The devastating effects of uncontrolled arms in Africa


Armed conflict is one of Africa’s greatest challenges and has cost the continent unquantifiable human and financial losses for decades. Despite efforts by local and international stakeholders to bring lasting peace to the continent, the crises worsen by the day, owing to the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALWs) in many African communities.

It must be noted that weapons themselves are not necessarily the root cause of armed crises in Africa, but they are the major factors fueling and sustaining them. 80% of small arms in Africa are in the hands of civilians, says an independent research centre, Small Arms Survey (SAS). A greater proportion of them is possessed illegally. For instance, while government related entities hold less than 11 million SAWLs, civilians, including militant and rebel groups, hold more than 40 million.

How Do Illicit Arms Circulate in Africa?

Most guns in Africa are imported from other continents, mostly from China, Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. A sizeable number of them are also manufactured locally. Countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Algeria, Nigeria, and South Africa have defence industries that manufacture small arms. There is also homemade artisanal production of arms in almost all African countries. For instance, unsophisticated rifles are illegally produced by blacksmiths in many African communities. A report by ECOWAS shows that Ghana had an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 illegally manufactured guns in just five of its ten regions, based on a 2004 survey.

The illegally produced and imported arms are circulated across the continent by both state and non-state actors. For example, members of Forces Nouvelles, an Ivorian rebel group, were suspected of smuggling weapons into Mali and Ghana, trading them at the black market for food and other commodities. Apart from this intra-continental illegal movement, some smugglers from other continents are also involved in the circulation of arms into and across the continent. For instance, a report by Jamestown Foundation shows that some European dealers were part of the illegal movement of arms into and around the Niger Delta, Nigeria, in the early 2000s when the militants in the region waged war against the federal government and oil facilities in their states.

Illicit possession of arms has also been traced to the diversion of legally acquired arms, sometimes by state agents. According to one arms researcher, Babafemi Ojudu, some poorly paid Nigerian soldiers who served in peacekeeping missions in other countries, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, often return home and sell their weapons to Niger Delta combatants or gun dealers. And since the start of the Boko Haram war in 2010, many Nigerian soldiers have also been accused of selling weapons to members of the terrorist group. Similarly, some Ugandan and Ethiopian soldiers serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have also been accused of the same offence. In some cases, diversion happens when armouries are looted, and the stolen weapons ended up in the hands of deadly groups. From all indications, illicit arms get into the hands of various deadly armed groups through diverse ways and sources.

With porous borders, long coastlines and sometimes unmotivated security agents, it remains difficult for Africa to track the movement of arms within its domains effectively. This explains why armed militias and rebel groups daily spring up in various parts of the continent and seem to be outmuscling security agents in some places. The recent jailbreak by armed men, which led to the escape of more than 1,800 inmates in Owerri, Nigeria, and several cases of gun battles between security agents and non-state actors, show how daring and emboldened militias across Africa have grown over the years.

Human and Financial Costs

Going by the daily occurrences of fatal and injurious violence on the continent, it is difficult to quantify the actual impacts of arms proliferation in Africa. According to Oxfam International, 4.3 million to 8.4 million people were killed in Sudan, DRC, and Rwanda between the period of 1983 to 2005 due to armed conflicts. Also, in Somalia, another war-torn African country, an estimated 350,000 to 1 million people have been killed since the civil war started in 1991. In Nigeria, Boko Haram members killed more than 37,500 and displaced millions of people since May 2011.

Apart from the killings and injuries, forced migration is another devastating downside of the illegal circulations of arms in Africa. Currently, the continent has some of the highest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. While in countries like China and the Philippines, displacements are mainly from natural disaster, but in Africa, it is mostly a result of armed conflicts. In Somalia, for instance, there are approximately 2.6 million IDPs, 1.8 million in Sudan,  just as South Sudan has no less than 4.3 million IDPs and refugees. Refugees from war-torn African countries are scattered within and outside the continent. For instance, the number of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom has drastically increased in the past few years, and most of them are from African violence-torn countries. In United States, France, Canada, and many other developed countries, the situation is the same.

Armed conflicts cost Africa billions of dollars annually and significantly hinder the continent from maximizing its potentials for development. For instance, some 24 African countries, which include Chad, Congo, Guinea, Ghana, Sudan, and Uganda, lost 300 billion U.S. dollars to armed conflicts between 1990 and 2007. The amount is equivalent to the overall international aid the countries received from major donors in the same period. Over the past ten years, the overall military expenditure in Africa increased by nearly 20%, but contrastingly, security in many countries worsens. The spike in armed conflicts greatly affects the increasing military spending from yielding desirable results. Many African communities still lack basic amenities such as potable water and electricity, just as access to quality education and basic healthcare remains a challenge. If all these funds were not spent on armed conflicts, it could solve various challenges facing the continent.

Curbing the Menace of Uncontrolled Arms

The root cause of armed crises can be traced to the socio-political inequalities experienced daily in most African regions. According to the African Union Commission, 600 million young people in Africa are unemployed, uneducated, or in insecure employment. With this high number of unempowered youths, it is easy for exploitative elements in society to easily establish militia groups, grow their membership and intensify their deadly acts. Therefore, for Africa to have lasting peace, progress and development, political will and leadership must be demonstrated at the top level. African youths must be empowered and given a sense of belonging. This can be achieved by ensuring equity and inclusiveness at all sociopolitical leadership settings. Improving young people’s living condition will drastically reduce the motivation to bear arms illegally.

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organization affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the U.K.