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The Legacy of Illicit Small Arms: Devastation in West Africa

U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus

Briefing on Small Arms in West Africa


I am pleased to be here today to talk to you about an issue that has for years been overshadowed by other crucial foreign policy discussions.  The need to address small arms today is urgent and critical.  The human cost of small arms proliferation is immeasurable.  Small arms are a class of weapons responsible for an estimated 500,000 deaths and thousands more injuries each year.  Women and children suffer disproportionately from the proliferation of small arms.  The spread and misuse of small arms cause, prolong, and exacerbate humanitarian crises around the world.  Today we are focusing on one particular region West Africa – where the devastating effects of small arms are all too clear. 

In this brief presentation, I want to give you an overview of the SALW problem in West Africa, steps the region, continent, and international community are taking to mitigate the problems caused by SALW proliferation and misuse, and specific policies the United States can undertake to assist in reducing the negative consequences of SALW in West Africa.

The number of small arms in West Africa is estimated at 7-8 million, with a minimum of 77,000 in the hands of West African insurgent groups.  For example, Guinea Bissau, one of the poorest countries in the world, is estimated to have 25,000 weapons in circulation, and Nigeria is believed to have at least 1 million illicit small arms.  These weapons are not necessarily new to the region, as recirculation of weapons – stockpiles left over from the Cold War when Africa was a cold battleground – have left a dramatic legacy on the people and countries of West Africa. However, new weapons supplies have entered West Africa from former Soviet States in recent years as well. Weapons are not only easily available, they can also be purchased cheaply. One recent report found that in Nigeria one could acquire pistols for between $25 -$58, depending on the type. During the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, guns were commonly traded for diamonds and other resources.  At this point, I would like to mention that we should not underestimate the role that diamonds have played in the proliferation of arms in West Africa. Diamonds, and other commodities, such as timber, have fueled the West African arms trade and allowed conflicts to perpetuate for decades.  Arms brokering has become a lucrative trade in West Africa. Currently, the United Nations is investigating arms trafficking to and through Liberia during the regime of Charles Taylor.

Throughout West Africa, small arms are in the hands of states and non-state actors, meaning ethnic militia groups, private security companies, arms smugglers, criminal gangs, bandits, mercenaries, and vigilantes. These groups often act with impunity, using small arms to wage wars, terrorize civilian populations, and commit horrific human rights abuses. Experts estimate that 2 million West Africans alone have died in conflicts involving SALW since 1990.  Moreover, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers believes that more than 120,000 African children under the age of 18 are used as soldiers in conflicts perpetuated by the availability and use of small arms.

In the last 5 years, states have given greater recognition to the devastating consequences of small arms. Africa has become home to continental and regional efforts to control SALW proliferation – both through legal and illicit channels.  West Africa houses the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa located in Lome, Togo. And, West Africa was subjected to two arms embargoes in the 1990s – as both Sierra Leone and Liberia were put under UN arms embargoes in 1997 and 1992 respectively. But, there have also been concrete regional and international steps to control small arms that have an impact on proliferation in West Africa. I want to mention four of these briefly.

The first is the ECOWAS Moratorium – on Importation, Exportation, and Manufacture of Light Weapons.  The Moratorium was initially signed October 31, 1998 for a 3 year period. It was extended for additional 3 years July 5, 2001 and is valid until October 31, 2004.  The 16 ECOWAS member states -- Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo – adopted the moratorium because of the realization that small arms and light weapons have been the primary weapons involved in the multitude of conflicts that have plagued West Africa in the past decade, most notably in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Guinea Bissau. The Moratorium allows for states to apply for exemptions to meet national security needs or international peacekeeping requirements, but otherwise is intended as a true moratorium. The Regime has 3 parts – the moratorium itself, the Plan of Action for PCASED, the Program of Coordination and Assistance on Security and Development that acts as the supporting mechanism and secretariat for the moratorium, and Code of Conduct, which sets out the details of the Moratorium. The moratorium itself is not binding.

Second, in preparation for the 2001 UN Conference, African States adopted the Bamako Declaration December 1, 2000 in order to develop a common African Approach to SALW and to ensure codification, harmonization, and standardization of national norms and the enhancement of sub-regional and continental cooperation among police, customs, and border control services. The Declaration encourages:

·        Creation of national coordination agencies for small arms

·        Enhancement of the capacity of national law enforcement and security agencies and officials, including training and upgrading of equipment and resources

·        Destruction of surplus and confiscated weapons

·        Development of public awareness programs

·        Conclusion of bilateral arrangements for small arms control in common frontier zones

Third is the UN Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacture of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition – adopted by the General Assembly on May 31, 2001. The Protocol:

·        Promotes uniform international standards for the international movement of firearms of import, export and transit

·        Fosters cooperation and exchange of information an national, regional, and global levels, including firearms identification, detecting and tracing; and

·        Promotes international firearms cooperation through the development of an international system to manage commercial shipments.

To date, only one-third of ECOWAS states are signatories to the Protocol – Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone – and only Burkina Faso and Mali have ratified the Protocol.

