Tracking weapons flows in Africa

By Jessica Delaney, Assistant editor, Strategic Comments

Weapons are flowing across the Sahel from Libya, and from Iran and China to countries such as Sudan, as a new form of arms trade takes shape in Africa. Speaking at the IISS recently, expert James Bevan explained that a predominantly ‘home-grown’ illicit trade had arisen, in which weapons were passed from governments to rebel groups, stolen from armed forces or trafficked by individuals as states collapsed.

This was a very different picture from that during the 1990s and early twenty-first century, when failing Eastern European states supplied cash-rich warlords involved in conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Libya joined the emerging hubs of weapons sales after the collapse of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011. Other hubs included the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

China, the largest purchaser of Sudanese oil, is one of Khartoum’s principal weapons suppliers. The two countries have enjoyed this arms-for-oil relationship for several years, and China has defended its arms sales to Sudan several times. Bevan, the director of Conflict Armament Research, said Beijing was thought to be not only shipping weapons to Khartoum for onward distribution, but also assisting Sudan to manufacture weapons domestically.

In Cote d’Ivoire, illicit Iranian-manufactured weapons had been seized after they were delivered to forces loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo during the 2010–11 civil war, in which Gbagbo refused to concede electoral defeat to current president Alassane Ouattara. Both countries are subject to international weapons sanctions.

Iranian weapons were first detected in northern Kenya in 2007, but their provenance was only confirmed several years later. Further seizures had been made in Sudan and Guinea.

Just as the 2011 upheaval turned Libya into a key source of illicit arms, state arms sold off during the turmoil in Guinea in 2009 – after a military junta took power – had reached Mali and the wider Sahel within two weeks.

Drawing on more than a decade’s experience of tracking weapons across the African continent, Bevan said that up to ten states were thought to have given weapons to non-state actors, including Chad, Eritrea, Uganda and Sudan.

Last month, the UK’s Minister for International Development Alan Duncan spoke at the IISS about the need for a robust arms trade treaty. Bevan was pessimistic about negotiations on the new treaty, set for July in New York, suggesting that a focus on light weapons might have been a more effective preliminary step.

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