Tackling the Small Arms Problem in Africa

Tasneem Jamal

Abdul Omar

The Ploughshares Monitor September 2000 Volume 21 Issue 3

When Africa ceased to serve as a proxy in the ideological rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, it was clear that numerous security challenges would come to the surface. One was the problem of freely circulating small arms, which continues to haunt many Africans in an era when the rest of the globe is reaping the benefits of increased trade and information technology. The exact volume of small arms on the African continent is yet to be determined. Along with private and research organizations, several intelligence agencies have attempted to develop the capacity to collect and analyze information pertaining to small arms. However, the work of intelligence agencies cannot be easily accessed, for it is regarded as protected information. The problem is compounded by the fact that it is difficult to collect and analyze information from different intelligence agencies. Moreover, the states mostly affected by the small arms menace lack the capacity to utilize the research and intelligence analysis techniques that rely on police records, licensing and registration data, and records of sales and transfers.

Described as a cheap arsenal, where an AK-47 can be bought for as little as six dollars, or exchanged for a chicken, the small arms destabilizing African states and undermining human security have made their way into the hands of criminals, militia groups, and their associates through different sources. Some weapons have their roots in South Africa’s destabilization campaign in Angola and Mozambique in the apartheid era. Others originate from the Cold War armament programs that armed African dictators to the teeth. Additional weapons can be traced to fresh supplies from the former Eastern Bloc and East Asia, theft from government sources and licensed owners, black markets, and, though few in number, the work of independent skilled craftsmen.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) has been concerned about the adverse impact of small arms on the continent’s stability and safety of its people, with the Council of Ministers emphasizing in 1998 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the need for inter-African cooperation in the search for solutions. The OAU did not take a major stride until July 1999, when its Summit met in Algiers, Algeria. At this meeting, the Summit adopted a motion on the “Illicit Proliferation, Circulation and Trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons,” calling for the OAU Secretariat to convene a regional ministerial conference as well as a preparatory experts meeting.

The desired product of these two meetings was a common African approach before the international conference on small arms scheduled for 2001. The meeting of experts was held in May 2000 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the participants making recommendations on preventive measures, reduction strategies, institutional arrangements, operational measures, and a coordinated approach. The recommendations of the experts were refined the next month in an international consultation in Addis Ababa. The regional ministerial conference will take place in Bamako, Mali, in late October and will most likely adopt the enhanced recommendations of the experts.

Sub-regional initiatives

Africa’s sub-regions have also been bent on curbing the problem of small arms, their efforts sometimes outpacing those of the OAU. In West Africa, members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) declared in 1998 a three-year moratorium on the importation, exportation and manufacture of light weapons. In 1999, ECOWAS also established the Programme for Coordination and Assistance for Security and Development (PCASED), a regional project managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Based in Bamako, PCASED has focused on the development of a culture of peace, training of security forces, collection and destruction of surplus and unauthorized weapons, revision and harmonization of national laws on weapons, dialogue with suppliers and producers, enlargement of the moratorium, and the establishment of an arms register. The sub-region has benefitted from the Lome-based United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, which is, among other things, working to develop an arms register and tackling the illicit trafficking of small arms.

Southern Africa is not too far behind West Africa in addressing the small arms problem. On the bilateral front, South Africa and Mozambique have increasingly cooperated in the collection and destruction of weapons inherited from previous conflicts. At the sub-regional level, in 1999, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) established a working group on small arms. It also tasked the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Cooperating Organization (SARPCCO), a body formed in 1995 to deal with cross-border criminality, with drafting a protocol aimed at combating the illicit use, transfer and manufacture of small arms and light weapons within the sub-region. The draft protocol is currently with SADC and member states for review, and might be finalized, along with other protocols facilitating its implementation, by the SADC Summit in the near future.

In East Africa, the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs convened a March 2000 conference on small arms attended by government officials from the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region. The conference endorsed the Nairobi Declaration, which recognized the devastating consequences of the proliferation of illicit small arms and outlined concrete measures to reverse them. Just days after the Declaration was passed, the International Resource Group (IRG), in collaboration with the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) and the East African Cooperation (the EAC has a permanent desk on small arms and works with police chiefs from the area), held a small arms conference in Arusha, Tanzania. The purpose of the conference was to promote a wider discussion on the proliferation of small arms, to raise awareness, and to explore the possibility of adopting a moratorium similar to that of West Africa.

The initiatives in Central Africa are more focused on preventing the conflicts and crises that demand small arms. In 1999, the sub-region operationalized the Council of Peace and Security (COPAX) and its associated branches, the Central African Multinational Force (FOMAC) and the Early Warning Mechanism (MARAC). Unlike Central Africa and other African sub-regions, North Africa is not active in the realm of small arms, partly because of its relative stability. However, the prevailing view is that any initiative should focus on transparency, confidence- building measures, and the establishment of national registers.

Sustaining the momentum

There is little doubt that Africa bears the brunt of the international small arms problem. Fortunately, a great deal of interest exists throughout the continent in freeing the African people from the reign of terror produced by small arms. It appears that Africa will make important contributions to the international small arms conference in 2001, making its case and helping the process move forward. But Africa’s responsibility does not end there. It has to sustain the momentum to get rid of the weapons that facilitate the suffering of many innocent people.

Spread the Word