“Arms control is central to stability in Africa”: reflections from our Africa-China-EU work on arms

21 November 2023 “Arms control is central to stability in Africa”: reflections from our Africa-China-EU work on arms

In this blog, our partners explain how a groundbreaking, three-way arms control initiative between Africa, China and the European Union has improved cooperation between civil society, academia and governments to tackle illicit arms flows into African countries. 

Illegal flows of arms and ammunition into and within Africa fuel crime and civil conflicts, undermine sustainable development, and enable violent groups to attack governments and communities. Concerted action to prevent and combat the illicit arms trade – particularly from Africa and the EU as well as China – is vital to the success of tackling these issues. 

In 2019, Saferworld and partners started a three-year project – funded by the European Union (EU) – to promote three-way dialogue and cooperation between civil society, academia and governments in Africa, China and the EU (ACE) on preventing the illicit trade and diversion of arms. We established an international Expert Working Group to facilitate engagement among decision-makers and policy experts and develop strategies and policy recommendations. The expert group conducted three case studies, produced six substantive policy and research reports providing comprehensive insights into a variety of contexts, and held numerous policy dialogues to advocate for practical and constructive tri-lateral cooperation. This work contributed to joint advances on small arms controls, for example in the latest Forum on China-Africa Cooperation’s Dakar Action Plan and in China’s recent Global Security Initiative.

Project partners and arms control experts Singo, Kuyang and Li Peng share their reflections below.  

Singo Mwachofi, Deputy Director at the Security Research and Information Centre (SRIC) – an independent, non-profit think tank that provides information on human security and security sector dynamics in Kenya and the Horn of Africa:

“Africa continues to suffer from the negative effects of small arms and light weapons proliferation. During the project, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Libya, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo were all embroiled in deadly conflicts fueled by small arms. Engaging China on small arms and light weapons control issues is one useful way forward in fighting insecurity in the continent, given that China is increasingly becoming a very significant actor in Africa. 

The research papers produced under the project, some of which I helped to write, stand out as important achievements. I am also proud that we were able to share our work through presentations at a side event during the UN small arms Programme of Action Biennial Meeting of States in New York in July 2022, as well as at a briefing to the EU in Brussels. If we had more time in the future, the involvement of regional economic communities and regional mechanisms for peace and security (such as the Economic Community of West African States, the East African Community and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region) would help build much-needed synergy and networks critical to small arms and light weapons control, given that China is keenly interested in working with these organisations. 

My hope is that donors will continue to support small arms control initiatives. I hope that China and other emerging powers with interests in Africa can prioritise peace and security programmes, because without peace, security and stability in the continent, their economic and social investments will not thrive. Small arms and light weapons control is central to the quest for stability in Africa.  

I would also like to see more funding go to research on different perspectives, including on the links between small arms and transnational crime, the gender dimensions of small arms and light weapons, as well as widely disseminating research findings to help shape policy discourses in China, Africa and Europe. Small arms and light weapons play a role in gender-based violence and practices, such as female genital mutilation, rape and domestic violence. We need to do more work on these issues and find solutions. We also need to better understand the gendered dimensions of arms: in many pastoralist counties, which are patriarchal, women never used to carry guns. But nowadays, in some communities you see women herding cattle while carrying rifles. Gender roles are changing and we need to try to understand the impact and dynamics of this. 

"Small arms and light weapons play a role in gender-based violence and practices...We need to do more work on these issues and find solutions." Singo Mwachofi

We also need to prioritise mitigating the effects of climate change, as more and more we are seeing links between the proliferation of small arms and light weapons and resource-based conflicts. With increasingly long periods of drought, communities move from one place to the other looking for pasture and water, and fighting breaks out over these resources. Clans buy guns to protect their communities and to get more resources. We also see a lot of conflict between pastoralists and ranchers. Ranchers own huge, fenced-off areas of land; during droughts, pastoralists break these fences down and graze their cattle by force. This is all being made worse by climate change.” 

Li Peng, Deputy Secretary General at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA) – a non-profit NGO that focuses on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation:

“As President Xi of China highlighted in the cooperation plan with African countries, the issue of small arms and light weapons is an important area of security cooperation. I think the ACE project was a win-win solution for both China and African countries. The security of African countries benefits the security of the whole world. During the project, the experts reached many agreements on how to tackle small arms issues, such as the importance of marking and tracing arms and ammunition. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions of COVID-19, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit some of the focus countries suffering from small arms and light weapons challenges – but this could be solved in a future project. 

Next steps would be to organise regional workshops involving experts from around the world, to jointly work out systematic solutions to small arms and light weapons proliferation in Africa. We want to work together with Saferworld and our African partners and experts to start pilot projects on tracing and marking technologies, as discussed during the project, to help reduce the proliferation of arms and to support organisations in their marking and record-keeping initiatives. We need to involve industries, especially those with applicable and innovative technical expertise, in practical cooperation.  

Another pressing topic is the implication of emerging technologies on small arms and light weapons and their regulations, and the increasing deployment of automated weapons systems in conflict. I see a lot of potential in continuing our joint work, but we need to take the first step as soon as possible, otherwise we are running the risk of losing the political momentum and not being able to contribute to policy frameworks (such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation) or China-EU cooperation in a meaningful way.”   

Dr Kuyang Harriet Logo Mulukwat, who joined the ACE Expert Working Group in 2021 to support work on small arms and light weapons proliferation in South Sudan:

“In 2011 South Sudan gained independence after 40 years of intermittent civil war. While the aspirations of a new state were achieved on 9 July 2011, post-conflict transformation, security sector reform, and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration did not take off as anticipated. So, by the time I joined the Expert Working Group, small arms and light weapons were easily spotted in the hands of civilians in all of South Sudan’s ten states; possession of small arms was not regulated, and small arms were sold in markets, across porous borders and by men in uniform.  

Other countries represented in the expert group were a few steps ahead of South Sudan in dealing with small arms issues. The presentations made by other experts allowed me to note processes undertaken in other countries, like South Africa and China, and to draw lessons for South Sudan. Expert exchanges in the forums allowed me to work alongside others, and to frame relevant research questions. The South Sudan research paper, which offers recommendations for how to address small arms and light weapons proliferation in the country, was enriched by inputs from other expert members. My time as an expert was beneficial and exciting, and the project provided an opportunity for learning and sharing of knowledge.” 

Read more about the ACE project here.  

More information on Saferworld’s work on effective arms control can be found here.   

Photo: Communities that were previously involved in inter-ethnic conflict take part in activities organised as part of a MONUSCO demobilisation and reintegration programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Flickr/MONUSCO Photos

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