Combatting Small Arms Proliferation in Africa: Focusing on Weapons Already in Circulation

By Eric G Berman

Last month, on 2 April, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) by an overwhelming majority. African governments played a leading role in championing the treaty and ensuring that it covered small arms and addressed ammunition. No African country voted against the treaty and only three abstained: Egypt, Sudan, and Swaziland. There is little doubt that when the treaty is opened for signature on 3 June African states will be well represented among the initial signatories.

While this is undoubtedly a considerable accomplishment, African governments should keep in sight the prevailing security challenge that the ATT does not address: the poor control of arms and ammunition already in circulation on the continent. In particular, these governments must manage their own stockpiles more effectively.

Many weapons held by civilians and armed groups are domestically sourced. Sometimes this distribution of arms is a result of deliberate government policy. It may be motivated by electoral politics to encourage certain people to go to the polls, or to dissuade others from voting. Other times small arms and ammunition are distributed in recognition of citizens’ legitimate security needs and the state’s limited reach to provide for law and order in parts of its territory.

More often, arguably, this proliferation is unplanned. Materiel is seized – or at times rented – from government stocks. Materiel diverted may vary in quantity and sophistication from an official’s individual sidearm, to a small police depot with rifles, to a military armory with crew-served light weapons and large munitions. (The looting of weapons and munitions from state holdings in Libya will have ramifications for numerous countries for generations.) Government weapons have also been seized while in transit and after recovery activities. The materiel seized may be used against the state’s own security forces and to commit human rights violations against the populace.

Poorly governed national stockpiles can also undermine a state’s security even when no materiel changes hands. Unplanned explosions at munitions sites (UEMS) occur with surprising frequency. The Small Arms Survey has documented more than 400 UEMS in more than 90 countries – 21 in Africa – in the past 25 years. The actual numbers of incidents and countries affected are certainly higher as governments remain unenthusiastic about reporting on UEMS. It is not unusual for a single UEMS event to kill tens, injure hundreds, and displace thousands. As residents of Brazzaville and Lagos can attest, sometimes the explosions are significantly more deadly. Moreover, socio-economic effects affecting communities near the explosion can be widespread and last longer than cleanup efforts, which get more attention.

What can African governments do about this? Plenty.

Governments can better secure their stocks in numerous ways— as they are required to do under various international instruments. They should ensure that arms and ammunition are stored in locations with proper oversight, security, and safety protocols. They need to mark their arms and keep records of these weapons and their locations to help prevent loss and to aid in tracking weapons that go missing. Access to stores should be restricted and carefully monitored. Facilities’ perimeters need to be well lit and guarded. States should test the stability of their stockpiled munitions’ propellants, which degrade over time, to alert them to potential hazards. Munitions in large quantities should not be stored near population centers. This is a very incomplete list. Nothing noted is controversial or impossible. And yet many governments—across the globe—pay insufficient heed to what needs to be done.

Certainly, limited resources are a constraint for all governments. But African states must shoulder more of the burden than they currently do, and not rely excessively on external assistance. Many beneficial initiatives can be implemented at little or no cost. Sometimes governments have taken possession of donor-provided equipment such as marking machines and then not used them. This is unconscionable. At the end of the day, until governments – not just African – see surplus and aging stockpiles as liabilities rather than assets, the problem of proliferation through diversion and loss will continue: ATT or no ATT.

Eric G Berman is the Managing Director of the Small Arms Survey. The Survey is a project of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. For more information see


About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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