A plague of greed and illegality

Small arms and light weapons: an African overview

State fragility and political instability continue to create an ever-increasing demand for small arms and light weapons

Arms and ammunition recovered from Boko
Haram jihadists are displayed at the headquarters of the 120th Battalion in Goniri, Yobe State in north-eastern Nigeria in July 2019. Boko Haram’s decade-long campaign of violence has killed 27,000 people and displaced about two million in Nigeria. The insurgency has spilled over into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting formation of a regional military coalition to defeat the jihadist group.
Photo: AUDU MARTE / AFP

Following the end of World War II, Africa’s period of independence induced euphoria and sense of the prosperity that would follow the decolonisation of Africa did not last long. The continent became part of the Cold War battlefield. The Cold War was essentially a clash of ideologies and economic models, with the traditional West and the Soviet-dominated East bloc competing to gain influence and expand and develop their overseas interests. Africa posed a tempting – and wealthy – prize to the winner. The continent has an abundance of natural and mineral resources, overseen by untested and weak governments, and also a range of strategic locations. During this period Africa was characterised by fragile and failed states, and virtually synonymous with wars and assassinations, coups d’état, civil wars, covert operations and destabilisation (Africa’s first self-orchestrated regime change occurred in Egypt in 1952, when the reigning monarchy there was overthrown).

As a result, the continent also became an uncontrolled dumping ground for military weapons and equipment, primarily from the now defunct East Bloc. But the problems did not end there. A rise in terror-inspired movements, transnational organised crime and acts of genocide followed the end of the Cold War. Along with collapsed economies and failing governance, government brutality and crackdowns have added to a rising sense of anger, discontent, and fear among many African populations. Any government is defined by the people involved and the institutions they adopt. The government is the direction-giving mechanism of the national trajectory, and it is responsible for the development and implementation of the policies that guide, direct, and safeguard that trajectory. Policies require action and implementation, but the continent’s governments have often failed to implement them – especially policies related to governance, security and stability.

This generates failed or fragile governments, which exploit tensions and conflict, incentivising armed criminal networks, anti-government movements and proxy forces, and allowing safety and security failures to gain traction. Given their political and social instability, many governments have strengthened their power bases and sought to improve the quantity and quality of their security forces. Often they have done so by making use of both regional and foreign government security services and equipment. Continuing instability has, additionally, led to an increase in the involvement of foreign governments and private business organisations providing governments with services that range from private security to military training and related services – often with little to no oversight. Conversely, anti-government movements have established their own militias and have armed themselves, sometimes by raiding government arsenals. Similarly, domestic and transnational criminal networks have been able to buy, steal, and sell weapons to further their criminality.

The often-glaring deficit in (multi)national intelligence and the inability of security forces to act pre-emptively have also incentivised anti-government movements and criminal groups, allowing them to act almost with impunity. Additionally, porous borders have enabled armed groups to act transnationally and find safe havens in neighbouring countries, enabling armed action against civilians and governments. Political fragility and instability, along with the erosion of national security, have led to an increased demand for weapons. For example, over the period 1990 to 2005, armed conflict cost Africa approximately $18 billion per year, according to a 2009 report by the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN). The collapse of the Libyan government in 2011, for example, allowed criminals and jihadist movements to raid abandoned and uncontrolled Libyan government arsenals.

Large quantities of these weapons were moved across Africa, finding their way to groups such as Boko Haram (BH) in Nigeria (according to a captured BH member interviewed by the author in Nigeria in 2016), Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (more commonly known as Al-Shabaab) in Somalia, and the Allied Democratic Force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Similarly, weapons are being “lost” by law enforcement officers and military personnel on a frequent basis. In a recent case, a South African policewoman was found to have been “renting out” her service weapon to pay her debts. Available data on the proliferation of small arms and light weapons suggests that approximately 100 million weapons are available in Africa. It is, furthermore, estimated that 59% are civilian-owned, 38% in possession of government armed forces, 2,8% owned by law enforcement agencies and 0,2% in possession of armed groups, according to a February 2018 article on the AllAfrica website.

Civilians who do not choose sides or participate in violence or the small arms trade pay a heavy price for their governments’ lack of accountability and oversight of their light weapons and civilian firearms. Armed anti-government and criminal groups are able to recruit followers from a disgruntled civilian population – or coerce their cooperation. Ongoing instability and cross-border conflicts, along with armed organised transnational criminal groups, have increased the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. According to the UN Security Council’s report on small arms (S/2008/258, dated 2 June, 2009), “the dividing lines between underdevelopment, instability, fragility, crisis, conflict and war are increasingly blurred; the small arms issue is therefore intertwined with the security, development, and human rights preconditions for sustainable peace. Present-day conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peace building require multi-dimensional interventions”, according to the AFJN report mentioned earlier.

State fragility and political instability in Africa continue to create an ever-increasing demand for small arms and light weapons by governments as well as anti-government forces and criminal networks. January – March 2020 47 Small arms and light weapons manufacturers and suppliers understand and exploit the links between political instability and the armaments market. The market space has opened up to illegal arms deals and the movement of arms by both legitimate and unscrupulous arms dealers. There is evidence that legally obtained arms find their way onto the black market, where they are sold to whoever needs them – or can afford them. Political instability and conflict have enabled private security companies (PSCs) and private military companies (PMCs) uncontrolled access in Africa. Typically, these companies have a number of roles, including offering private-sector security training and operations such as protecting high-value assets, critical industries and people. Other services include training law enforcement personnel and armed forces.

