New illicit flows of arms and ammunition contribute to fueling conflict and instability in West Africa.
The Eolika, a freighter flying the Guyanese flag, had already been detained in the port of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, because of “incoherent” declarations.
But at the time of writing, it was still unclear why this ship made an unexpected stopover in Dakar, prompting civil society organizations to call more transparency on this transfer.
This expedition highlights the ambiguities that characterize the international trade in small arms is full of ambiguity. Available statistics do not capture all actual transfers (as opposed to reported transfers).
However, it is important to be able to measure the extent of this trade.
Our organization, the Small Arms Survey (Small Arms Surveys), maintains a database on the transparency of authorized transfers of small arms around the world: the Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer.
Launched in 2003, the Barometer presents annual state reports on arms exports, to assess the transparency of the world's main exporters of small arms and light weapons, and their parts, accessories and ammunition.
A trade that lacks transparency
This applies, to only to what kinds of products your potential customers buy, but also to the way these products are promoted through advertising and marketing content. 2021 edition, the 50 exporters examined scored an average of 12,61 points out of a possible maximum score of 25.
Even though this score has increased slightly compared to 2020, it remains low, which shows that the international community still has a long way to go in promoting transparency in the arms trade.
The quality of data on the small arms trade in Africa is no exception. Information on ammunition transfers to the mainland is particularly scarce.
Our analysis of the 2020 trends in the authorized global trade in small arms, Trade Update (Trade Update) 2020: An Eye on Ammunition Transfers to Africa, showed that African ammunition imports amounted to USD 97,7 million in 2017, or 42% of the continent's total small arms imports.
The picture is not complete: the magnitude of transactions from the least transparent exporters is particularly difficult to assess.
Field research of ammunition used in conflict zones and export records compiled by commercial entities reveal larger ammunition transfers than reported by African states and their trading partners.
From authorization to diversion
The edition of Trade Update 2020 also partially describes how authorized transfers can subsequently end up in the hands of unauthorized armed groups.
Such “hijacking” can occur when declared end users participate in unauthorized new transfers.
It also often happens that armed groups and criminals manage to seize national stockpiles or recover weapons from the battlefield, sometimes shortly after the delivery of this material to State entities.
For example, in 2014, the United Nations group of experts responsible for monitoring the application of the arms embargo imposed on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) indicated the presence of heavy machine gun ammunition, including the markings were consistent with Chinese manufacture, in arms caches of armed groups in the country's North Kivu province.
In its 2015 report, the group of experts established that this ammunition was originally part of a 2012 delivery for 12,7×108mm ammunition from China, destined for the Armed Forces of the DRC.
This transfer was not transparent insofar as it had not been notified to the UN Sanctions Committee; he therefore violated the derogation procedures provided for in the framework of the arms embargo on the DRC.
This case illustrates the speed with which – in less than two years – undeclared ammunition transfers can be diverted into the illicit sphere.
New illicit flows of arms and ammunition fuel existing trafficking networks which, in West Africa, contribute to fueling conflict and instability in several ways.
Mediafixer recherches carried out by the Small Arms Survey in the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali, for example, have proven the increase in smuggling and trafficking activities due to the growing local demand for illicit goods and of firearms.
This demand is fueled by banditry, the need for self-defense of communities, the dependence of traditional hunters on firearms, but also artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
This booming trade challenges the ability of states to monitor and control their borders.
Several governments in the region have sought to contain and address insecurity by relying more on local vigilante groups to provide protection to communities, raising concerns about the risk of excessive use of force, severe punishments, even extrajudicial executions.
Regional trafficking routes also extend well beyond local borders and connect the Gulf of Guinea to the Sahara in the north and central and eastern Africa (see map).
Some of the main smuggling hubs are in the Saharo-Sahelian region, which has been particularly affected by the conflicts and attacks by the main armed groups designated as terrorists.
Security-focused responses to these threats have also shown their limitations as they tend to affect the livelihoods of local communities who depend on informal cross-border trade.
They may also encourage smugglers engage in trafficking and other illicit activities to earn a living.
Although the specific links between arms trafficking and insecurity are complex and context-dependent, it is clear that illicit transfers to Africa can quickly reach countries and regions affected by insecurity and armed violence.
Achieving greater transparency in the trade in small arms and ammunition would lead to more effective and independent monitoring of the legal trade, which in turn would help prevent its diversion to unauthorized users and traffickers.
Emilia Dungel, Communications Coordinator and Editor of the Small Arms Survey, contributed to this article.
Nicolas Florquin, Data and Analysis Manager and Principal Investigator for the Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute - Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) et Alaa Tartir, Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the North Africa Security Assessment Project at the Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute - Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID)
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