DNA Day 2023: Bridging the Forensic DNA Divide in Africa

Authors: Yahaya Sumara Sulley

Department of Forensic Sciences, Faculty of Biosciences, University for Development Studies, Ghana


Forensic DNA analysis has become a powerful tool for finding solutions to social and environmental issues in the justice system. Forensic DNA analysis is the use of DNA evidence in criminal investigations and legal proceedings. It involves the collection, analysis, and interpretation of DNA samples to identify individuals, link suspects to crime scenes, and exonerate the innocent.

In Africa, forensic DNA analysis is used in criminal investigations as well as span across human identification, wildlife crimes and many others. This article sheds light on the progress made and the obstacles encountered in the development of forensic DNA analysis in Africa, which is still in its early stages, in commemoration of International DNA Day.

Forensic DNA Analysis in Africa

According to a 2019 report by INTERPOL, 89 member countries worldwide reported using DNA profiling in criminal investigation procedures. The survey reports that 70 of these countries have national DNA databases or repositories. Out of these member countries, 83 have reported using Y-STR analysis and 34 have reported using mitochondrial DNA analysis. Only 31 reported having a specialized missing persons DNA database (a searchable repository).

Notably, eleven African countries, including Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Seychelles, Namibia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tunisia, and Ghana, have embraced DNA profiling in police investigations. Recently Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tanzania have had their labs accredited by the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) which signifies the maintenance of quality laboratory standards. However, the current level of efficacy of DNA databases in some of these African nations appears to be presently unclear, but it is a critical information for optimizing the allocation of forensic DNA resources in the region.

The use of forensic DNA analysis has also been instrumental in solving issues leading to the prosecution of cases and providing a better step towards justice delivery for victims in some African countries. For instance, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, DNA analysis was used to identify the remains of Augustin Bizimana, a suspected top Rwandan genocide leader, through DNA collected from human remains found in a grave in Pointe Noire, Republic of Congo.

Forensic DNA analysis helped track down and identify Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, leader of al Qaeda in East Africa, responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In West Africa, Mr. Asante, a Ghanaian teacher, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 2005 for defiling a 14-year-old pupil who became pregnant according to the victim’s statement. He appealed the conviction in 2006 and 2012, which was followed by a DNA test application.

The Supreme Court ordered the DNA test in 2015, but the family refused to comply. In 2018, the Forensic Unit of the Ghana Police Service confirmed that the DNA test proved that Mr. Asante was not the child’s father which led to his exoneration.

Sexual assault is not new in Ghana and as part of international efforts to support the management of such cases recently, U.S. Ambassador Virginia Palmer visited the Ghana Police Service’s Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) to donate sexual assault examination kits and DNA reagents, chemicals, and supplies to help prosecute perpetrators and support survivors of gender-based violence.

The South African Police Service Forensic Science Laboratory in Pretoria has implemented a new automated Genetic Sample Processing System (GSPS), which will quadruple the laboratory’s capacity to process DNA samples. The GSPS is a ground-breaking blend of engineering and science and is the only one of its kind in the world.

The system will expedite the processing of DNA samples, reduce the turnaround time and improve the police’s capacity to process DNA samples. As part of reaping the benefits of such a development in the justice system it is reported that currently there is a police search for Thabo Bester a convicted rapist and murderer after DNA testing showed the charred body found in a prison in 2022 was not his.

Most African governments are promoting and making laws that encourage the use of DNA testing tools and products in forensics to enable effective DNA analysis in criminal investigations and other relevant issues.

Despite the increased use and demonstrated effectiveness of DNA profiling in solving criminal cases, there is a paucity of evaluation and discussion regarding the value and performance of forensic DNA analysis services on the continent. This has led to some failures in terms of the utility of forensic DNA to solve issues within the continent.

For instance, due to a lack of resources, the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) collected DNA samples from relatives of victims who were burnt beyond recognition during the Associated Airline crash in Lagos and took them abroad for DNA analysis.

In 2011, the UN reported that over 100 bodies were found in western Ivory Coast. These were victims of ethnic killings during the ongoing conflict between presidential rivals. Families of most of these victims may never have an idea about the whereabouts of their loved ones in this situation.

Proper forensic DNA systems could aid in identifying the victims and potentially bringing their killers to justice or making a stronger case in a court of law but due to the lack of resources most of these cases have been left unsolved.

The issue of unidentified bodies is a widespread problem in many African countries, with many people dying every year without proper identification. The lack of proper identification can make it difficult for families to receive closure and for authorities to hold perpetrators accountable.

There are numerous cases of corpses of migrants in the Saharan deserts in Agadez, a town in Niger. These cases highlight the challenges faced with identifying the remains of migrants who have died while attempting to cross the Sahara Desert.

Many of these individuals are buried in unmarked graves, making it nearly impossible to identify them. Forensic DNA tools could help in identifying these bodies, but resources and expertise are often lacking in this part of the world.