Fourth is the UN Programme of Action, which arose from the 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects. The Programme of Action is a politically binding document with recommendations for states at the national, regional, and global levels to stop the illicit proliferation of SALW. For example, the PoA calls for:

·        The establishment a national focal point and coordination agency on small arms

·        Disarmament, Demobilization & Re-integration (DDR) of ex-combatants, including collection and destruction of their weapons

·        Better enforcement of arms embargoes

·        More complete information exchanges

·        Inclusion of civil society organizations in efforts to prevent SALW proliferation

Only 7 of the ECOWAS states submitted reports on their implementation of the PoA (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Mali, Niger, and Senegal) in 2003. And, only 5 West African Countries have established National Points of Contact (Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea, Senegal). While State action on the PoA has been spotty in West Africa, civil society, particularly, the West African Action Network on Small Arms (WAANSA), has been incredibly helpful in coordinating civil society organizations and working with governments in their efforts to stop the proliferation of small arms and to work to implement the PoA at the regional level.

I want to end by stating that the dangers of small arms go beyond the borders of West Africa and are a genuine threat to U.S. national interests and security. Small arms proliferation in one region can lead to proliferation in another.  These weapons perpetuate violent conflict and create new cycles of violence and crime.  Often, these conflicts require U.S. and international involvement, which puts U.S. troops and peacekeepers at risk as they are often the targets of small arms violence. At the end of 2003 U.S. Marines deployed in Liberia were threatened by small arms and efforts to disarm warring factions were hindered due to the massive number of weapons in circulation. On an economic front, small arms proliferation diminishes U.S. business opportunities abroad and raises the costs of doing business.  From the humanitarian side, small arms proliferation, undermines the ability of humanitarian and relief organizations to conduct their efforts, and weakens the possibilities for sustainable development. 

Controlling the flow of small arms is an integral part of the efforts underway to fight terrorism.  Terrorist networks will continue to thrive if the root causes of their actions are not addressed, and if the flow of the tools of their trade are not hindered. From disarming ex-combatants and destroying surplus stockpiles of weapons to prevent their theft or diversion, to maintaining strict criteria for small arms exports and incorporating strict end-use monitoring, controlling the proliferation of small arms is essential to prevent these deadliest of weapons from ending up in the hand of terrorists. The porous borders in West Africa have allowed the Algerian terrorist group Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) to operate within the region.  While West Africa is not the origin of well established terrorist networks, the stockpiles of small arms available in the region are attractive to terrorist groups hunting for cheap, easily available weapons to conduct their activities.

The United States must support the existing regional and international efforts to control the proliferation and misuse of small arms. Through both financial and diplomatic means, the United States must provide resources and expertise to implement provisions of the ECOWAS Moratorium, the Bamako declaration, the UN Protocol and UN PoA.  U.S. leadership on the small arms issue, from encouraging West African States to meet their regional and international obligations to ensuring that U.S. weapons aren’t transferred to the region are key steps in halting the dire effects of small arms in the West African region. There are also institutional steps the United States can take to ensure that small arms are addressed.

First, Congress should legislate a moratorium on arms sales to all regions of conflict – especially ongoing conflicts – a policy that was announced by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1999, but was never addressed by Congress.  West Africa will continue to see conflict until there is a widespread commitment to ensure new stocks do not enter the supply chain.

Second, not only should new supplies of small arms be halted, but existing stockpiles must be mopped up.  West African countries would benefit from community based weapons collection programs. Rather than turning in weapons for cash, a neighborhood could receive increased security patrols, assistance with rebuilding schools, roads, shops, or provision of electricity, for a target number of weapons turned in.  AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades, and missiles have no place in households. Once weapons are collected, the United States has two choices: to assist with their destruction or to ensure that weapons are suitably secured. Destruction need not be a costly or burdensome endeavour. The United States has experience training local populations on weapons destruction, and has recently provided technical and financial assistance to destruction programs in 10 countries at a total cost of only $5.25 million, destroying nearly 300,000 weapons and over 7.5 million rounds of ammunition.  Because known arms depots are often poorly guarded, and have become reliable sources for those individuals seeking weapons, the United States must begin training West Africans in proper stockpile security and management. Indeed the United States already has such model programs underway in several other countries.

Third, the United States should support the development of legally binding norms and the implementation of measures to stop weapons from winding up in the hands of abusive forces, be they either governments or non-state actors.  In general, the United States should look to export its best practices in addressing the proliferation of small arms and assist those government that do not have adequate export controls in place to develop reliable systems.  The United States already has one of the best export control systems in the world and should look to internationalize our best practices.  This includes assisting West African countries in developing national and international regulations on arms brokering and the strict adherence to arms embargoes. 

These are just some of the steps the United States can take, all of which will lead to progress on the issue.  Action on small arms is a step-by-step process requiring a long-term effort. But in the short term, U.S. action and leadership on small arms will begin the process of undoing the damage these weapons cause.  While immediate and future action on small arms in West Africa should include partnership between governments and NGOs, in the end, it is governments, those within West Africa and those that have the capacity to help, that must be held accountable.  The bottom line is that addressing small arms is about saving lives, ending human suffering, and creating a more sustainable and peaceful future. Thank you.

Author(s): Rachel Stohl

The goal of the Straus Military Reform Project is to secure far more effective military forces and much more ethical and professional military and civilian leadership at significantly lower budget levels.

We would like to thank Philip A. Straus Jr. and family for their generous support.

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