More transparency needed in African arms flows


The lack of transparency in arms flows to sub-Saharan Africa obstructs an informed debate on the proposed arms trade treaty (ATT) and would be a serious obstacle to its verification the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says in a report released last month.

“A starting point for improving transparency would be to support initiatives on corruption in the arms trade. Interest in the corruption issue and increasing willingness by governments to discuss it could be a stepping stone towards more transparency in arms procurement, titled Arms Flows to Sub-Saharan Africa, suggests.
“If sub-Saharan African states want to persuade arms suppliers—which regularly hinder arms exports by refusing export licences—that they have legitimate reasons to procure arms, they should be more forthcoming about their motives,” authors Pieter Wezeman, Siemon Wezeman and Lucie Béraud-Sudreau say.
“Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) accounted for 1.5% of the volume of world imports of major arms in 2006–10. Although this is low by global standards, with little indigenous arms-production capacity in the region, most countries are fully dependent on arms imports. States in sub-Saharan Africa have received major arms from a wide variety of countries all over the world. China, Russia and Ukraine are consistently among the largest suppliers.
“Due to a lack of accurate information, no comprehensive picture of transfers of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and other military equipment to the region can be given, but available open source information shows that transfers of such equipment to the region in 2006–10 was common.

The motives for arms transfers to sub-Saharan African destinations are diverse, including direct financial revenues—even if they are small compared to revenues from sales to other regions—and strengthening political influence in sub-Saharan Africa in order to gain access to natural resources and to further the security interest of the supplier.
“Intergovernmental transparency is necessary for an informed debate about how the military needs of sub-Saharan Africa states should be taken into account in discussions on arms control in the region. While countries in the region regularly express support for conventional arms control initiatives, their low level of participation in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA)—the key intergovernmental reporting instrument on conventional arms—casts doubts on their willingness to actively control arms. Public debate about arms procurement is often based on incomplete and confusing information which emerges only after key decisions have been made. Even those governments that have been more forthcoming with public information about their arms procurements tend to remain reluctant to discuss the rationale and underlying threat assessments in public or in the parliament.”

SIPRI adds case studies show that supplies of SALW and major arms play a role in armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa; even supplies of relatively small quantities of older weapons can have a notable impact on conflicts. “The uncertainty about the impact of arms transfers to conflict areas in sub-Saharan Africa is reflected in the experience of 2006–10. In several cases it could be argued that arms supplies have contributed to a government’s ability to legitimately maintain or restore stability in its country, including with the use of force against rebel groups. In a number of cases, exporting countries have supplied arms to governments in the region which supported efforts to achieve these objectives and in line with UN statements or actions. The least controversial arms supplies are those aimed at improving African states’ capabilities to participate in peace operations, even though these supplies remain insufficient to fulfil the needs of regional peacekeepers. However, in many cases arms supplied to sub-Saharan Africa have had clearly undesirable effects.”

The Swedish think tank says this includes that the supply of arms can be argued to have been an incentive for the recipients to try to achieve their goals via violence instead of dialogue; that such arms have been used in human rights violations; that arms recipients often do not have the capability to secure their stockpiles and weapons have been lost or stolen, including by rebel groups; that arms recipients have deliberately diverted weapons to targets of UN arms embargoes or rebel groups in neighbouring countries; and, that arms supplied to governments have been turned against those governments in military coups d’état.
“As a result of ambiguity about the impact and desirability of arms transfers, arms export policies by individual supplier countries vary widely. Some suppliers appear reluctant to supply arms to most countries in the region; others seem to consider only UN arms embargoes as a reason not to supply arms. The ambiguity is also reflected in the inconsistent approach of the international community to conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa: whereas arms embargoes have been agreed in relation to some conflicts, in other cases no embargo has been imposed.
“Weapons used in conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa by government forces have in general been delivered with the consent of the governments both in the supplier and recipient countries. Nonetheless, it appears that the illegal arms trade continues to play a role in the procurement of arms by both government and rebel groups in the region even though there is no hard evidence of widespread large illegal supplies from outside the region into sub-Saharan Africa in 2006–10.”