Stemming the Tide: African Leadership in Small Arms and Light Weapons Control

African leaders have intensified their efforts to speak out about the illicit transfer of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and their multifaceted effects across Africa.

This is the final post of a series of blogs that complement the book African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms. The book is a One Earth Future supported project evolving out of a call for research surrounding the role of southern regions in norm creation and contestation in an African context. This blog series explores a sampling of the themes addressed in the volume and provides further commentary on the ways African actors have contributed to the development of international peace and security norms.

In the face of mounting peace and security concerns, African leaders have intensified their efforts to speak out about the illicit transfer of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and their multifaceted effects across Africa. In a recent address to the United Nations, the permanent representative of Nigeria, Professor Tijiani Bande, emphasized the disproportionate effects on the region caused by illegally traded arms produced outside the continent.

Current figures indicate that of the 640 million small arms and light weapons circulated globally, an estimated 100 million are located in Africa, 30 million of which are found in sub-Saharan Africa. The accumulation and proliferation of these weapons across the region have directly resulted in conflicts with longer durations and higher fatalities and can be linked to the recruitment of child soldiers, transnational criminal violence, nonstate terrorist campaigns, and various humanitarian violations including rape, torture, and kidnapping.

Subregional Security: ECOWAS and SALW

Representative Bande’s supplication for increased international attention and resources toward SALW control is the continuation of almost three decades’ worth of African leadership in the creation, adoption, and diffusion of SALW control norms. In his contribution to the OEF-supported project that resulted in the edited volume African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms, John Mark Pokoo examines this process in greater detail by analyzing Mali’s role in initiating and mobilizing international support for normative standards surrounding SALW, which substantiated the issue as a security concern within the UN.

Mali would later lead the African group in negotiating the parameters of the UN Firearms Protocol. It sponsored resolutions that significantly shaped international norms in firearm policy as well as regional standards established through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Within this context of multilateral engagement, ECOWAS in particular has emerged as a leading regional institution in the creation and continued development of norms surrounding the spread of small arms in Africa. This is exemplified by the legally binding ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, which regulates the trade, manufacture, possession, and disposal of SALW and related materials in order to maintain subregional security in West Africa.

Many of the principles outlined in the ECOWAS Convention were later instrumental in other regional economic communities in Africa as well as in the negotiations leading to the ratification of the multilateral Arms Trade Treaty in 2014. Beyond regulation, ECOWAS has prioritized providing a more holistic approach to stemming the trade of SALW in the region by formalizing the Small Arms Program and Small Arms Division within the ECOWAS Commission, which serve the region through policy implementation, capacity-building, and monitoring services.

The primacy of ECOWAS in shepherding SALW control norms is not coincidental. Current figures indicate that of the estimated 30 million small arms in circulation in sub-Saharan Africa, many are supplied through the diversion of mismanaged national stockpiles throughout the region.

A series of factors contribute to stockpile diversion, including corruption, negligence, absence of end-user verification, weak border controls, soldiers’ selling weapons and ammunition for profit, and a general lack of accountability systems. While the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons has been a staple of West African conflict—and Africa more broadly—for decades, the notable proliferation of weapons in the Sahel region has led ECOWAS and the UN to place greater emphasis on physical security and stockpile management.

Looking to the Past: The Conflict Cascade

Although there are multiple explanations for this shift, the enduring effects of the 2011 Libyan Revolution and the 2012 Malian Tuareg Rebellion are compelling examples of how ineffective stockpile management and the breakdown of arms security controls can lead to weapons diversion to illicit actors.

Prior to the 2011 revolution, Libya’s arms control policy was distinguished by strict oversight over the private transfer of arms and by the steady acquisition of weapons for a national armory that far exceeded the military resources needed to supply the country’s military. While these weapons supplies were closely managed over the tenure of Qaddafi’s regime, the Libyan Revolution resulted in the abandonment of stockpiles, leading to mass incidents of arms depot theft by armed groups and militias.

In addition to escalating the already dangerous security environment with an influx of more powerful arms, the revolution produced a vacuum in which Libya quickly became one of the most prolific arms traffickers in the region. Although the majority of arms and ammunition outflow occurred in 2012 and 2013, the flow of weapons out of Libya had clear implications for peace and security in neighboring states, as well as for more distant conflict.

The rapid proliferation of Libyan stockpiled weapons into Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia was made possible by the weak security capacity in the region, which was characterized by porous borders, established smuggling networks, and rising demand by emerging violent nonstate groups. This is most evident in the links between the Libyan Revolution and conflict in Mali. Tuareg fighters left the Libyan conflict in 2012 and joined local Tuareg separatists in Mali equipped with superior weapons to fight a rebellion that led to the Malian armed forces’ loss of control in the northern territories. As state control collapsed, these nonstate groups were able to seize the weapons stockpiles of security forces, including heavy weaponry such as rockets and artillery.

While the arms trafficked from Libya have declined due to international intervention in 2013 and a subsequent increase in domestic demand, recent evidence suggests that significant outflows of weapons and ammunition from unregulated stockpiles in Côte d’Ivoire have continued to fuel the conflict in Mali.

Planning for the Future: Breaking the Cycle of Diversion

While not all the weapons procured in the Mali conflict have been sourced through diverted stockpiles, the case does reveal a broader pattern of dynamic weapons flows between conflicts in North and West Africa and the cascading effect of stockpile mismanagement, especially in times of conflict

To address physical security and stockpile management concerns, the UN developed the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG) in 2011, which provide protocols for effective ammunition stockpile control through a “whole life management” approach. Following the IATG, the UN ratified the Arms Trade Treaty in 2014. These regulations have provided an overarching normative environment focused on stockpile management that is well complemented by the subregional support provided by ECOWAS. Despite Mali’s efforts to operationalize the IATG and other SALW norms on a national level, state fragility and regional security dynamics continue to hinder the process. In order for Mali and other states in West Africa to succeed in controlling the proliferation of small arms and light weapons within their borders, they will need to address the broader regional dynamics of illicit arms trade.