Many PSCs and PMCs abide by the laws of their hosts and work at making a positive impact, but some use the continent’s endemic instability and conflict to further their own aims. PSCs have been known to arm ill-trained personnel and to exercise little control over the weapons issued to security guards. “Misplaced” weapons usually go unreported. Meanwhile, an influx of small arms and light weapons is also due to governments evading the UN’s Programme of Action on Small Arms and its International Tracing Instrument (available on the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs site). This is particularly driven by governments aiming to expand their interests through armed conflict, either overtly or covertly. In addition to the illegal arms sales networks, there are links between the legal and the illegal trade where legally obtained arms are sold illegally. Anti-government movements, inspired by religion and supported by sectarian governments – frequently viewed as “rogue governments” – have resulted in a dramatic rise in sectarian violence, especially in North, West and East Africa.

These governments typically support regional anti-government movements in other countries, financially and morally, and by providing arms – evading UN arms controls where possible. These religious anti-government movements are gaining traction, spreading their tentacles southward as they do so. This means that the flow of weapons into previously stable regions has increased, creating ungoverned spaces controlled by armed anti-government movements. The recent deployment into Mozambique by the Russian PMC “Wagner Group” highlights the problems involved when a PMC is unprepared for its mission(s) and attacked by anti-government forces. Wagner Group members, working alongside Mozambique troops, were ambushed in northern Mozambique in late October 2019, according to a report on the Moscow Times website, and suffered numerous casualties. The antigovernment forces seized all of their weapons and equipment. Non-state actors have contributed significantly to the uncontrolled trade in small arms and light weapons.

Armed political opposition groups, secessionist movements, terrorists, criminal networks, transnational herdsmen and hunters and poachers have all added to the uncontrolled movement of this weaponry. These groups typically occupy ungoverned spaces or areas where there is little law enforcement, enabling them to use weapons to secure their own safety while exercising control over these areas and the people who live there. These groups often fund themselves by resorting to armed criminality. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons has become an impediment to the socio-economic development of many African states. Security policies, including policies aimed at controlling the flow and use of arms, cannot be implemented by fragile or failed governments. In some cases, policies are unimplementable, or make no allowance for managing and monitoring the proposed approach and legislation. Within this complex and dynamic environment, the oversight and control of small arms and light weapons are tasks that will continue to plague governments.

As noted, the lack of oversight has impacted on communities, countries and regional landscapes, resulting in a rise in armed criminality and endangering innocent civilians. It has, furthermore, prevented the delivery of economic, humanitarian and social aid, and contributed to the displacement of people and uncontrolled migration. As discussed, the uncontrolled movement and use of small arms and light weapons is indicative of poor or non-existent governance and a lack of effective security measures and policies. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons in Africa has direct, indirect, and consequential impacts on the human resources of the continent. Annually, thousands of innocent people, law enforcement officers and soldiers are killed or wounded by weapons in the hands of antigovernment groups and criminal gangs.

Governments that refuse to act decisively – and without dedicated and driven political will to improve governance, law enforcement and security – incentivise armed action against the state and against the populace. This lack of performance adds to the greed and illegality of unscrupulous arms manufacturers and traders. There is little doubt that small arms and light weapons in Africa will continue to proliferate if governments continue to neglect the politics and governance, and if they lack effective policies to reduce illegal gun control.

Eeben Barlow has served as a division commander, battalion commander, and Special Operations Group commander for several African armed forces, where he holds the rank of major general. He has authored several books, frequently speaks at conferences, and lectures at numerous African and foreign universities on conflict and war in Africa. He is chairman of STTEP International Ltd.

Existential threats to humanity

Nuclear weapons: the African view

African states argue that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only guarantee against their use or threat of use

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) flanked by South Africa’s former Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana- Mashabane give a joint press conference in Pretoria in February 2013, where Lavrov said he expected the UN Security Council to agree on ‘an adequate response’ to a controversial North Korean nuclear test.
Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

The climate crisis – the process of climate change – and its far-reaching and unprecedented challenge to all aspects of society, is often (and perhaps correctly) viewed as the defining issue of our time. At the same time, another threat to the future of humankind while not new, continues to haunt the majority of the international community – the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used either by design, accident or miscalculation. As Egypt told the UN General Assembly in October 2018, “rising levels of tensions at the global level coupled with rapid technological developments make the risk of intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons at one of its highest levels since the Cold War era”. With the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) due to take place in April and May this year in New York, this article focuses on African initiatives to bring about a world without nuclear weapons.

All too often, the role of African states in advocating for a world free of nuclear weapons is under-reported, or perceived as marginal, as they strive to cope with what some regard as of more immediate concern, namely: the alleviation of poverty, the provision of housing, education and health care and the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. All African states, except for South Sudan, are party to the 1968 Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This means that they have undertaken not to acquire or manufacture nuclear weapons. South Africa remains the only country to have manufactured nuclear weapons and then to take a unilateral decision to renounce and dismantle its nuclear weapons programme (an account of this is given in a 2014 book by Nic von Wielligh and Lydia von Wielligh- Steyn, The Bomb). The NPT, which came into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995, is regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. The NPT is designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, further the goal of nuclear disarmament, and promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The treaty defines two categories of parties – nuclear weapon states (NWS) and nonnuclear weapon states (NNWS). NWS are defined as the five states that detonated a nuclear device before January 1967 – China, France, the then Soviet Union, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). All other UN member states, which have ratified the NPT, are regarded as NNWS that have agreed not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons and, in accordance with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to prevent diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. The five NWS, on the other hand, are obliged to pursue nuclear disarmament negotiations in good faith. The NPT entered into force some 50 years ago, and in 1946 the first UN General Assembly resolved to establish a commission “to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy and other related matters” and to make specific proposals on the control of atomic energy and on “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons”.