The use of rape as a weapon of war is a heinous crime that has affected many people in African countries, including Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Congo. This has led to a significant number of children being born out of rape, with many not knowing their fathers.

Forensic genetic genealogy has the potential to identify the real fathers of these children, leading to the prosecution of the perpetrators. This approach can provide justice to the victims and their families, bring closure to communities, and send a clear message that these crimes will not be tolerated. However, the challenge remains in implementing this technology in regions with limited forensic resources and infrastructure.

Why We Must Act Now

Even though there has been recent progress made in the development of forensic DNA applications in Africa, several challenges exist, including.

Lack of Resources: These resources include funds for carrying out forensic DNA research, training an adequate number of personnel through scholarships and fellowships to address the challenge of limited staffing and establishing appropriate laboratory infrastructure. It appears that many African countries that are lagging lack these resources, which can hinder the development of effective forensic DNA applications.

Lack of Awareness and Understanding: Many people in Africa are not aware of the benefits of forensic DNA analysis or how it works. This lack of awareness and understanding is a result of the lack of forensic science communication on the African continent.

Legal and Ethical Concerns and Cultural Sensitivity: Forensic DNA analysis involves the collection and storage of biological samples all the time. This practice is one of the aspects of the discipline that raises concerns about privacy, consent, and confidentiality. It is rather unfortunate that most people tend to find mistrust in a lot of human institutions and the field of forensics is no exception.

In some African cultures, the collection of biological samples is seen as taboo or culturally inappropriate. These concerns contribute to the slow-paced development of forensic DNA laws and policies in Africa.

Lack of collaboration: Nations in the West African region, for instance, face very similar issues including sexual assault and gender-based violence, nameless and anonymous body identification, kidnapping, trafficking and other transborder crimes. There however seems to be a lack of collaborative effort to work toward the establishment of regional forensic DNA laws and policies to clamp down on these regional challenges.

There is also a poor connection between institutions running forensic DNA testing and undergraduate or graduate degree programs and international partners who support forensic DNA research. This and many other related issues contribute to the slow-paced development of forensic DNA in Africa.

Pragmatic Courses of Action

Conversations about existing policy gaps could lead to significant growth in the African forensic DNA application market. This could eventually have implications for the present and future use of forensic DNA in Africa. To overcome the challenges of creating effective applications of forensic DNA in Africa, several measures can be taken.

If Africa prioritizes the safety and security of its people, one such measure is to build capacity by learning from successful approaches in developed and neighbouring countries, developing partnerships with international and regional organizations, and providing funding for laboratory infrastructure, research and scholarship just as is done for other scientific disciplines like agriculture and allied health sciences. This would allow for a good understanding and effective creation of regional DNA databases, making data more accessible across borders.

Establishing an African Forensic DNA Center of Excellence in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Rwanda can lead to significant advancements in forensic DNA technology and training. The proposed center would offer state-of-the-art testing and training laboratories, aid in the development of expertise in advanced DNA analysis, and create validation guidelines and training modules. This approach can reduce case backlog and improve the level of expertise in forensic DNA analysis across African countries.

Forensic investigative genealogy and forensic DNA phenotyping are two emerging technologies that hold tremendous potential for solving crimes and identifying suspects. In the context of Africa, where many forensic laboratories lack the resources and capacity to analyze some kind of DNA evidence just like in the case of Ivory Coast and Nigeria mentioned earlier, these technologies could be very helpful in providing accurate and reliable information about the available evidence.

Another strategy is to increase public education and awareness about the benefits of forensic DNA analysis. This includes educating the public, law enforcement, and policymakers about genomic literacy, legal and ethical considerations, and privacy concerns. By doing so, mistrust and cultural sensitivity in the use of forensic DNA analysis can be minimized.

Furthermore, it is important to provide training for the next generation of professionals in forensic DNA analysis. This should include incorporating forensic science communication into their training to facilitate proper communication with the public. By implementing these strategies, Africa can effectively tackle the challenges associated with developing effective forensic DNA laws and policies in the future.


In the vast expanse of the African land, forensic DNA analysis takes a stand as a tool to solve crimes and bring justice to light. From the coast of Casablanca to South Africa’s shore to the horn of Africa to the Island of Cape Verde some progress has been made, though challenges persist.

It is clear that the road is not yet fixed in the development of forensic DNA as we are challenged with a lack of resources, awareness, increased cultural sensitivity, legal and ethical concerns and the need for collaboration to unify and strengthen our efforts. But we must not give up, for the future holds a chance.

African governments should invest in building capacity through training, education and scholarships and establish partnerships to help unlock the potential that lies beneath and pave the way for a brighter tomorrow. As we celebrate International DNA Day, let us remember the progress made and focus on the way forward to overcome the challenges, no matter how hard.


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Acknowledgment: Feature photo credit to Clark Fixtures;