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Ibrahim Seaga Shaw went to interview the first African-American (in fact the first American of any colour) secretary general of Interpol, Roland Kenneth Noble, at the Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France. He reports on how Interpol is wiring up Africa to its new ultra-modern communication system to combat African and international crime.

Interpol is the largest international police organisation in the world. Set up in 1923 to facilitate cross-border criminal police co-operation, the organisation today has 181 members spread over five continents. It supports and assists all organisations, authorities and services whose mission is to prevent or combat international crime.

Interpol's priority areas are public safety and terrorism, criminal organisations, drug-related crimes, financial and hightech crime, trafficking in human beings, and fugitive investigation support.

There are over 200 Interpol liaison offices throughout the world. The majority of these are known as National Central Bureaux (NCBs). An NCB is the national hub for international co-operation against crime. It is financed and maintained by the authorities in each member country and is likely to have local operational police officers on the staff.

Interpol has a long history of activity and co-operation in Africa. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that the continents position as a crossroads between the Americas, Europe and Asia lays it open to transnational crimes such as weapons and illicit drug trafficking, illegal immigration, trafficking in stolen motor vehicles and fraud which can only be stopped by international police co-operation.

Following the assumption of duty in November 2000 by Ronald K. Noble, as secretary general of Interpol, the organisation has undertaken a more robust involvement in Africa, especially in the area of improving communication and information exchange among member states to prevent or combat international crime.

Until Noble came into office, Interpol had been working on an antiquated system called X-400 which was put in place in the early 1990s. Now, thanks to Noble's foresight, Interpol has a new internet-based "I-24/7" communication system that works around the clock in a fast and secure manner.

According to Alison Bernard, Interpol's communications' manager, "the new system, technologically, is very simple, but the difficulty is putting the equipment in place in developing countries and helping them to understand it.

The "1-24/7" system was a major discussion point at the 17th Interpol African Regional Conference held last month in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, from 23-25 July, attended by senior African police officers and security experts.

Stanley E. Morris, the "I-24/7" programme director, said Interpol's priority was to get most African countries connected to the system "at least within a year".

Work on connecting South Africa and Botswana is at an advanced stage and nearing completion. "There is generally the political will on the part of African police chiefs to embrace this new exciting project," Morris said, adding that the installation of the equipment would come simultaneously with the training of personnel co-ordinated by Interpol's sub-regional bureaux in Abidjan, Harare and Nairobi.

When our correspondent, Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, met with Ronald K. Noble, he first asked him about Interpol's initiatives to improve information exchange with its African member countries.

Roland Noble: The first initiative which was put in place a couple of years ago involved the cancellation of all debts owed by member countries, including a large number of African countries, who couldn't participate in all Interpol activities because they hadn't paid their debts. We wanted to make sure that all the members in the world were full participants.

Secondly, we rescheduled the dues of member countries. By doing so, we reduced the dues obligation of poorer countries by almost 75%. This allowed them to use the money that they would otherwise have paid to Interpol to improve their police systems.

Thirdly, we are putting in place the Interpol I-24/7 communication system in our offices around the world. That system allows member countries to use the internet and state of the art technology to send or receive cryptic messages that cannot be read by unauthorised persons. The system will also enable the police in Africa to send photographs and fingerprints, download documents and reports, and thereby facilitate a faster exchange of information.

Shaw: At the 32nd Interpol European regional conference in The Netherlands on 14 May this year, you recognised the involvement of European criminal groups that traffick in arms in Africa, a situation that adds to the conflict situation on the continent. What is Interpol doing to combat this crime?

Noble:We have been supportive of the African regional chiefs of police organisations that are tackling this problem. Interpol is also in the process of analysing something called WETS (International Weapons Explosives Tracking System), which, if workable, would allow us to gather data about weapons and explosives trafficking not only in Africa but also throughout the world.

We are also supporting African sub-regional efforts to make sure we have qualified and trained police officers to deal with the problems there.

Shaw: Talking about the new 1-24/7 global communication system, considering that Africa is still far behind in modern communication infrastructure, how fast do you think the African police will benefit from this system?

Noble: We are going to provide hardware, software and training free for African member countries. So the benefit in Africa will be immediate.

At the moment, it is very expensive for our African members to use codable telephone systems to communicate with one another or with Interpol. So by giving them this new technology, they will be able to communicate with one another or with Interpol more cheaply and more efficiently.

Shaw: Despite international efforts to put an end to human trafficking, especially women and children, for prostitution and sweatshop labour, the practice has continued unabated. How do you explain this?

Noble: When one thinks of the trafficking of women, one has to think of two categories. One category is made up of women who are deceived or lulled into going from one country to another with the expectation of a better job or a better life, but when they reach their destinations, their passports are taken away from them and they are then forced into prostitution. It is a very, very serious organised crime problem. Our response has been targeting special investigations at these organised crime groups.

The second category is where people knowingly and voluntarily travel from point A to point B in order to engage in prostitution. That is a much more difficult problem to deal with because there isn't the organised crime aspect in it.

Shaw: Have you made any attempt to tackle this problem from the source, from the countries in Africa or Asia where the victims of this practice are taken?

Noble: Yes, we have. In Africa, we are working with police forces in member countries to fight illegal immigration. For example, at the point of departure from Africa, especially in Morocco, and at some entry points such as Italy, Greece and Spain, we try to co-ordinate with the police there to discourage illegal immigration.