Nevertheless, 14,000 nuclear warheads remain in existence today. Notwithstanding numerous attempts to ensure that the NWS fulfil their side of the “grand bargain” – to pursue disarmament – the states possessing these weapons continue to argue that it is within their rights to keep their nuclear arsenals for as long as the current global political and security conditions remain unfavourable. Some analysts argue that this seeks to legitimise their perpetual possession of such arms. Most NNWS, including African states, argue that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only guarantee against the use, or threat of use, of such weapons and that the very possession of nuclear weapons encourages nuclear proliferation. In 2004, the African Union’s Common African Defence and Security Policy identified “the accumulation, stockpiling, proliferation and manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, unconventional long-range and ballistic missiles” as common external threats to continental security in Africa.

African states, both individually and as members of regional groupings within the UN system such as the Africa Group, the Arab Group and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), continue to affirm the urgent need for the NWS to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies and to ensure the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test- Ban Treaty (CTBT) as a meaningful step in the realisation of a systematic process to achieve nuclear disarmament. Besides Egypt, only the African states of Mauritius, Somalia and South Sudan have neither signed nor ratified this particular treaty. At the same time, it is also important to note that African states reaffirm their inalienable right to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy in terms of Article IV of the NPT. Their view is that states can be totally committed to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, while also recognising the developmental benefits that nuclear material and related applications provide.

International co-operation for the peaceful application of such material should therefore not be undermined in the quest to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The lack of urgency and seriousness with which nuclear disarmament has been approached in the NPT context led to the negotiation and adoption in 2017 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). An April 2019 statement to the Security Council by Ambassador Jerry Matjila, South Africa’s permanent representative to the UN, reflects Africa’s position, namely that the very possession of nuclear weapons by some countries encourages nuclear proliferation by others and that “efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons should be matched by an equal commitment by the nuclear weapon states to eliminate all nuclear weapons in a verifiable and irreversible manner”. The TPNW is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons.

Proponents of the treaty portray this as a key step towards achieving a world without nuclear weapons, but many states possessing nuclear weapons and their allies have been highly critical of the treaty. These latter states have argued, among other things, that the TPNW ignores the increasingly complex international security environment and that it may negatively impact on the NPT and its review cycle mechanism. That is, they claim that the TPNW undermines the step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament, including the movement towards entry into force of the CTBT. Nevertheless, the TPNW was adopted at the UN on 7 July, 2017, with the support of 122 states, including 42 African states. The treaty will enter into force once 50 states have ratified or acceded to it. As of 26 October, 2019, there were 79 signatories and 33 states parties. These states are of the view that the more complex the international security environment becomes, the higher the risk of the use of nuclear weapons – thus making nuclear disarmament more urgent.

Furthermore, given their catastrophic humanitarian consequences, nuclear weapons cannot be used in a manner consistent with the rules and principles of international humanitarian law. Nuclear weapons do not increase security, but rather undermine regional and international peace and security. South Africa ratified this treaty in February 2019. The “ratification… sends a positive signal of our continued commitment towards the achievement of a world free from the threat posed by nuclear weapons and ensuring that nuclear energy is used solely for peaceful purposes,” the then minister of international relations and co-operation, Lindiwe Sisulu, said. Her view expresses those of many African states. Another important example of Africa’s commitment to a world free from nuclear weapons is the African Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba), which was approved by African heads of state on 23 June, 1995 and entered into force in July 2009.

The Treaty declares Africa a zone free from nuclear weapons and provides for the promotion of co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It requires complete nuclear disarmament by African states and aims to enhance both regional and global peace and security. Basically, the Treaty of Pelindaba seeks to ensure that nuclear weapons are not developed, produced, tested or otherwise acquired or stationed anywhere on the African continent or its associated islands. Presently, the treaty has 41 parties with (only) 14 states still to deposit their instruments of ratification with the AU. Parties also pledge to prohibit the testing of nuclear devices and the dumping of radioactive waste, while improving the physical protection of their nuclear materials and facilities. Uniquely, the Treaty of Pelindaba also prohibits armed attacks on nuclear installations, including nuclear research or power reactors.

Protocols to the treaty are designed to ensure that non-African states respect the status of the zone and undertake not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any African country. Only Spain and the US have not ratified the relevant protocols. Spain, while not a nuclear-armed state, is de facto in control of three territories within the zone – the Canary Islands and two coastal cities in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. Spain claims these are integral parts of the European Union and therefore should not be included within the African nuclear weapons free zone. Spain has also argued that the Treaty of Pelindaba does not contain any global nonproliferation or disarmament provisions that it has not already signed. The US leases Diego Garcia from the UK as a military base. Both the UK and the US argue that the British Indian Ocean territory cannot be included in the geographical area of the Treaty of Pelindaba.

The AU, however, considers the islands to be part of Mauritius. In February last year, the International Court of Justice in The Hague stated that the island was not lawfully separated from Mauritius and that the UK should end its control of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean “as rapidly as possible”, according to the judgment. Parties to the Treaty of Pelindaba have established the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) to ensure compliance with the treaty. Hosted in South Africa, AFCONE’s overall goal is “to ensure safety, security and socioeconomic progress in Africa through coordinating, strengthening and developing continental nuclear peaceful applications programmes and playing a dynamic role in disarmament and non-proliferation affairs”. It therefore plays a key role in advancing the peaceful application of nuclear science and technology in Africa and in bringing much-needed support to states parties to fully benefit from nuclear sciences and technology applications in the areas of health, agriculture and energy.

Both the continued existence of nuclear weapons and climate change are existential threats to humanity. Africa contributes the least to global emissions and has forsworn nuclear weapons, but the continent cannot argue that both are now “northern” problems to be ignored by the “global south”. Africa shares in the responsibility to enhance international peace and security. As a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone and as supporters of the TPNW, African states have reinforced their commitment to global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation objectives of the NPT and the CTBT.

