Global Policy Forum

Fuelling Africa's Turmoil


By Olivia Ward

Toronto Star
May 27, 2006

The continent is awash in firearms. With young fighters going from conflict to conflict, eradicating the demand may be more difficult than eliminating the supply, one expert tells Olivia Ward.

Arms dealers are Africa's birds of prey, picking the bones of countries already destitute from years of murderous violence. But an African security expert says the burgeoning trade in small arms — those which can be carried by individuals — has also created a dangerous new scenario in which battle-hardened young gunmen infiltrate borders across the continent, providing ready firepower for conflicts that migrate to new territory even as peace deals are signed.

The career fighters, he says, are part of a broad-based gun culture that makes the demand for weapons a steadily increasing factor in Africa's destructive arms trade — and decreases the hope for peace in such conflict-ridden areas as Darfur. "Youth unemployment is horrific in most of Africa," said Eboe Hutchful, chair of the African Security Sector Network, an umbrella group of politicians, security experts and academics working for security sector reform. "There are many young men who see no alternative to offering their services to whoever wants to hire them to fight. They may not start conflicts, but they're available to anyone who is ready for a war."

The "hired guns" take their weapons with them, but sometimes barter them for cash along the way, said Hutchful. In Africa's huge arms bazaar, there are many opportunities to rearm. "(Demobilized fighters) may be offered $300 in Liberia, but $900 in Ivory Coast. They'll take the money and move on somewhere else," Hutchful said.

According to the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms, there are 8 million firearms in the West Africa alone, and millions of people have been killed by them in Central and East Africa, in spite of regional accords meant to halt the flow of weapons.

Hutchful, a Ghanaian political scientist and University of Toronto grad, heads the Ghana-based African Security Dialogue and Research, and is professor of African Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. In Africa, he says, demand is catching up with supply as a fundamental factor in the floodtide of arms sweeping the continent. "Eradicating the demand may be even more difficult than getting rid of the supply," Hutchful said in a telephone interview during a recent visit to Ottawa. "In some African countries guns are now part of the culture. You have to have a personal weapon," he said.

Once acquired, small arms — defined as deadly weapons that can be carried by individual combatants — flow easily across Africa's porous borders, Hutchful said. "Many African countries aren't in a good position to address the problem. There are initiatives, but they're difficult to enforce. Small arms are simply out of control."

The multi-million-dollar international arms trade is responsible for many of the weapons that plague Africa today, despite tracking efforts and arms embargoes. Reports show that guns are invading territory where they were once almost unknown, such as western Kenya, where an influx of automatic weapons has turned cattle theft among the impoverished Pokot tribe into civil war.

However, Hutchful says, foreign-made arms are only part of the problem. Africa's black market weapons manufacturers are now taking a cue from importers. "In West Africa, there are a number of producers of small arms. But there's a sense of denial about locally manufactured weapons — (governments) don't want to admit that they themselves might be proliferators."

Many of the producers, Hutchful says, are ordinary blacksmiths looking to boost their small incomes: "They produce routine agricultural implements and guns for hunting. But the guns end up in the hands of criminals. In Ghana and Nigeria there is a lot of armed robbery done with locally made weapons." Some local producers are trying to "go legitimate" by declaring their businesses and operating under government rules. But Hutchful says, "there are huge amounts of dirt-cheap arms already circulating. It may not be worth their while."

As long as arms are cheap and available, experts say, there is scant hope of solving the deep and deadly problems that beset Africa, from the brain drain of its most capable people to the huge death toll from HIV-AIDS, which is at its worst in conflict zones. International organizations and aid agencies stress development can only go hand in hand with disarmament, Hutchful says. But without investment that creates jobs for millions of armed and hungry young men, countries recovering from wars can too easily slip back into conflict.

"If there are no jobs, how can demobilized fighters reintegrate (as civilians)? Only a few can get jobs in private security companies. There is money available for demobilization and disarmament, but once it's exhausted, what do you do then?" The connection between economic despair and violence was highlighted by a tragic-comic incident in Ghana shortly after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. "In the port city of Sekondi-Takoradi, somebody (in a radio station) played an April fool's trick, announcing that anybody interested in fighting in Iraq should go to the football stadium. Thousands of young people turned up and waited all day. It was a bad joke, but there was a deadly significance to it. It showed that there was a huge number of people ready to fight, because that was their livelihood," Hutchful said.

The failure of many disarmament programs also points to the underlying problem of poverty and underdevelopment: a situation made worse by attempts at Western-style "shock therapy" economic reform. "It's a systemic problem. But Western countries often see it only as a breakdown in security. Many Africans would say it was a breakdown in the type of development (that has been applied there). People suffered economically and that aggravated the situation."

In countries that have managed to embrace democracy, Hutchful said, the odds on reducing violence are better. In northern Mali, a bitter five-year conflict between the settled population and the nomadic Tuareg ended in 1995, followed by integration of Tuareg fighters into the regular army. Mali's military dictatorship was ousted and democratic elections held in 2002.

But as a sign of how difficult it is to quell armed conflicts once they have begun, Tuareg attacks on two northeastern towns have left several people dead, and a group of Tuareg army deserters made off with a cache of government weapons and ammunition. Nevertheless, says Hutchful, "Mali has had real success in disarmament after its Tuareg conflict, because it did democratize. It's poor, but in spite of its difficulties it's a transformed society and people have more hope."

But Hutchful warns the failure of democracy in many African countries has also compounded the problem of violence — and complicates peace efforts in hotspots like Darfur in Sudan. "You need regional co-operation if you're going to stop the flow of arms. That means transparency and accountability. "But there's no real trust in regional relationships where you have rogue governments existing side by side with more democratic ones. When trouble ignites, it also migrates — just as weapons do."

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Small Arms and Light Weapons


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