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The Scourge of Small Arms Proliferation in West Africa and the Solution To An Arms Free Region

By Emmanuel Abalo (February 07 2006)  

"... It is recommended then that the African Union and ECOWAS, with technical assistance from the international community and the United Nations must undertake a coherent and practical system to identify weaknesses in the import and export control of arms in member states, institute measures to deal with countries that violate “sanctions busting“ laws and campaign for an arms free West African sub-region ...”

Research on the proliferation and spread of small arms in West Africa reveals widespread availability and rampant misuse by abusive state and non state actors. This situation contributes to a pervasive climate of instability, humanitarian tragedy and wanton human rights violations in the region riddled with under development, poor health system and corrupt state leaders and government.

An examination of the Liberian and Sierra Leonen conflict ideally maintained that a United Nations arms embargo would be instituted to prevent the flow of small arms into the region as a means of stability. Additionally, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) undertook a pledge in 1998 not to manufacture, import or export these weapons. However, several factors have contributed to the constant flouting of the UN embargo such as lack of control, lax export laws by supplier countries and “back-door deals” by regional allies to provide cover for the transshipment of these arms.

The consequences have been atrocities mainly against civilians, a burgeoning refugee crisis, a state of “no war, no peace”, a territorial divide, especially in Cote D’Ivoire and the provision of a breeding ground for the recruitment of soldiers, children and terrorists. International human rights organizations and diplomats have documented the participation of mercenaries from the Ukraine, Angola, South Africa and other countries fighting alongside government and rebels groups in conflicts in West Africa. And so we have a recycling of arms and fighters from conflict to conflict. In some areas, automatic weapons are so cheap; they can be bought or exchanged for a few bags of rice or farm animals!

Human Rights Watch in a paper entitled Small Arms and Conflicts discloses that…“Nigeria provides an example of arms availability and misuse. Significant quantities of arms are available, due to active cross-border smuggling. In 2002, the Nigerian Customs Service reported that it had intercepted small arms and ammunition worth more than U.S.$30 million at border posts in a six-month period. In a single haul in November 2003, it took in a consignment of 170,000 rounds of ammunition….”

And so a sizeable number of these arms have found their way into Nigeria’s Delta region which is today home to a growing anti-government militia group that has launched a military style campaign for what it calls the “equitable distribution” of oil revenue for the people in that region. Armed members of this militia continue to threaten and stage kidnappings and raids against international oil interests in the Delta Region of Nigeria. The leader of this separatist group Mujahid Asari, has, meanwhile, been arrested by the Nigerian government and charged with treasonable felony.

With reference to the Liberian and Sierra Leonen conflict, the subtitle Individual Responsibility, paragraphs 17 - 21 of the 17 count indictment of exiled Liberian President Mr. Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, state: “… In the late 1980's CHARLES GHANKAY TAYLOR received military training in Libya from representatives of the Government of MU'AMMAR AL-QADHAFI. While in Libya the ACCUSED met and made common cause with FODAY SAYBANA SANKOH.

18. While in Libya, the ACCUSED formed or joined the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). At all times relevant to this Indictment the ACCUSED was the leader of the NPFL and/or the President of the Republic of Liberia.

19. In December 1989 the NPFL, led by the ACCUSED, began conducting organized armed attacks in Liberia. The ACCUSED and the NPFL were assisted in these attacks by FODAY SAYBANA SANKOH and his followers.

20. To obtain access to the mineral wealth of the Republic of Sierra Leone, in particular the diamond wealth of Sierra Leone, and to destabilize the State, the ACCUSED provided financial support, military training, personnel, arms, ammunition and other support and encouragement to the RUF, led by FODAY SAYBANA SANKOH, in preparation for RUF armed action in the Republic of Sierra Leone, and during the subsequent armed conflict in Sierra Leone.

21. Throughout the course of the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, the RUF and the AFRC/RUF alliance, under the authority, command and control of FODAY SAYBANA SANKOH, JOHNNY PAUL KOROMA and other leaders of the RUF, AFRC and AFRC/RUF alliance, engaged in notorious, widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population of Sierra Leone.

22. At all times relevant to this Indictment, CHARLES GHANKAY TAYLOR supported and encouraged all actions of the RUF and AFRC/RUF alliance, and acted in concert with FODAY SAYBANA SANKOH and other leaders of the RUF and AFRC/RUF alliance. FODAY SAYBANA SANKOH was incarcerated in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and subjected to restricted movement in Sierra Leone from about March 1997 until about April 1999. During this time the ACCUSED, in concert with FODAY SAYBANA SANKOH, provided guidance and direction to the RUF, including SAM BOCKARIE aka MOSQUITO aka MASKITA…”

Additionally, there is sufficient evidence, especially the close ties between President Blaise Campaore and Charles Taylor, to link Burkina Faso to providing state cover for the importation, trafficking and transshipment of arms to Messers Taylor and Sankoh for the purpose alleged by the indictment thus evidencing the role of regional allies in the proliferation of small arms. Libyan leader Colonel Moammer Ghadaffi certainly has the blood of innocent Liberians, and Sierra Leonens civilians and ECOWAS peacekeepers on his head forever for providing guerilla training and arms for these insurgencies.

Another example is exposed by, a U.S based organization dedicated to the support of new initiatives to enhance international peace and security. In an article entitled Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD):

“…LURD was formed in 1999 by Liberian refugees in West Africa led by Sekou Conneh, and is the largest insurgency group in the state. LURD was supported by Guinea from the outset, and has received the tacit support of Britain and the United States. Initially, LURD used Guinea as a base, and it received religious, political and military support from the Muslim–dominated government of Guinea. Observers note that LURD has a significant Muslim element, and it has reportedly received arms from sources such as the United Arab Emirates…”

Further research also show that in mid-2003, while the conflict raged in Liberia, the government of Guinea imported mortar rounds and other ammunition from Iran. These were declared on cargo documents as “detergent” and “technical equipment.”

From Guinea, the weapons cargo was forwarded to allied rebels inside Liberia. The rebels of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) used those weapons to fire indiscriminately on civilian areas of Monrovia. Tragically, severe casualty was inflicted on the civilian population with scores being killed and hundreds wounded.
There is no evidence of support for the insurgency by the United States and Britain and Guinea has denied any involvement in supporting the LURD rebel group.

Its is apparent that it is harder to broker and maintain peace in the face of weak and non-existent policing of the proliferation of small arms and ammunitions in the West African sub region. Vast monetary, human and material resources are expended to contain outbreaks of fighting.


It is recommended then that the African Union and ECOWAS, with technical assistance from the international community and the United Nations must undertake a coherent and practical system to identify weaknesses in the import and export control of arms in member states, institute measures to deal with countries that violate “sanctions busting“ laws and campaign for an arms free West African sub-region. This process must entail that ECOWAS states have an accurate record of their own stockpile and the destruction of unneeded stockpiles.

And we call for rapid progress in standing up a well trained African Rapid Reaction Force as a backup in the instance of a deterioration of security in any country. Only if the AU and ECOWAS employ these recommendations, among others, will the West African sub region begin to address the chronic proliferation of small arms, insurgency, state collapse, crime and insecurity that affect ordinary civilians.



About the author:

The author, Emmanuel Abalo, is an exiled Liberian journalist , media and human rights activist. He served as a former News Director of the erstwhile Catholic owned ELCM Community Radio and later with the Liberian Broadcasting System (ELBC). He is the former Acting President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). Mr. Abalo presently resides in Pennsylvania, USA and works as an analyst with CITIGROUP, North America.

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