Noel Stott is a senior researcher at the London-based Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC). He previously led an Institute for Security Studies programme, Africa’s Development and the Threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. He has extensive experience in arms control and currently focuses on building the capacity of non-nuclear weapon states to participate in multilateral nuclear disarmament verification.

Opaque and difficult to quantify

Light weapons: a roadmap

Africa has made some innovative interventions to reduce illicit small arms flows, despite a scarcity of data and challenges on several fronts

A member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) armed forces sings moments before casting his vote at a polling
station in southern Sudan’s regional capital, Juba, on 9 January, 2011 in the first hours of a week-long independence referendum, which led to the formation of South Sudan. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP

In January 2017, the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union adopted its Master Roadmap for Silencing the Guns in Africa (AUMR) by the year 2020. The AUMR recognises that the use of small arms and light weapons continues to destabilise the continent – while the causes and factors driving conflicts in the continent have changed. The document encompasses a number of steps and modalities for action, with a focus on preventing the illicit flow of weapons throughout the region. Among those, reliable information and analysis are critical to understanding the nature, extent and impact of illicit small arms proliferation. It is against this background that the AU Commission and Small Arms Survey undertook the first ever continental mapping of illicit arms flows, with a view to promoting transparency and stronger commitment among African states to use evidence-based approaches to controlling the proliferation, circulation, and trafficking of small arms.

The report, “Weapons Compass, Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa”, published in January 2019, unpacks trends in illicit small arms proliferation, reviews examples of existing good practice and summarises recommendations to tackle illicit flows. Defining these illicit arms is not easy because they take many forms. In outline, illicit arms are those “weapons that are produced, transferred, held or used in violation of national or international law” and can include both military-style small arms and light weapons and commercial firearms. The report draws on a review of existing knowledge combined with new research, including consultations with and contributions received from multiple stakeholders, such as AU member states, regional economic communities, regional bodies, and specialised UN and civil society entities.

In particular, between 2017 and 2018 21 African countries and a number of international actors responded to data requests and questionnaires previously prepared by the Small Arms Survey. The mapping that resulted from the analysis identified six major sources of illicit weapons, originating both from within and outside Africa. For better data visualisation and analysis, the continent has been disaggregated into the five regions as designated by the AU (northern Africa, western Africa, central Africa, eastern Africa and southern Africa). Action is required on several fronts, notably at the regional and national levels. The implementation of international instruments such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and the United Nations Programme of Action (PoA) can contribute to significantly preventing and reducing illicit arms flows on the continent.

Moreover, a number of subregional organisations have been mandated to tackle one or several aspects of small arms issues: in 2016, 22 organisations out of 52 worldwide working to implement the UN PoA were based in Africa. Nevertheless, very few African states have put mechanisms in place to keep track of arms trafficking. Data on illicit weapons is scarce and the scale of the phenomenon can only be roughly estimated. Illicit flows are opaque and difficult to quantify, given the concealed, multifaceted and context-specific nature of the trade. Despite increased international attention to small-arms related issues, to date there has been only limited progress in states’ reporting and transparency on the core issues relevant to arms control. Firstly, information on both the authorised industrial production and transfer of small arms is patchy.

Despite gaps in reporting, though, there is evidence that several countries maintain capacities to produce small arms or ammunition. Curiously, capacity seems to exist in at least 19 states, with most of them located in northern Africa (capacity in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda is, though, to be confirmed). Secondly, authorised trade in small arms is also relatively poorly documented as statistics are based on states’ voluntary reporting and less than half of African states report to the main platform, the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database. The available statistics, however, suggest that the value of reported imports to Africa has been increasing since the beginning of the century, with northern Africa as the subregion that imports the most small arms, averaging $62 million per year, followed by western Africa ($35 million). Thirdly, data on both licit and illicitly held weapons is similarly scarce.

Small Arms Survey’s estimates indicate that civilian actors hold more than 40 million of the small arms on the continent; by contrast, armed forces and law enforcement agencies hold less than 11 million small arms. Past studies used to give an overall figure of 100 million arms in the continent, but the numbers could thus be larger. West Africa has the largest number of both licit and illicit civilian-held firearms on the continent (roughly 11 million), followed by north Africa (10.2 million). Staggeringly, Africa seems to host relatively few small arms compared with other global regions: its rate of 3.2 civilian-held small arms for every 100 people compares well to the rate in the Americas, which is 46.2. Illicit weapons in Africa enter the market at virtually every stage of the weapons’ life cycle.

Legacy weapons from past conflicts in the continent, and in particular from the peak of Africa’s late 1990s/early 2000s civil wars, still constitute the main source of illicit firearms in circulation. However, research indicates other important sources, ranging from recently manufactured weapons to weapons imported recently from outside Africa or diverted from legal commercial flows. The iTrace System, developed by Conflict Armament Research, shows, for instance, that between 1% and 3% of illicit small arms documented in Somalia and Burkina Faso and between 9% of ammunition seen in Burkina Faso and 17% in Somalia have been manufactured since 2010. The source of these weapons is both internal to Africa and external. Cross-border trafficking is a major source of weapons across all of the African sub-regions.

Documented weapons often reflect small scale smuggling of arms and ammunition, but this so-called “ant trade” can involve large volumes of arms trafficked into conflict theatres. As a result, weapons are often trafficked between countries without contiguous borders, or re-circulated across large geographical areas. Smuggled weapons also include weapons that were recently diverted from national stockpiles. Outflows of looted national stockpiles followed the collapse of the Libyan government in 2011, for instance. Weapons of Libyan origin were reportedly trafficked to a number of neighbouring countries and as far as the Central African Republic (CAR) and Somalia. Diversions from national stockpiles remain a primary concern in the Sahara-Sahel region as well as in central Africa.

Weapons from Ivorian stockpiles, for instance, have been recovered in a range of countries, including the CAR, where weapons formerly belonging to Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have also been found. Diversions from national stockpiles are also a concern in African sub-regions less affected by conflict, as media reports in Madagascar and South Africa show. Diversions from national stockpiles include weapons lost or seized from troops deployed in the context of peace operations. The main actors of land-based trafficking are typically armed groups, criminal gangs, local manufacturers, corrupt security officials, as well as peacekeepers returning from international duty. Smaller-scale trafficking can also involve local border communities. Pastoralist groups in Kenya (Turkana), Uganda (Dodoth) and South Sudan (Toposa), for example, have traded arms across borders to protect themselves and their cattle.

Interestingly, intelligence-based information sharing is currently helping to reveal that terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda-linked groups have acquired capacities to move equipment across borders in western Africa. Arms can be also diverted from civilian holdings, although the extent of this phenomenon is particularly difficult to measure. As of June 2018, only 12 African countries had provided statistics to Interpol’s illicit arms record and tracing management system, which allows police agencies worldwide to record detailed information on firearms lost, stolen, or trafficked. Other sources, however, show that the diversion of civilian holdings can be significant. In South Africa, for example, during the year 2015/2016, an average of 20 firearms per day were stolen from private individuals.

The proliferation of unlicensed craft producers represents an enduring threat throughout Africa. Craft production appears to be concentrated in West Africa, where at least 12 countries appear to host craft producers. The weapons produced range from rudimentary hunting weapons to sophisticated firearms, including copies of assault rifles. In some of these countries, the possession of craft-produced weapons is common. Such weapons are involved in 80% of gun-related crimes in Ghana, whereas in Nigeria 17% of rural gun owners hold them. The nature and extent of craft production capacities is less clear in eastern and southern Africa. However, it is known that capacities exist in almost half of AU member states, with the exception of northern Africa. Overall, craft production is the second-most prominent source of illicit weapons.

Many of the illicit small arms circulating in Africa originate from the continent. However, external sources of illicit arms have gained prominence over the past few years. Arms transfer diversions are well documented in the context of arms embargoes. Africa is both a recipient and source of embargo-breaking arms transfers. Violations of the arms embargo imposed by the UNSC on Libya, South Sudan, Ivory Coast, the CAR and Somalia have been documented. Analysis carried out by UN experts and monitoring groups shows that the largest cases of transfer diversions have been directed to Libya, before the strengthening of the arms embargo in 2014. Middle Eastern states have been repeatedly identified as points of origin for several cases of illicit transfers of small arms to embargoed countries.

Yet at the same time, illicit weapons from Libya before 2014 were destined not only for Africa but also for the Middle East. Illicit transfers to Africa, including in violation of arms embargoes, originate also from Europe, notably eastern Europe. A relatively recent phenomenon is the proliferation of converted imitation firearms, which enables the circulation of illicit handguns at a much-reduced cost. While this was initially particularly significant in North Africa, major shipments of readily convertible imitation guns from Turkey have recently been intercepted in, or on their way to, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia. In 2017, 25,000 Turkish imitation pistols were seized in Port Kismayo, Somalia. External sources of illicit small arms include the diversion of recently authorised imports of arms and ammunition.

Such diversions were a regular occurrence in Africa in the 1990s, but the phenomenon has decreased to some extent because conflict actors are increasingly relying on more sophisticated ways of procuring small arms already available on the continent. The limited participation of African states on international information-sharing platforms has not prevented the continent from hosting innovative interventions to tackle illicit arms flows, which in a number of cases have proved to have a positive impact on illicit flows. Joint border initiatives represent an emerging area of good practice, such as the joint border commission established between Kenya and Ethiopia and the cooperation agreement between Chad and Sudan. Joint commissions are also being established such as that between the CAR, Chad and Sudan on the one hand and Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria on the other.

Sub-regional, cross-border security strategies, such as the Mano River Union Strategy, and regional joint operations are also gaining traction. An example of the latter was Operation Trigger III, a firearms seizure conducted simultaneously in nine North and West African countries by Interpol in cooperation with UNODC and WCO in 2017. Other notable arms-control measures relate to sub-regional and national end-user controls. States such as Burkina Faso and South Africa, as well as regional organisations such as ECOWAS, have developed national and sub-regional end-user control systems. Addressing gaps in the certification and verification of end uses and end users is key to preventing the diversion of arms. The approaches discussed above are, however, limited to specific sub-regions.

The mapping study mentioned earlier has provided a typology for categorising broader illicit arms flows, but many knowledge gaps remain, especially in the area of policy planning. We need more information in a range of areas, such as studies of the demand factors driving illicit arms flows and the scale and nature of illicit arms flows in non-conflict settings. The study also shows that there is room for improving current practices in a number of areas, for instance as regards the disposal of surplus and collected weapons, including those recovered in the context of peace operations. More attention needs to be paid to the quality of national legislation on the enforcement of arms embargoes, as well as emerging threats such as convertible imitation firearms.

Continental and sub-regional instruments designed to reduce illicit small arms flows are in place, but fulfilling such commitments requires engagement at international, regional and national levels. It is recommended that the AU’s political bodies engage with external players to encourage, for example, the main arms exporters to Africa to report their exports. Strengthening cooperation and information exchange at the regional level by establishing sub-regional and national databases to monitor trends will also be key to generating actionable weapons intelligence. Last but not least, national authorities need to change their approach to the coordination of assistance and capacity building efforts, and better support capacity-building initiatives in these areas.

