Global Policy Forum

The Role of Small Arms in African Civil Wars

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By Baffour Dokyi Amoa*

Pambazuka
September 21, 2006


It is not an over-statement to say that small arms in Africa have played the major role in every political conflict, from South, East and West Africa. Baffour Dokyi Amoa writes that "Conservative estimates indicate that there are about eight million small arms and light weapons in West Africa alone. Of the 640 million small arms circulating in the world, it is estimated that 100 million are found in Africa."

In Africa the issue of small arms is important. It is a matter of life and death. It is not an exaggeration to say that small arms have contributed to the political disintegration of many African countries. The effects of the proliferation of small arms are felt by many Africans. In many African countries, there are no people to till arable lands, and generations waste their lives by engaging in pointless wars. Children are denied their childhood and are forced to become adults before puberty. Despite all these, the resilience of the African people is demonstrated by the number of activists and other leaders who risk their lives for peaceful change.

Let me make it clear that my argument is not against the right of sovereign States to manufacture and/or acquire small arms for defense and security purposes within internationally accepted laws and frameworks. The objection raised by civil society to arms proliferation is not against the legal possession of guns when their possession and use does not indiscriminately violate the human rights of others. Our concern is the lack of an international framework to curb the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which kill and maim unarmed and innocent civilians.

In most countries, where there is civil strife, small arms are trafficked through cross border illicit activities such as smuggling. Elsewhere, food for arms seems to be gaining currency.

To substantiate my argument against small arms, let me submit some statistics. At present, there are about 640 million small arms in the world, one for every ten people on earth. The majority, 59% are in the hands of civilians. Further, 38% are owned by government armed forces, 2.8% by police and 0.2% by armed groups. The gun trade is worth US$4 billion a year, of which up to US$1 billion may be unauthorized or illicit. Eight million new guns are manufactured every year by at least 1,249 companies in 92 countries. Ten to 14 billion units of ammunition are manufactured every year, which is enough to kill every person in the world twice over.

It is interesting to note that illicit guns start out in the legal trade. Statistics reveal that 80% of the guns used in crime in Mexico were legally acquired in the US. Similarly, 72% of the guns used in crime in Rio de Janeiro were once legally owned in Brazil.

A thousand people a day die as a result of guns. Of these 1000 deaths, on average 560 are criminal homicides, 250 are direct war deaths; 140 are suicides, while 50 are accidents or cases of undetermined intent. Three people are wounded for every one killed. Small arms are responsible for 60-90% of the direct conflict deaths that occur each year. Tens of thousands of children are armed and are fighting in more than 20 conflicts around the world.

Conservative estimates indicate that there are about eight million small arms and light weapons in West Africa alone. Of the 640 million small arms circulating in the world, it is estimated that 100 million are found in Africa. Several regions of Africa have made and continue to make efforts to curb the proliferation of small arms, such at the West Africa Moratorium on Importation, the Exportation and Manufacture of Small Arms initiated by civil society, which has now adopted as a Convention awaiting ratification by Member States of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

To be fair, African governments are making efforts to deal with the menace caused by small arms; however, their efforts are undermined by arms brokers and governments with expansionist aspirations who push small arms into the hands of "non-state actors" for personal gain. These non-state actors usually push the same agenda from one country to another, and that is to gain control over an area with valuable mineral resource. The international community could play a vital role in curbing the proliferation of small arms. The international community ought to challenge the small arms manufacturers and to put pressure on them to slow down with the production of small arms. The UN Review Conference on Small Arms, which was held in June 2006 in New York, did not achieve the desired results, and so much effort is still needed to secure agreement on how to curb the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

Children and armed conflict

Children are a wonderful gift of God to humanity. Why should any one be allowed by society to abuse innocent children just to achieve callous personal ambition? Why should society look away when poor and fragile youngsters are violently forced to maim and be maimed?

The UN Security Council Resolutions 1612 should be commended. It behooves policy makers and diplomats, as well as civil society movements, to demand that the protection of children from small arms be enforced.

When children are sucked into the vortex of armed violence, society suffers the consequences far beyond the current generation. For the generation that was denied the opportunity to experience childhood and education, illiteracy limits them, low economic productivity become their way of life, and breakdown of law and order defines them.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then United Nations Secretary-General, said in his agenda for Peace in 1995: "The sources of conflict and war are pervasive and deep. To reach them will require our utmost effort to enhance respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to promote sustainable economic and social development for wider prosperity, to alleviate distress and to curtail the existence and use of massively destructive weapons." Graí§a Machel's UN Report on Impact of Armed Conflict on Children noted child soldiers are an affront to humanity.

Much-needed resources for development are set aside for post war maintenance activities. For instance, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) had to launch a US$7 million emergency appeal for Liberia to put 750 000 children back in school. A programme had to be mounted to demobilize about 15 000 child soldiers in Liberia. As things stand, only 51% of school-going age children are actually attending school in Liberia.

Even in peaceful countries, there are many thousands of children taking part in organized armed violence using small arms. Children patrol group territories openly armed in parts of Brazil, Colombia, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Philippines, and other places. Small arms become seen as a symbols of power, dominance, and worth. Children in such communities grow up believing that violence, especially from using small arms and light weapons, is essential for gaining power, obtaining goods and services, and establishing respect, thus perpetuating the culture of violence.

Religion, Children and Armed Conflict

When people exist in a space where human beings are slaughtered like sheep, where women and young girls are raped and maimed with impunity, where children are exploited and are forcibly turned into soldiers, many turn to religion. Religion offers these people hope and religion helps these people deal with the pain of losing loved ones.

Faith-based organisations continue to provide assistance to the victims of war and to the poor according to the tenets of the religion they subscribe to. When conflict explodes and disaster strikes, it is normally religious groups that commence with humanitarian activities before the international aid groups appear on the scene.

There are several countries where faith based organizations have proven themselves by responding with such efficiency that even the UN has shown an interest in forming partnerships with these communities. Such collaboration ought to be structured, formalized and implemented globally. It is time to build strategic partnerships to fulfill the call of Graí§a Machel that whatever the causes, the time has come to call a halt and affirm that "attacks on children are intolerable and unacceptable."

About the Author: Baffour Dokyi Amoa is the Chairman of the West Africa Action Network on Small Arms (WAANSA) and the President of the Africa Forum on Small Arms (AFonSA)


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.