The flow of illegal arms into Africa, despite the efforts of African states and NGOs, remains out of control. Where do these weapons come from and how do they end up in the hands of criminals?
Despite the will of the United Nations (UN), NGOs specializing in the fight against illegal weapons, intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies of African States, the spread of small arms and light weapons ( SALW) in Africa never ceases to worry.
Worse, these illegally obtained weapons now seem to be becoming a business of choice for rebel groups or terrorists in the most violent regions of Africa. From Africa's Great Lakes to the Sahel to North Africa, assault rifles and explosives find their way to criminals of all kinds.
In general, the communication around the occasional seizures of these weapons does not cover their provenance. While some of these weapons are stolen from the security forces after the armed confrontations, and another part comes from local manufacturers, the majority of SALW used by African armed groups actually comes from licensed factories.
It is therefore not uncommon to see relatively advanced equipment in the hands of terrorists. When it comes to the Ukrainian or South African Vepr, Chinese or Finnish AK-47 variants, the Israeli Galil, the Belgian FN Fal or even ammunition from Europe and Latin America, no one seems inclined to explain how these weapons travel around the world before contributing to the massacres of civilians in Africa.
AK-47, the victim of a communication strategy
It has been more than nine years since the inventor of the AK-47, Mikhail Kalashnikov, passed away. But at the end of his life, the Russian engineer said: “I am proud of my invention, but I am sad that it is used by terrorists. (…) It's not pleasant to see all sorts of criminals shooting my guns”.
But what few people, apart from connoisseurs, suspect is that none of the 148 weapons invented by Kalashnikov in recent decades are sold illegally. And this concerns the famous AK-47 just as much as its regular variants.
However, official statistics claim that the AK-47 is present in the official arsenal of 87 countries around the world, including 33 African countries. As for illegal weapons, there is a recurring error: we readily attribute the qualifier AK-47 to all automatic weapons that look like it aesthetically.
Read: The dangers of opacity around the arms trade in Africa
Nothing is less true. The majority of illegal weapons produced or trafficked to Africa, according to reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Interpol or African law enforcement, are lighter calibers and often more advanced.
The confusion between the traditional Russian AK-47 and derivative weapons made in Western factories is deliberate. With a 10 to 1 ratio between the AK-47 and other automatic SALW when the Warsaw Pact was signed, the Kalashnikov image is simply a communication strategy. Its purpose is to suggest, when reading Western reports that the AK-47 is "the most popular killer in the world". A way to clear other manufacturers.
Lack of transparency in arms seizures in Africa
In Nigeria, for example, what looks like an AK-47 in the hands of Boko Haram terrorists or bandits and rebels in the north and south of the country are, for the most part, Chinese, Hungarian, Albanian or even made… in Nigeria.
According to a source from the National Commission for the Collection and Control of Illicit Weapons (CNCCAI) in Niger, the OBJ-006 — Nigeria's AK-47 — is increasingly common on the black market in neighboring Nigeria. North. "We seized, in 2021, at least 4 AK-000s manufactured in Nigeria, against ten thousand weapons from Cameroon or Libya", says the soldier, who deplores the lack of political will to submit the seizure data to specialized parties.
A lack of transparency also deplored by the Swiss NGO Small Arms Survey, the world's leading source for listing illegal SALW. In his last report, dating from 2019 and established with the help of the African Union, it recalls that "the 49 largest world exporters of small arms have an average score of 12,35 points out of a total of 25" in terms of transparency.
Just a month ago, a cargo ship bound for Guyana from Italy, which inexplicably stopped in Dakar, contained three containers of undeclared Italian ammunition.
US weapons in disguise
A UNODC report, dating from last December, explains that the weapons circulating on the black market in Africa are mainly of Chinese manufacture, PK or Norinco for the most part, which also resemble AK-47s.
An observation not shared with the Sahelian authorities for example. In Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone, at least a third of the weapons seized in 2021 are American M-16s, Polish PMKs or Israeli Galils and Uzis. These light weapons, despite their higher prices than the artisanal equivalents or from Brazil, Venezuela or Eastern Europe, are increasingly coveted.
The secret behind the popularity of these more capable weapons is first and foremost a trade secret. The commercial director of a Turkish company specializing in SALW confided to us that, “despite the multiplication of sources of small arms intended for the African market, the investors are still the same, and are often American or European”.
In particular, he talks about the dominance of the market by American arms companies located in Poland and Turkey, whose product of choice is still light machine guns. “They produce bastard pieces, using 5,56mm ammunition but resembling an AK-47 – which uses 7,62mm bullets,” says the specialist. “These weapons pass through Sierra Leone, which has been less strict about arms licenses since the civil war, and even less since the lifting of the ban on small arms in 2012,” he concludes.