Africa has made some innovative interventions to reduce illicit small arms flows, in line with efforts at the international, regional and sub-regional levels. Raising awareness about them could be a valuable asset in countering the major drivers of illicit weapons flows, and contribute to the successful implementation of the Silence the Guns agenda in Africa.

Sigrid Lipott is an associate researcher at the Small Arms Survey, where she works on illicit arms proliferation and trafficking, arms embargoes, and peacekeeping. She holds two master’s degrees in diplomacy and a PhD in transborder policies from the International University Institute of European Studies. She has worked at the European Projects Association and at the European External Action Service in Brussels

Silencing the guns

Africa: fragile gains

There’s been some progress towards ending wars on the continent, but 2020 was never a realistic goal for ending all conflicts

A Kenyan police officer of the African Union’s
peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) takes part in a night patrol on a street in Mogadishu in September 2019. Photo: TINA SMOLE / AFP

Seven years ago, in 2013, African leaders solemnly vowed “not to bequeath the burden of conflicts to the next generation of Africans”. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the continent’s premier political body, the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor of today’s African Union (AU). As part of a broader development plan extending to the hundredth anniversary, the AU set a goal of ending all African wars by 2020. That campaign, known as Silencing the Guns, is now reaching its deadline. It has registered some accomplishments in that short time. During 2019 alone, the AU helped negotiate new peace accords among warring parties in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Then in August, AU and Ethiopian mediators persuaded Sudan’s generals to form a transitional government with leaders of the popular uprising that had ousted longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir four months earlier, at least momentarily averting the likelihood of greater bloodshed. The gains remain fragile, however. And across the continent, Africans continue to die in large numbers. According to Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Programme, some 15,000 people were killed in violent confrontations in Africa in 2018, the last year for which figures are available. The bulk of those casualties were in five countries: with Nigeria at the top, followed by Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the CAR and Mali. Although 2018’s total was notably down from a peak of more than 24,000 deaths in 2014, it was still only slightly below the figure for the year Silencing the Guns began.

“As human beings we cannot accept such levels of violence,” AU commissioner for peace and security Smail Chergui told a reporter for the London magazine New African in February 2019. However, sceptics, accustomed to the organisation’s history of unmet targets, never expected very much. The limited results have less to do with excessive ambition than with the sheer difficulty of quickly resolving such complex conflicts. The tight deadline was intended to spur African leaders to concentrate their energies more than they might have otherwise. Everyone agrees that ending war is essential for Africa’s future. “We cannot have sustainable development without sustaining peace,” Amina Mohammed, the UN deputy secretary-general, who is from Nigeria, observed at a March 2019 African regional conference in Morocco.

She promptly added: “neither can we build a secure future for everyone without addressing the root causes of our conflicts and vulnerabilities.” The old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) only occasionally engaged in peacekeeping, hindered by its prohibition against African interference in the internal affairs of member states. By the early 1990s, as more conflicts erupted, that notion began to change. The principle of noninterference became less categorical in the face of massive human rights violations and population displacements that threatened regional security. The OAU set up new mechanisms to quickly field mediation and observer missions. Initially, however, the most active African-led peacekeeping came from regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, sometimes as precursors to better-financed UN operations.

With the transformation of the OAU into the AU in 2002, security issues acquired an even higher priority. The AU’s Constitutive Act explicitly gave it authority to “intervene in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”, thereby replacing the principle of non-interference with one of “non-indifference”. Still, it took some time before African leaders assumed greater responsibility to act on their own, rather than leaving the task to the UN or other foreign entities. The AU has mounted peacekeeping missions in Darfur, Burundi, Somalia and several other countries. It is also in the process of establishing an African standby force capable of rapid interventions. The Silencing the Guns campaign builds on those efforts. It explicitly links security with the wider range of AU concerns.

Eliminating the root causes of conflict in African societies, notes the 2013 declaration, will require effort on a number of levels: improved governance, better entrenched democratic and human rights norms and stronger anti-corruption measures. Economic and social disparities fuel tensions and discontent, especially among marginalised ethnic groups, youth and women, and they need to be addressed. Making progress in all these areas, moreover, cannot rest on the shoulders of African leaders alone. A detailed “Master Roadmap” to ending conflicts adopted in 2017 specifies tasks to be carried out by the AU, regional organisations, governments, international partners, civil society groups, and local communities. Like the UN and other organisations, the AU emphasises the need to increase women’s involvement in peace efforts, often citing the role of women activists in helping end Liberia’s civil war.

But the record so far is disappointing, for the AU as well as its partners. In Mali, for example, the highest body overseeing the implementation of a 2015 peace agreement is composed entirely of men. Women did better in Sudan. After the AU suspended Sudan’s membership in June 2019 to pressure the junta into negotiating seriously with protest leaders, women had limited involvement in the talks. But when the resulting transitional government was announced, four women figured among the 18 cabinet members, including the new foreign minister, Asmaa Mohammed Abdullah. Levinia Addae-Mensah, deputy executive director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, says that there has been only a “marginal increase” in women’s roles in African peace efforts. And while a few women may now be in prominent positions, their absence on the ground is most serious.

Pointing to the need to narrow the gap between national decision makers and local communities, she told allAfrica.com, “that is why we want the voices of women to be heard in … community dialogues”. The AU originally sent peacekeepers to Darfur, Sudan in 2004 at a time of widespread killings by pro-government militias. In 2007, when the UN authorised its own intervention, the AU troops were merged into the UN-AU Mission in Darfur, the first such hybrid undertaking. There is still no peace agreement between Khartoum and the Darfur rebels, but the violence has declined considerably. Also in 2007, the AU established a Somalia peacekeeping mission to support the government in Mogadishu. Despite the presence of nearly 20,000 AU troops there, parts of the country remain outside government control and insurgents continue to attack Somali and AU positions, including in the capital.

