The proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALWs) is one of the perennial challenges facing Africa. While the weapons themselves may not necessarily be the root cause of most emerging, increasing, and unending armed crises that have claimed thousands of lives in many African countries, they are the major factors fueling them.
In less than 4 months into the year 2021, various African countries have experienced a series of deadly violence that killed and displaced thousands of people. In Nigeria, for instance, kidnapping, banditry, highway robberies have become the order of the day, and the situation worsens by the day.
In January, over 100 people were killed in Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye villages in Niger. In Nigeria, over 36,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram since the deadly jihadist group started its religious war in 2010. Between February 2020 and January 2021, the daredevil group killed over 650 persons. These cases of unrests, agitations, and conflicts reflect the reality of many African countries.
According to a report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Africa accounted for 52% of all global armed conflict incidents in 2014, despite the continent having only 16% of the world’s population. Some statistics from the Heidelberg Conflict Barometer also show that 87% of the 236 global high-intensity conflicts between 2011 and 2015 occurred in Africa.
“Africa’s security situation is fluid, and conflicts occur at the human cost of uncontrolled arms in Africa varying degrees of intensity. Between 2013 and 2015, an average of 22 new and ongoing wars was recorded annually,” a 2017 report by Oxfam International stated.
According to the report, privately owned firearm, licit and illicit, in some African countries are as follows: Libya 900,000; Nigeria: 2,000,000; South Sudan 3,000,000; Sudan 2,000,000; and Somalia 750,000. Due to the easy access to arms, warring parties, who should ordinarily settle their scores amicably in dialogue, often resort to violence.
Somalia is one of the African countries with reoccurring armed crises, and this unending instability is strongly linked to SALW proliferation. For instance, the PKM general-purpose machine guns are reportedly sold in Mogadishu’s Bakara market.
This begs the question: who is responsible for the proliferation of arms into these violent-torn African? Many findings have shown that this has both external and internal influence.
Reports from a 2006 study suggest that members of Forces Nouvelles, an Ivorian rebel group, were behind the smuggling of weapons into Ghana and Mali, trading them for food and consumer goods. Apart from this intra-continental illicit arm movement, traffickers from other continents were also found culpable. The study showed that “most of the illicit small arms used in Africa originate from China, Israel, and more than 20 OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) members.”
The diversion of legally acquired arms is another common source of uncontrolled and illicit arms. Various factors, including the illegal sale of arms by officials, are responsible for this illegal diversion. For example, some Nigerian soldiers have been arrested for illegally selling arms to Boko Haram members. Also, there have been some accusations of Ugandan and Ethiopian soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), selling weapons from their stockpiles to traders in Somalia’s illicit arms market. In Libya, there was a report of military armoury looting after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. All these looted and stolen weapons by state agents usually end up in the hands of insurgents who use it to unleash mayhem on their perceived enemies in various African communities.
Apart from those human costs mentioned above, there are also economic losses to these crises.
A report by the World Council of Churches showed that armed conflicts cost Africa billions of 18 US dollars annually. Another study also showed that some 24 African countries, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, spent around 300 US billion dollar between 1999 and 2007. “This sum is equivalent to international aid from major donors in the same period. If this money was not lost due to armed conflict, it could solve the problems of HIV and AIDS in Africa, or it could address Africa’s needs in education, clean water and sanitation, and prevent tuberculosis and malaria,” the study found.
For Africa to experience peace, tranquillity and development, there must be serious efforts must be made by its leaders at all levels. To start with, African leaders need to address the underlying causes of political, ethnic, and religious grievances across the continents. This includes addressing the high level of illiteracy, poverty, and inequalities across the continent. Only then will any efforts towards curbing arms proliferation will yield positive results. Also, African countries must leverage their membership in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate the international transfers of arms into their country.