mali’s archaeology is left, the cultural harm of the trade in Mali (the risk of the complete erasure of the country’s ancient past) may be even greater than the cultural harm of the trade in Syria.
An illicit trade’s economic value is not even a measure of its economic harm. For example, the plunder of a place’s cultural and natural heritage may undermine (or prevent) a sustainable cultural tourism or ecotourism economy. Moreover, because the high-value products of that economy are provided locally, the loss (or lack) of that income may be more harmful than the loss of income from low-value processing of another commodity.
And while the Nigerian illicit oil trade may be worth more than the global illicit antiquities trade, the illicit antiquities trade still has a devastating impact worldwide on societies’ history, identity, development and (ability to restore) peace.
fn1: I’m not sure about wildlife, timber, gemstones and minerals; and I haven’t counted money-laundering, which is a constituent element of all of these illicit activities, or any of the fraud and counterfeiting businesses that encompass everything from pharmaceuticals to a host of consumer goods.