The AU’s peace toolkit is varied, however, and includes a spectrum of initiatives, from conflict prevention to post-conflict stabilisation. Mediation, which requires no troops, arms or expensive logistical support, is an important one. In March 2019, a peace accord between various rebel groups and the government of the CAR was on the verge of collapsing, as its seven predecessors had. The AU hastily brokered a new round of talks that brought more rebel leaders into the deal. According to Mankeur Ndiaye, head of the UN’s CAR peacekeeping mission, the competing rebel factions still sometimes fight each other, but “there are no more direct confrontations between the government and the armed groups”. In 2019, the AU sent election monitoring missions to Madagascar and the DRC, with the aim of averting renewed partisan bloodshed.

While the election in the DRC featured major irregularities, both contests yielded political reconciliation rather than violence. The AU is also working to control the proliferation of illicit guns. An AU funded report by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva research group, estimates there were more than 50 million small arms and light weapons in Africa in 2017. Only one fifth were held by official military or police forces. The rest were in the hands of non-state armed groups, private security businesses and individuals. Such weapons have fuelled fighting by organised factions, but they have also aggravated community disputes and enabled all sorts of criminal activity. Small arms, notes Kwesi Aning, a director of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, are “Africa’s weapons of mass destruction”. Reducing illegal imports or cross-border smuggling is difficult.

Small arms experts argue that the demand for guns must be reduced, whether through the disarmament of organised military factions or by better ensuring the safety of local communities, which often acquire arms for self-defence against marauding rebels, predatory soldiers or bandits. Consolidating peace after conflicts formally end is essential for preventing a reversion to warfare. But funding is often scarce for community recovery efforts, the reintegration of ex-combatants and numerous other pressing tasks. One of the greatest handicaps, notes the AU’s Master Roadmap, is “inadequate resources” for financing peace operations. The AU has struggled to ensure funding from its own members. Until recently, only about two thirds of assessed contributions were collected, with more than half of all members in default.

In 2017, the AU started assessing a 0.2% levy on all imports into African countries to support the group’s various activities. It is also exploring other, more innovative ways to raise funds. Regional African organisations face similar problems. Despite meagre resources, the Sahel Group of Five (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) launched a joint anti-terrorist military force, but after several years have yet to mount significant ground operations against jihadist groups active there. But a September 2019 summit meeting of the broader ECOWAS decided to commit $1 billion over four years to combating jihadism in the Sahel, in principle tapping the greater resources of Nigeria and other states in the region. More international support will also be essential, including from the UN, which currently has seven peacekeeping missions in Africa.

The UN, however, faces resource difficulties of its own, especially with major US cutbacks to its funding contributions. In July 2019 the AU Executive Council proclaimed that its theme for 2020 would be “Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development”, inviting African leaders to take stock of what has been achieved so far. But by tacitly dropping the 2020 deadline, the body suggested that the process will be ongoing. Whatever new mechanisms or timetables Africans develop, reducing mass bloodshed will remain a vital goal for the continent’s future.

Ernest Harsch is a journalist and academic who has focused on African political and development issues since the 1970s. He has published several books, most recently Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2017), and is a research scholar at the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University in New York.

A long and winding road

China: the special relationship

Economic and political ties between Africa and China have led to infrastructural development on a monumental scale but their roots go back millennia

A statue of 15th century Chinese diplomat, admiral and explorer Zheng He. Photo: AFP

No one knows exactly how long ago the friendship between China and Africa began but contact and trade between the two can be traced as far back as 202 BC. This relationship deepened in the 14th century during the expedition of Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar and explorer, to parts of Asia. The China-Africa connection was furthered in the same century by the travels of Sa’id of Mogadishu, a scholar who is said to have been the first African to study Mandarin. Besides being a pioneer in the translation of Mandarin to native African languages, Sa’id is credited with playing a role in establishing Somali merchants as leaders in the trade between Asia and Africa. In the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat, admiral and explorer, is reputed to have made voyages to the Horn of Africa, passing Ajuran, a Somali empire that commanded the Indian Ocean trade.

Scholars now believe that during his final voyages Zheng followed the coast down to the Mozambique channel, between Madagascar and Mozambique. But while these medieval voyages might have established a strong foundation for relations between the two, it is China’s rapid economic growth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, creating unprecedent demands for resources such as oil and other raw materials, that has undoubtedly underpinned the modern economic, political, and social ties between China and Africa. As Kenyatta University senior economics lecturer Emmanuel Manyasa notes, at no time has the friendship between China and Africa “been more pronounced” than in the 21st century. Kampala-based historian Peter Chemaswet argues that connections were first cemented in the late 1950s, when China signed the first bilateral trade pact with a number of African countries, namely Sudan, Guinea, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria.

More trade agreements were signed in late 1963, early 1964 with at least 10 recently independent African countries, when China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, toured the continent. African signatories included Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The premier’s Ghana leg of his tour was regarded as a particular landmark because the country’s leader, President Kwame Nkrumah, was seen at the time as a champion of a united Africa. “The premier’s tour of Ghana was a strategic move that opened doors for China to warm its co-operation with African countries. It is in Ghana that the China- Africa relationship was actually born,” says Joel Savage, a Ghanaian journalist and author based in Brussels. Zhou’s prime objective in Africa was to elevate China’s profile on the continent, and in a speech in Mogadishu at the end of his trip the premier said China would support revolutionary struggles throughout Africa and fiercely oppose foreign interventions.

