Navigational Tools: What We Learned from Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa

small arms survey

By: Einas Mohammed, Emilia Dungel, and Nicolas Florquin

A woman and a child carrying a bag of onions crossed into the Central African Republic (CAR) from Cameroon on 27 April, 2014. Inside the bag, buried among the onions, was a box of shotgun ammunition intended for anti-Balaka militia — groups of vigilante units known to have committed a number of atrocities, including carrying out attacks on UN peacekeepers. CAR customs officials along with the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) seized and documented the ammunition.[1]

Source: UNSC (United Nations Security Council). Interim Report of the Panel of Experts in Accordance with Paragraph 59(c) of Resolution 2127 (2013). S/2014/452 of 26 June. (Annexe 18)

Small-scale trafficking across land borders like this is one of the main ways in which illicit arms flow across the African continent, as identified by African Union (AU)[2] member states in Weapons Compass: Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa, an upcoming joint report by the African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey.

The report is the first-ever continental study mapping illicit small arms flows in Africa, and forms part of the African Union’s Silencing the Guns initiative, itself a component of Agenda 2063 — a strategic framework for inclusive and sustainable development promoting peace, security, and stability.

In Weapons Compass, we map out the main characteristics, supply patterns, and actors involved in illicit small arms flows in Africa, based on which we steer the reader towards noting identified gaps, tools, and implementation methods. A few insights:

Six flows

The 22 AU member states who participated in the study overwhelmingly identified cross border flows as the main small arms-related threat. Our joint report identifies five other main sources of illicit small arms in Africa — some continental, the others extra-regional — all of which contribute to the pool of materiel being smuggled across national borders: transfer diversions, diversions from national stockpiles (including peace operations), diversions of civilian holdings, unlicensed craft or artisanal production of firearms, and the illicit conversion of imitation firearms into lethal-purpose weapons.

Source: African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey. Weapons Compass. January 2019.

Three gaps

We also pinpoint pressing knowledge gaps that need to be filled in order to develop evidence-based responses to illicit arms flows. These include:

1. Monitoring and analysis of new and existing sources of illicit small arms, demand factors, and scale

Sources of illicit small arms and ammunition need to be continuously monitored and resulting holdings need to be quantified. This will help in establishing baselines and setting measurable targets. For instance, household surveys can improve our understanding of both firearms within homes themselves, as well as the perceptions of security and other factors influencing demand for illicit small arms cultivated within communities. Peace operations, though often under-utilized in this aspect, can also be leveraged to monitor arms flows. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) investigated weapons used in attacks by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Murabitun brigade, and established that those firearms had been illegally trafficked into the country (as opposed to having been looted from national stockpiles within the country). Parallel to this, we should also address knowledge gaps when it comes to emerging sources of illicit small arms such as craft-produced weapons and converted firearms.

2. Additional analyses of contexts — geographic and political

We tend to have better information on small arms in conflict settings because — crudely put — that’s where international interests and therefore funding tend to be directed. However, were we to increase data collection points in non-conflict settings, we may be able to recognize dynamics that are less well-known. We must also learn more about the gendered dimensions of small arms and the roles of women as active stakeholders, both as armed actors and as the agents of change challenging those actors. Meaningfully engaging established platforms like the African Women Leaders Network (AWLN) and others like it could help enhance the role of women and help ensure interventions are more gender sensitive. Furthermore, the AU recently launched a continental framework for reporting and monitoring on the implementing of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This framework works towards institutionalizing regular and systematic reporting on the implementation of the WPS agenda in Africa, all the while strengthening states’ accountability for implementing said agenda.

3. Communication

Continuous knowledge is only worth so much if retained in isolation. Information gathered about illicit small arms flows in Africa needs to be communicated to those who can make a difference, both within and between countries. The aforementioned investigation of weapons used by the Al Murabitun brigade also revealed that assault rifles of the same model, producer, and year of manufacture were used in attacks by other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. This, and the fact that most of the rifles had sequential serial numbers with markings that had been removed in a similar manner to one another, suggest the weapons used by all these groups originated from the same source — a finding that was only made possible through intelligence-based information sharing between the countries involved and MINUSMA.

Source: African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey. Weapons Compass. January 2019.

Six tools

Once the knowledge gaps are filled, there are six tools for practical guidance that could work to tackle issues identified as priorities by AU member states.

1. Adapting guidelines for stockpile management to the regional context

In Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, there have been attacks by Boko Haram carried out with the specific aim of stealing weapons from those states’ national stockpiles. Diversion is a significant source of illicit small arms in Africa, and can be hindered by improved stockpile management policies. Although international standards can help set direction for weapons and ammunition management professionals in Africa, practical tools specifically developed for the relevant contexts could help states combat diversion more efficiently.

