Armed conflicts have been Africa’s biggest challenge for decades. Since the early 2000s, there has been a steady rise in organized crimes, ethnoreligious and political violence across the continent. The unending menace has forced an increase in the military expenditure of the affected countries and drastically drain resources. Despite efforts by foreign and local stakeholders, the situation worsens with more militia and terrorist groups springing up in struggles for resource controls and political power. The proliferation of arms is a major factor fueling these crises, as non-state actors have easy access to small arms and light weapons used in unleashing mayhem across the continent, leading to wanton killings, forced migration and reckless destructions of properties.
Arms proliferation is an age-long issue in Africa, which repeatedly begs the question: where do those arms come from? Many findings have shown that it has both internal and external influences. This includes illegal local manufacturing, diversion, and smuggling from other continents. Locally, a considerable number of guns and other weapons are illegally produced by blacksmiths across Africa. For instance, local blacksmiths in Ghana produce about 200,000 illegal guns every year. The cheap rate at which the artisans sell their guns makes it easily accessible to anyone, including individuals with malicious motives. The situation is the same in many other African countries. In 2019, the Nigerian military discovered 2 illegal gun factories producing different kinds of guns, including pistols and AK-47 assault rifles. Findings showed that the factories had been operating for about 20 years.
Another major source of illegal arms in Africa is smuggling. Locals smuggle arms from neighboring countries and also from outside the continent. There have been speculations that most of Gaddafi’s vast arms stockpile have been trafficked to different African countries. In the last quarter of 2020, Customs in Liberia intercepted smuggled ammunition, which included 4 boxes of single-barreled rounds. Also, with the help of the INTERPOL, a police operation, "KAFO'' was able to intercept an arms trafficking network that involved Burkina Faso, Côte D’Ivoire, and Mali. Some soldiers and police officers also contribute to arms proliferation in Africa. These corrupt officers divert arms given to them to terrorists and militias. In Nigeria, there have been reports of some military officers selling arms to Boko Haram, the deadliest terrorist group in Africa.
The proliferation of arms in Africa has led to increased violence, resulting in several human casualties. Data from Statista shows that between 2007 to 2019, terrorists attacked have skyrocketed in Africa, with Nigeria and Somalia being the most affected countries. The majority of these casualties can be linked to already existing religious, political, ethnic and communal conflicts. Unfortunately, the proliferation of arms strongly fuels them, as warring parties usually shun amicable resolutions and opt for violence in settling their differences.
There are records of unquantifiable human losses from one region to another due to the rising armed conflicts. For example, Boko Haram has killed more than 30,000 people in Borno State in Nigeria alone between 2011 and 2021. The daredevil group recently renewed attacks against western education, with the kidnappings of school children in their hostels. In Somalia, Al-Shabab was reported to be responsible for about 4,000 deaths in the past decade. Likewise, Niger recorded its bloodiest violence in years when gunmen killed about 137 persons earlier this year.
The majority of democratic African countries have experienced a series of armed political crises, usually emanating from violent electoral processes and transitions of power. Politicians hire thugs who carry illegal arms to disrupt elections making it difficult for citizens to peacefully exercise their franchise.
One of the bloodiest political crises in recent memory occurred in the 2011 general election in northern Nigeria. The violence erupted with protests by an opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who lost the presidential election to the then incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. More than 800 people were killed in the conflict, which lasted for three days. And over 65,000 people were also displaced. The country's most recent election in 2019 was also marred with violence, with several fatalities recorded. During the Ghana presidential elections in 2020, there were about 21 electoral violence cases; six involved illegal arms and about 5 people were reported dead. Similarly, over 20 people were killed in the aftermath of the Guinea elections in 2020, including security officers.
Arms proliferation also fuels and sustains various ethnic crises in the continent, which explains why many of them have been reoccurring with no lasting solution in sight. Locals fight over properties, land and other resources, and with illegal arms at their disposal, gun violence is easily introduced. The recent ethnic boundary clash between the indigenes of Abia and Akwa Ibom States in Southern Nigeria resulted in the death of about 16 people.
Aside from the deaths, armed crises have left many Africans disabled with various degrees of permanent injuries. It has also caused people to flee their homes and villages, making them refugees in neighboring states and other countries. More than 12 million internally displaced persons are across Africa; just as millions live as refugees abroad. For instance, there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers in the U.K. in the past few years, and many of them are Africans displaced as a result of armed conflicts. The case is the same in many other developed countries, like United States, Canada, France, and Germany. Most of these could have been averted or reduced to the barest minimum if there were no easy sources of illegal arms in the continent.
The menace also has severe financial downturns on the continent, taking tolls on individuals and governments. Notably, armed conflicts have caused the destructions of properties and livelihoods, taking a toll on many people’s finances. A report by the World Council of Churches said armed conflicts cost Africa 18 billion U.S. dollars annually. In Nigeria, for instance, between 2011 to 2016, Boko Haram caused damages worth 9 billion U.S. dollars in just six states. Considering how underdeveloped most African countries are, if arms proliferation didn’t have such an alarming impact, these billions would be used to improve other sectors. In many volatile African communities with high concentrations of uncontrolled arms, doing business is almost impossible, which results in loss of productivity and income for many. Lack of investments, destructions of people’s livelihood and other economic issues emanating from armed crises directly result in a drastic reduction in purchasing power for the affected communities. This also has been one of the major reasons for the recent spike in unemployment rates across African countries.
Arms proliferation has eaten so deep into African societies. Dealing with the problem will require drastic solutions. African leaders need to come together to tackle the problem. Various factors, such as corruption, high unemployment rate, and poor leadership, have been identified as some of the root causes for uncontrolled arms in the continent. According to the African Union Commission, there are 600 million young Africans unemployed, uneducated, or in insecure employment. In Nigeria, for instance, Quartz Africa reported in 2020 that the unemployment rate in the country had tripled in 5 years, and things will only get worse. Having such a high number of uninspired and unempowered youths makes Africa vulnerable to armed conflicts. This broad inequality gap in African countries must be addressed by African leaders. Government must prioritize quality education, social protection, and inclusiveness in all political and social leadership settings. To curb the problem of illegal local arms production, enforcement agencies need to improve efforts in locating and persecuting accordingly, so others are less inclined to continue. Furthermore, there's a need for staunch domestic and global arms regulation. This is to ensure that all arms in circulation in African countries are accounted for, and none falls into the wrong hands.
Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organization affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the U.K.