Shaw: With Africa increasingly becoming a transit point and even destination of drugs, what do you think can be done to combat this menace?

Noble: We tell Interpol member countries that each time they seize drugs, they have to collect information about the kind of bag it was carried in, the kind of secret compartments it was stored in, and the characteristics of the person carrying the drugs.

That information is to be shared with member countries, so when a person comes in carrying a black brief case with a certain mark on it, a certain brand name, and if that briefcase was seized in the US containing drugs, then an African border control person would say: "Black brief case! It's the same kind of brief case that was seized in Europe, in Africa and in America, let's examine it." We've had great successes with this strategy.

Two, is a point I keep going back to, time and time again. The police have to share information about the ways in which they are tackling drug trafficking, and about the shifting patterns of drug trafficking.

This is what we call the threat assessment for Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. And it says that we believe that this kind of criminal activity is on the increase and therefore we should be on the look out. The important point to keep in mind is that drug traffickers normally have their illegal products mixed in with legal products; and so if you have an increase in legal trade, you've got to worry about an increase in drug trade. It sounds bad, but it's true. 

Shaw: Talking about corruption in African police forces, most observers think this hampers the fight against crime. What is Interpol doing to clean the house of corruption that the police built?

\Noble: The corruption problem is one that people have been trying to handle worldwide and not just in Africa. But it's not only a police problem in terms of enforcing the law against corrupt police officers. It's also a societal problem.

We keep telling member countries you've got to make sure you pay your police officers a proper salary because it is much easier for a well paid police officer who can look after his family, who can pay for his housing, who can pay for his food and clothing, to be honest than it is for a poorly paid police officer who cannot look after himself and his family.

I'm not justifying police corruption. What I'm saying is that it's a very complex issue that has to be approached globally - from recruiting the right people, training the right people, paying them well, equipping them and educating them, and then enforcing very strongly any violations that might be to the law in terms of a corrupt police officer.

And a corrupt police officer in one African country taints the image of police officers in all African countries. Likewise, a corrupt officer in Africa or Europe or Asia or the Americas taints the image of police officers around the world. So police officers have a common interest in routing out corruption. It's wrong. It undermines the rule of law. It undermines the profession that they have sworn to honour.

Shaw: I would want to believe that you've made such remarks at conferences you have attended in Africa. If so, have you been getting positive feedback from African leaders especially with regards to your concern that better conditions of service may serve as a deterrent to police corruption?

Noble: First, what I want to be clear about and what I don't want any mis-impression on is that I'm making statements on behalf of Interpol. Chiefs of police from African countries are making the same statements on behalf of their police forces, and changes are occurring.

But more needs to be done in Africa and throughout the world to make sure that the police are properly paid, are properly trained and are properly monitored. Our member countries have embraced the Interpol initiative of establishing best practices in the area of fighting police corruption.

We already have a working group established in that regard. At last year's Interpol General Assembly, we had the best practice policy approved, and at the African regional conference in Zambia the police embraced this initiative as well.

Shaw: Talking about the global threat of terrorism, how do you think Africa fits into the equation?

Noble: It's clear that Africa has been a target of some of the worst terrorist acts that have occurred over the last five years. Its also clear that Africa is the region of the world where terrorists believe they can move around more freely and engage in their activities without the same risk of being caught, unlike in other countries.

But the terrorist problem is not only an African problem, it is an American problem, European problem and Asian problem. What Interpol would like to see happen is that wealthier countries have to make sure that African police officers receive proper training, equipment and the support to fight terrorism at the local level.

Jacky Selebi, the South African police commissioner, has sponsored and is in support of an initiative that the Southern Africa chiefs of police have put in place for an early warning system for a possible terrorist activity in Southern Africa.

At the Interpol regional conference in Zambia, we followed up the importance of fighting terrorism as it relates to putting in place the I-24/7 communication system.

Shaw: The Zimbabwean police chief, Augustine Chihuri, recently resigned his honorary vice president for Africa post in the Interpol Executive Committee. Did he resign because ofWestern pressure? If so, what does it say about Interpol being non-political?

Noble: Interpol is not only considered to be non-political, it's apolitical. And with Mr Chihuri, his resignation did not come about because of pressure from any big country or any large group of countries.

His resignation came about because a member of his own police force made an unfortunate statement suggesting that his appointment was an endorsement of the Zimbabwean police force. But it was neither an endorsement nor a non-endorsement.s Rather, it was an automatic honour given to all executive members who completed their term of service.

Once that unfortunate statement was circulated in the media, his appointment received political attention. And so to avoid any politicisation of Interpol, Mr Chihuri resigned honourably.

Shaw: Finally, how has Interpol been coping with the problem of sovereignty among its 181 member countries in tackling organised crime such as terrorism, genocide and other crimes against humanity?

 Noble: Interpol embraces and supports 100% the view that each of its member countries is sovereign. But what Interpol tries to do is get all its member countries to co-operate towards a common enemy by helping them track down dangerous fugitives, terrorists, organised crime figures and certainly any persons involved in crimes of genocide before the international tribunals. But Interpol leaves it to each member country to decide if it will in fact enforce a request for arrest from another member country. That is the only way Interpol can function because you will never be able to get all 181 member-countries to agree 100% on all issues.