FEATURE: How Uncontrolled Arms Fuel Ethno-Religious and Political Crises in Africa

For decades, Africa has grappled with a high rate of small arms and light weapons (SALWs) proliferation. From one community to another, possession and use of illicit arms by non-state actors has become a common trend and appear to have gone out of control. It is strongly linked to the current tumultuous and tense atmosphere daily experienced in various parts of 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 the continent, they are the major factors fueling them.

In the last two decades, millions of lives have been lost as a direct result of wars in Africa. Millions have lost their loved ones, including little children who were orphaned, just as many suffer various degrees of permanent disabilities. In Somalia, for instance, the year-long instability remains unresolved as a result of regular SAWLs proliferation into the country. It is documented that weapons such as the PKM general-purpose machine guns are sold in Mogadishu’s Bakara market. A report by Oxfam International showed that 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. This begs the question: who is responsible for the proliferation of arms into these violent-torn African?

Sources of SALWs

Many findings have shown that the proliferation of weapons into Africa 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 unlawful 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.

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Though supplied and distributed by both external and internal forces, most of these weapons are imported from other continents. At the height of the Niger Delta crisis in Nigeria back in the early 2000s, most of the sophisticated assault rifles and other weapons used by the militants were made in countries like Germany, Belgium, Russia, United States, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, and China, a report by The Jamestown Foundation found.

Another angle to this is locally manufactured weapons. Though these may not be as common as the imported ones and not as sophisticated either, however, they represent a sizable proportion of illicit weapons in Africa. The level of production also varies from one country to another. Some of the commonest locally made SALWs are firearms, small bombs, and grenades. For instance, in Ghana, small arms, such as unsophisticated riffles, are usually made by local blacksmiths. As far back as 2004, it was reported that there were an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 illegally produced guns in just five regions in the country. Nigeria and Benin republic are other African countries reported to have high manufacturing of arms.

Human Costs

In the past few decades, many African countries experienced different types of wars, unrests, and insurgencies that left them with incurable scars and unrepairable losses. In just three countries – Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, 4.3 million to 8.4 million people lost their lives between 1983 and 2005. The number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) has also increased dramatically in the past few decades, owning to multiple occurrences of violence fueled by arms proliferation. The recurring ethnoreligious and political crises have also contributed to the recent spike in forced migration that has turned many Africans into asylum seekers in the U.K., U.S., and other developed countries.

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A report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) found that Africa accounted for 52% of all global armed conflict incidents in 2014, despite the continent having only 16% of the world’s population. Between 2011 and 2015, 87% of the 236 global high-intensity conflicts occurred in Africa, some statistics from the Heidelberg Conflict Barometer shows. The rate of violence has also heightened recently as more deadly groups spring up in various parts of the continent. Within four months into this year, Africa has recorded several violent conflicts that have claimed thousands of lives.

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. Other recent attacks by the group include series of kidnapping of school children and slaughtering of dozens of farmworkers in the northern part of the country.

Another recurring crisis is the herder-farmer clash, usually perpetrated by the so-called Fulani herdsmen, in some African country, especially Nigeria. Ranked as the world’s fourth deadliest militant group, reports show that Fulani herdsmen killed 2,539 people in Nigeria between 2017 and May 2020. They have also kidnapped hundreds of people.

Financial Costs

The crises have contributed mainly to the continent’s current state of economic downturns, considering the high level of impoverishment in most violence-torn African communities. A report by the World Council of Churches showed that armed conflicts cost Africa 18 billion U.S. 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 fund was not lost due to armed conflicts, it could solve health problems like HIV and AIDS in Africa, or even address the continent’s needs in education, clean water and sanitation, and prevent tuberculosis and malaria, the study found. In Nigeria, billions of dollars have been spent on security in the past few years, especially on the war against the Boko Haram insurgency. In 2017, another $1 billion was approved from the excess crude oil account to further prosecute the war. Such a huge amount would have gone a long way if spent on various economic challenges facing the country.

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Addressing the Root Cause

For Africa to experience peace, tranquillity and development, concerted efforts must be made by its leaders at all levels (political, religious, and ethnic). To start with, African leaders need to address the underlying causes of political, ethnic, and religious grievances across the continent. This includes solving the problems of 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.

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a political 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.