2. Reconsidering weapons-marking programmes

Marking firearms is a means towards preventing diversion as it can help identify the last legal owner of seized illicit weapons and illuminate how the materiel moved from the licit to the illicit market. Strides have been made in improving weapons-marking programmes in Africa but states have continued to experience difficulties, ranging from damages sustained to marking machines during transit to lacking resources for the mobile teams required to mark the equipment of security forces in the field. Noting context-specific guidance about weapons-marking programmes is likely to have substantive benefits.

3. Increasing joint border initiatives

Chad and Sudan established a Joint Border Force that is taking a targeted approach to its work by focusing on the areas of their shared border with the largest populations, engaging in trust-building work with these communities. While too early to speak about its long-term impact, the Joint Border Force has already arrested arms traffickers as well as poachers. Good practices from such initiatives could also be leveraged to establish concrete guidelines at regional or subregional levels.

4. Replicating and evaluating meritorious arms control measures

Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programmes have been carried out in CAR, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone, to name a few. There are established good practices for such DDR programmes, as well as lessons learned emerging from the adaptation of these programmes in ever more complex situations characterized by the growing numbers of armed groups, acute levels of arms proliferation, and the multifaceted and protracted nature of violence. Similar guidance could be developed for other arms control programmes, including voluntary civilian weapons collection programmes, subregional and national end-use(r) controls, and subregional mechanisms to track and monitor brokering activities.

5. Developing guidance to increase registration rates

For another study on craft-produced weapons in Nigeria, a producer told Small Arms Survey researchers that in order to meet a surge in demand for self-loading pistols, he produced up to 30 Beretta replicas, sold on the local market for 74–177 USD per piece. According to another study, there were just over 40 million civilian-held firearms in Africa in 2017 — or ca 80 per cent of all arms on the continent. Of these, 5,841,200 are thought to be registered, 16,043,800 unregistered, and the remaining are noted as of unclear status. AU member states feeding into Weapons Compass encouraged the development of clear guidance on simplifying registration procedures for both civilian-held firearms as well as craft-produced weapons.

6. Recording information about recovered weapons

During arms control measures like those identified in the fourth tool, the report also notes that basic information about recovered firearms — including weapons marked for destruction — should be recorded. To implement such a tool, a careful balance would need to be struck where details recorded about a weapon are thorough enough so that if diverted, the weapon can be traced back to its source, but generic enough so that the confidentiality of the owner who turns in the weapon in the context of an amnesty is protected.

Source: African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey. Weapons Compass. January 2019.

Three levels of implementation

The above tools could be implemented at three levels: international, regional, and national.

1. At the international level, reporting by the main exporters of arms to Africa should be encouraged, dialogues with craft producers should be held, and training for arms exporters on subregional end-use(r) control mechanisms should be carried out.

2. At the regional level, cooperation and information exchange through subregional and national databases, already existing platforms, and reporting practices, should be strengthened and joint law enforcement operations should be encouraged.

3. At the national level, assistance and capacity-building efforts that better respond to needs expressed by national authorities should be coordinated, country profiles compiled for Weapons Compass could be maintained and utilized to identify national priorities and better match needs with resources, and capacity-building initiatives (including harmonizing national legislation, ensuring that national legislation addresses craft production, implementing and enforcing arms embargoes, developing capacities of national forensic institutions) should be supported.

Source: African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey. Weapons Compass. January 2019.

One conclusion

The Small Arms Survey’s vision is a world without illicit small arms and armed violence. The African Union is working on Silencing the Guns by 2020. Weapons Compass brings us closer to both goals. The report and its recommendations are testament to the importance of understanding an issue in order to tackle it. Based on research and analysis, the report provides a compass, a map, and navigational tools; it is now up to stakeholders to drive the momentum forward.


[1] Unless otherwise stated, all information is sourced from: African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey. Weapons Compass: Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa. January 2019.

[2] The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was founded in 1963 with a mission to promote unity, freedom, equality, justice, and dignity for the African people in a post-colonization landscape. As battles against apartheid, for territorial integrity were won, the OAU broadened its scope and extended its sight to propel development, cooperation, and integration on the continent — establishing the African Union (AU) in Durban, South Africa in July 2002. On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AU/OAU, African Heads of State committed to Agenda 2063 and, in turn, Silencing the Guns.

small arms survey

Written by

Providing expertise on all aspects of small arms and armed violence.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade