The Impacts of Proliferation of Arms in Africa

UN Photo/Ky Chung A UN peacekeeper with firearms collected from militias in Côte d'Ivoire.

Conflicts have been Africa’s biggest challenge for decades, despite efforts by various local and international stakeholders to bring lasting peace to the continent. As of 2017, about 25 African states were involved in one or more forms of insecurity, ranging from organized crimes, organized rebellion, violent extremism, secessionist agitations, and ethnopolitical militancy, according to Oxfam International. Though most of these year-long crises have their root cause in ethnopolitical inequalities and other social imbalances that are endemic in most African countries’ leadership setting.

However, they are fueled and sustained by the high rate of uncontrolled arms in the continent. With porous borders, weak and unmotivated security outfits, small arms and light weapons (SAWLs) find their ways easily into and within various African communities. From all indications, without addressing this year-long menace, the continent will keep lagging behind the rest of the world in development, peace and tranquillity.

Approximately 30 million firearms are being circulated across Africa. Findings show that many war-torn zones in the continent have large concentrations of private owned illicit arms. For instance, South Sudan, with just 11.1 million population, has 3 million private-owned (licit and illicit) firearms, representing 28.23 firearms possession per 100 population. Countries like Angola, Ghana, Libya, and South Africa also have a high number of firearms by population.

Sources of Illicit Weapons

Sources of illicit arms in Africa has both external and internal influence, many findings have shown. This includes importations from other continents, such as Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Most of the weapons used by non-state actors in various African countries were manufactured in those continents and are brought illegally to Africa by both foreign and African smugglers. The diversion of legally acquired weapons is another way through which arms are circulated in the continent. Sometimes security officials are responsible for this act. For instance, soldiers from Nigeria, Ethiopia, and other African countries have been caught or accused of selling arms to militant groups on various occasions. In some cases, military armouries are looted, leading to dangerous sophisticated weapons in the hands of insurgents. For example, findings show that PKM general machine guns are traded in Mogadishu’s Bakara market in Somalia, which may not be unconnected with illicit importation and diversion.

Armed Crises in Africa

Ethnic, religious, and political wars are some of the crises daily fueled by this continuation of SALW proliferation in Africa. Ethno-religious crises stem from various militant groups that fight daily to force their ideologies on the rest of the population, just as some others battle to control lands and natural resources. Political crises on the continent come in different forms, and one of them is the incessant electoral violence at various governmental levels. In many African countries, there is hardly an election without bloodshed.

For instance, one of the continent’s deadliest election-related violence occurred in northern Nigeria in 2011. The violence, which started with widespread protests by supporters of the then main-opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, who is now president, lasted three days, claimed 800 lives and displaced over 65,000 people in 12 states. Similarly, the recent 2019 general election that brought Buhari back into the office for a second term was also characterized by violence in many states perpetrated by both state and non-state actors.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), some of these violent incidents were carried out by soldiers and police officers. There were also reports of innocent voters and other members of the public attacked by thugs hired by political gladiators to disrupt the electoral process. During the whole election cycle, starting from campaigns in 2018, up to  626 people were reportedly killed.  Also, the recently concluded January 2021 election in Uganda was marred by various degrees of violence. HRW reported that authorities frustrated electoral activities from the opposition camps, and harassed, beat and shot at journalists. Instances of political violence like these have been a rising pattern since 2000 and have also occurred in Algeria, CAR, DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Sudan, and many other countries. In many African countries, there are disproportionate concentrations of power, influence and wealth around political offices. This is one of the reasons politicians see elections as do or die and are willing to kill and maim to come to power.

Human Costs: Deaths, Forced Movement, Disabilities, Bereavement

The proliferation of SALWs in African has a strong link to the millions of fatalities and injuries recorded on the continent over the past few decades. Between 1983 to 2005, 4.3 million to 8.4 million people lost their lives in just three countries (Sudan, DRC, and Rwanda) due to armed conflicts, Oxfam International reported. Somalia is one of the war-torn African countries that has endured armed conflicts for decades. Since 1991 when the war started, it is estimated that 350,000 to 1 million people have lost their lives due to the conflict. 1991-1992 witnessed the most intense unrest in the country as various armed groups fought for resource and territory controls. Apart from the direct violent deaths, there were other tolls of the war that killed thousands of people. For instance, in 1992, the country experienced a devastating famine that claimed 500,000 lives. Unfortunately, three decades after, Somalia still has not experienced a lasting peace.

Many other African countries have also had their fair share of deaths and injuries from armed conflicts. In Nigeria, for instance, the Boko Haram insurgence is one of the country’s security challenges for years. Reports show that the deadly group has killed more than 36,000 people since it started its jihadism in 2000. In the past one year, over 650 persons were killed by Boko Haram members, despite the government claiming the daredevil group has been “technically defeated.” Recently, the group has heightened its attacks on academic centres  – living up to its anti-western education agenda. Some of its recent attacks were the kidnapping of school children in the northern part of the country.

Also, in November 2020, the group slaughtered dozens of people in different attacks on farmworkers. Many African countries have also grappled with herder-farmer clash, mostly by Fulani militia. Some reports show that the world’s fourth deadliest militant group killed over 2,500 between 2017 and 2020 in Nigeria alone. There are also several cases of kidnapping, raping, and displacement of their victims in different parts of the country.

The proliferation of arms has also contributed greatly to the spike in forced migration in the past decades. The continent has recorded an exponential increase of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. “Forced population movements within and across borders are generally motivated by the need to avoid injuries and deaths from uncontrolled arms,” Oxfam International said. The highest number of IDPs and refugees in Africa are in countries and regions experiencing armed conflicts. Some of them are Lake Chad Basin, Somalia, Sudan, Mali, and Nigeria. A 2011 Centre for American Progress gave worrisome details of the seriousness of displacement in Somalia. According to the report, the chance that a Somali was either an IDP or refugee was 1 in 4, just as 3,500 refugees fled the country every day. A recent report by Refugees International shows that Somalia still has approximately 2.6 million IDPs, with the capital Mogadishu having the largest concentration – despite interventions by international bodies.

In Nigeria, over 2.1 million people are internally displaced, and there are 778,000 in Cameroon, Niger and Chad, a 2020 report by the U.N. revealed. The spike in conflict-induced displacement has its highest tolls on women and children. In northeast Nigeria, for instance, 78% of displaced persons are women and children. Many developed countries have recorded a surge in refugees from African countries in the past few decades due to armed conflicts. For example, the number of asylum seekers in the U.K. has increased dramatically since 2012, and the highest number is from war-torn sub-Saharan African countries. Other western countries like the US, Canada, and France also have many refugees from Africa.

Silencing the Inequalities to Silence the Guns

The African Union Commission (AUC) seemed to be well aware of the enormity of SAWL proliferation in the continent when it launched its Silencing the Gun Campaign in 2020. Much like AUC, many other stakeholders have also suggested various ways to curb the hydra-headed menace. However, the rallying point has always been – addressing the socio-political inequalities rooted in almost every facet of the continent’s leadership setting. Some of the worst forms of deprivation and disparity are daily experienced in Africa. While most socio-political leaders live in affluence in many African countries, a greater proportion of the population experience poverty, with many living below $1 dollar per day.

This explains why some of these countries have a high number of impoverished and uneducated population. The issues have even been exacerbated by the COVID-19 economic downturns, which made many lose their income and significantly increased the number of out of school children in the continent. According to AUC, Africa has 600 million young people who are unemployed, uneducated, or in insecure employment. The current situation makes it easy for unscrupulous elements in society to recruit from the army of unmotivated, unempowered youths and armed them with illegally acquired weapons. Addressing this issue will make other suggestions, steps, and actions effective.

About the Author

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.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.