Small arms and light weapons have seen a radical increase at a global level as the arms trade has grown exponentially over the years. However, when it comes to the impact of illicit trade it is the continent of Africa that continues to bear the brunt of this proliferation.
Small arms and light weapons have seen a radical increase at a global level as the arms trade has grown exponentially over the years. However, when it comes to the impact of illicit trade it is the continent of Africa that continues to bear the brunt of this proliferation. Since 2006, civilian ownership of Small Arms and Light Weapons has increased in the continent with about 40 million small arms in the hands of civilian as opposed to around 11 million stocks under the ownership of states.
This shows that in terms of small arms and light weapons African citizens are more armed than states. It is also very common for state held weapons to frequently enter the illegal market via various ways such as armed robberies, smuggling to proxies by state officials, illicit sale by some corrupt state officials and members of the military.
Illicit proliferation and smuggling is also a result of stockpiles that remain unaccounted for in post –conflict situations. A very good example of this is post- war Libya where small arms that were previously held by the army illicitly proliferated into neighbouring countries such as Mali causing further destabilisation of the region. It is very common for illicit brokers to manipulate inconsistencies and loopholes between national trade laws resulting in these weapons crossing from state to private owners many times over.
There is always a huge demand for Small Arms and Light Weapons especially in fragile states where there are severe economic deprivations, personal insecurity as well as conflict over resources. In fragile statehood, there is a correlation between state failure and a large number of weapons. The inability of the security sector in a fragile state to protect citizens increases the demand for private gun ownership.
Fragile states are also prone to inadequate physical stockpile security management in both the police and the military and this provides an opportunity for theft and illicit trade of state owned arms and ammunition. In addition the rising number of violent extremist or terrorist groups gives a boost for high demands in weapons where the illicit market is already saturated with arms from conflict and post-conflict surroundings (Burkina Faso, Libya, and Ivory Coast). Political instability of this violent extremist nature also fuels a vicious cycles of violence driving civilians and self defence militias and vigilante groups to procure arms for protection.
Due to their lethality Small Arms and Light Weapons are responsible for the majority of battle-related conflict deaths which the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies estimates that 60-90% of all direct conflict victims are killed with firearms. In addition large numbers of men, women, older people and children die indirectly from the effects of armed conflict on the economy, ruined health, diseases and famine. Many people are made refugees or are internally displaced, injured or abused.
The deadly effects of small arms proliferation and smuggling have been felt in deadly conflicts in countries such as Sudan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries. During these conflicts these arms are frequently recycled from country to country and their ownership is transferred amongst fighters, security forces and war profiteers.
The illicit proliferation and impact of illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons goes against the spirit of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 which places more emphasis on a peaceful and secure Africa. In 2016 the African Union (AU) made a declaration of commitment to Silence the Guns by 2020, which was aimed at silencing all the illegal weapons in Africa.
Despite this noble declaration of commitment by the AU for member states to take steps to prevent illicit trade in weapons guns are still blazing across the continent with deadly impact on development as the cost of conflict on development in Africa between 1990 and 2021 has been more than $600 billion. On average a war, civil war or an insurgency shrinks an affected state’s economy by 15%.
This sad state of affairs requires the AU and sub regional bodies such as SADC to work very hard to combat the illicit proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the continent. First and foremost, the AU must continue to stay committed to the implementation of the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, adopted in New York in July 2001 at a landmark conference that decided on steps that nations of the world should take to prevent the illicit trade in small arms.
Secondly, the continental body must revitalise the African Union Strategy on the Control of Illicit Proliferation, Circulation and Trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons which was meant to strengthen coordination and cooperation between and amongst all implementing bodies with the objective of improving implementation at national, regional and continental levels. One of the ways to revitalisation of the strategy is to emphasise on good governance practices, respect to constitutionalism, fighting corruption, sound development policies, etc as a standard requirement for AU membership.
This is because deficits in the above mentioned practices have often resulted in violent conflict which drives the demand for weapons in African states. Thirdly, it is very important for the AU member states to strengthen the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Security Strategy which consists of the overarching, concerted and coherent long-term multilayered plans of actions that will achieve the objectives of the AU to enhance maritime viability for a prosperous Africa.
Member states ( both coastal and inland) must understand that maritime insecurity such as smuggling of arms through maritime routes will continue to fuel conflicts and therefore it is important to develop sound maritime security strategies and policies that will enhance capacity of the AU member states to provide security within the maritime domain.
Last but not least, regional bodies such as ECOWAS, SADC and other regional blocs must work hand in hand with the AU to combat illicit small arms proliferation. For example, a SADC protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other Related Materials should be strengthened by member states so as to effectively prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit manufacturing of fire arms, ammunition and other related materials.
There is need for strong and effective standardisation of legislation on private ownership and harmonised record keeping of state owned guns along with the destruction of surplus state weapons. It is however, worthy to note that to effectively silence the guns in a continent with a long history conflict, state fracture, poor governance, violent extremism, military coups, etc is not something that can be achieved overnight but requires commitment and resilience from all stakeholders within the AU.