The outcome of Zhou’s visit was evident in 1971 when 26 African countries voted in the United Nations with 50 others to recognise the People’s Republic as the only legitimate China representative at the UN, replacing Taiwan, which had held the seat since 1949. The foundation of the current relationship between China and Africa was laid with the Beijing Declaration in October 2000 and the announcement of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) at a conference attended by at least 80 ministers from China and 44 other countries, as well as representatives from 17 international and regional organisations. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice-President Hu Jintao were all present at the conference. “This is when the serious work that we see today between China and Africa began,” says Hongxiang Huang, the director of China House, a Nairobi-based research think tank he founded in 2014. Since then, China’s relationship with Africa has grown exponentially.

In 2006, at a FOCAC summit in Beijing attended by 35 African countries, the then president, Hu Jintao, rolled out $5 billion concessionary loans to Africa. The president also, as one of the “eight measures” for Sino-African relations, announced the creation of the China-Africa Development Fund to stimulate his country’s investment in Africa with $1 billion of initial funding. In 2009, the year China became Africa’s biggest trading partner, surpassing the US, a FOCAC ministerial conference in Egypt further defined China-Africa relations. At the conference an action plan to deepen cooperation was announced, including a $10 billion low-cost loan, double the amount committed in 2006. An additional $1 billion special loan for small- and medium-sized African enterprises was also established. At the same time, Premier Wen Jiabao announced a debt write-off for poor African nations, the construction of 100 new energy projects and a gradual lowering of custom duties on 95% of products from African countries with which China had diplomatic ties.

Crucially, China said it would ensure that Africa attained a stable food supply and it would provide the continent with modern medical equipment to fight malaria. Trade between China and Africa has expanded at an average annual rate of 20%, from $13 billion in 2001 to $188 billion in 2015. Figures from China’s General Administration of Customs show that in 2018, the country’s total import and export volume with Africa was $204.19 billion. During that period, China’s exports to Africa were $104.91 billion, up by 10.8%, and China’s imports from Africa were $99.28 billion, translating to a 30.8% increase. However, some analysts and observers – and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – have cautioned that China’s economic slowdown and the sharp drop in commodity prices presents a risk for resource-dependent sub-Saharan African countries. The IMF, for example, has advised countries to look at diversifying their economies and reducing their reliance on natural resource exports.

On the other hand, China’s demand for consumer-related resources such as agricultural raw materials and food products has increased, and this focus on agriculture is likely to intensify China- Africa trade. To date, China has acquired 252,901 hectares of land for agriculture in Africa. According to the China Africa Research Initiative, a research programme dedicated to understanding the political and economic aspects of China-Africa relations, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, China has also established 14 agricultural centres across Africa, “taking an increasingly hands-on role in its work and investment related to African agriculture, leasing and developing land”. China is also synonymous with large scale infrastructural investment in Africa, historically epitomised by the construction of the 1,710 km Tanzania-Zambia railway, which was completed in 1976. “China finances one in five projects; it also engages in the construction of one in three mega projects,” observes Luke Mulunda, a finance journalist who runs business today. co.ke in Kenya.

Transport, shipping, ports, energy, power, real estate – encompassing industrial, commercial and residential real estate – are some of the key infrastructural works in which China has invested in Africa. A Deloitte report by Hannah Edinger and Jean-Pierre Labuschagne published in March this year noted that to date China has participated in over 200 infrastructure projects in Africa. They said Chinese enterprises have completed and are building projects that “are designed to help add to or upgrade about 30,000 km of highways, 2,000 km of railways, 85 million tonnes per year of port throughput capacity, more than nine million tonnes per day of clean water treatment capacity, some 20,000 MW of power generation capacity, and more than 30,000 km of transmission and transformation lines”. The China-Africa friendship has also seen an expansion in aid. Currently, China is one of the largest country donors to Africa. However, critics argue that some support has been extended to Africa disguised as aid when in reality it is in the form of loans.

Analysts also point out that some African countries, happy to take advantage of China’s “ready-to-assist” policy – and willing to overlook questionable labour and environmental practices by Chinese business operations in Africa – have ended up choking themselves with loans. “The secrecy that shrouds Chinese operations, and corruption in many African countries, is what has perpetuated this time-after-time interchangeable use of aid and debt,” says Manyasa. According to The Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC, China’s loan issuance to Africa has tripled since 2012. New debt issuance by Chinese institutions to African countries has gone up substantially in the past five years, rising to some $5 billion to $6 billion of new loan issuances each year in the 2013–15 period. McKinsey & Company say that in 2015, these loans accounted for about a third of new sub-Saharan African government debt. Most of the loans have been linked to infrastructure projects, such as China EXIM Bank’s $3.6 billion loan to finance the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya.

Ongoing Chinese investment in African infrastructure is in line with its Belt and Road initiative (BRI) announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013. This hugely ambitious transcontinental project aims to revive the ancient Silk Road for the 21st century, improving interconnectivity between Asia, Europe and Africa to increase trade and development along economic corridors – and enhance Chinese influence along the way. Unsurprisingly, therefore, that when China announced a new $60 billion African development fund at FOCAC 2018 in Beijing it was made clear the money would be channelled to projects, including ports, telecommunications, bridges and roads, aligned to the BRI. The John Hopkins China Africa Initiative says in a recent report that “from 2000 to 2017, the Chinese government, banks and contractors extended $143 billion in loans to African countries and their state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Importantly, the report notes, however, that while some government loans qualify as “official development aid”, others are “export credits, supplier credits or commercial, not concessional in nature”. It is in this context that analysts caution that it is up to African governments to ensure that these funds are put to productive use to have the desired impact on their economies. Otherwise, as financial journalist Luke Mulunda says, African countries may find themselves in a serious debt trap, jeopardising their development.

Eddy Odour is an economist and a statistician with more than 15 years’ experience in data analysis. He runs an independent research firm in Nairobi, Kenya, that consults on trade, regional integration and infrastructure.