EU sets sights on West Africa’s gun problem

7 million of the world's 639 million small arms can be found in West Africa. [Rob Waddington/Flickr]

A €5.6 million EU funded programme in West Africa is pushing for the voluntary surrender of small and light arms that are in the hands of civilians in exchange for incentives like social amenities and development activities for residents. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The Weapons Collection Programme is being chaperoned by the West African economic bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) within the broader context of “Disarmament and Community Development” or “Weapons for Development”.

Launched in 2014, the programme, is delivering impressive wins in taming proliferation of small arms across the belt which had traditionally threatened peace, security and stability, according to the bloc.

Dr. Cyriaque Agnekethom, ECOWAS’s director of peacekeeping and regional security, while speaking recently during the third Steering Committee meeting of the ECOWAS-EU Small Arms Project that seeks to track the progress of the intervention said the project, which ends in 2017, had made major inroads in reaching out to ordinary citizens to voluntarily surrender arms.

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The project has been tactical in approach, concentrating heavily on training communities, especially villages and border towns, about the dangers of dealing with small arms and their impact on armed violence, then empowering security institutions to enhance and guarantee safety.

This has been followed by a call to the residents to voluntarily surrender these weapons in exchange for community based projects that are deemed to be more rewarding than the use of weapons. Seven countries in West Africa are benefitting from the programme and include Mali, Liberia, Guinea, Niger, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

To make it successful, the project has enlisted the support of important players including community leaders who wield influence among the local population. “It is a very strategic and tactical approach to make this an ECOWAS affair. There is so much inter border trade among the ECOWAS member states which makes it hard for a country to stop proliferation of arms on its own. They need each other if they are to win the war on proliferation of arms,” said Professor Adetokunbo Akunyili who teaches peace and conflict studies at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

Such concerted efforts are important, coming at a time when according to Dr. Agnekethom the arms flow has become complicated and more serious due to rising piracy and burgeoning urban crime in the region.

“Disarming civilians alone is not enough. You need to give them something more rewarding to get them to surrender their weapons. Remember some have been earning their livelihoods through the weapons, telling them to just surrender them is not enough. It requires a well thought out structure,” added Professor Akunyili.

The EU’s pursuit of peace and stability in West Africa is crucial considering that the region is the EU’s largest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa. Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria together account for 80% of all West Africa’s exports to the EU.

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That could grow further but rising conflict in the region has threatened to put the brakes on trade, with small arms placed at the centre of the escalating civil wars and increased crime in the region.

Since the Cold War, when the two warring factions used Africa for proxy conflicts and which saw the infiltration of weapons which landed in civilian hands, the rate of these illicit arms, which include handcrafted pistols, shotguns, rifles and handcrafted guns among others have grown to unprecedented highs.

Out of the 639 million small and light weapons circulating globally approximately 7 million are in West Africa according to a study by International Alert. From these seven million, 77,000 small are in the hands of major West African insurgent groups which have fuelled conflicts in countries like Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

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The ease with which the arms can be acquired complicates matters. In Nigeria for example one can obtain a pistol at between $25 and $58 dollars depending on seller, type and place of purchase. According to local media there are about one million illegal guns in Nigeria. It has further led to the rising threat of terror groups like Boko Haram.

Corruption and porous borders have equally been blamed for the proliferation with Nigeria having up to 1,000 unmanaged routes which serve as conduits for smuggling of illegal arms.

It is so problematic that the EU project, which is also being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, hopes to fully address it before its mandate lapses in 2017.

This article was recently published in Spanish by our partner El País – Planeta Futuro.

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