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Guest Article: Local Efforts in Tackling Arms Proliferation and Armed Conflicts in Africa

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Above: The Mombasa showcase was held on 11 March this year

Olusegun Akinfenwa,

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organisation affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the U.K.

12 May 2021

The following opinion piece has been written by a guest author. The views expressed in it are the author’s own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network.

An estimated 100 million small arms and light weapons are thought to be in circulation in Africa, with most of them in the hands of civilians, including militia and rebel groups in various regions across the continent. The uncontrolled accumulation and proliferation of these weapons often exacerbate and elongate armed conflicts, wreaking devastating human and economic costs.

The reasons for this thriving illicit trade are many and varied, but a major motivation is personal protection in the face of growing insecurity and a lack of trust in security forces to adequately protect civilians. Spiralling Fulani-herdsmen attacks against farmers in Nigeria for instance, have killed thousands of people and displaced many farmers, with seemingly little or no protection provided by authorities. Efforts to prosecute perpetrators of violent attacks are similarly found wanting, leading to an overall increase in civilians illegally acquiring arms.

The unsanctioned and unchecked trade in small arms has in turn had a devastating impact on violence across the continent, from urban crimes and ethnoreligious conflicts to terrorism, to name but a few. In many communities, the situation seems to have defied all tactical attempts at control by security and armed forces, often leaving local community-based organisations to find  alternatives.

Effects of Armed Conflicts

Given the frequency and scale of armed conflicts in Africa, it is difficult to quantify their negative effects accurately. It is believed that hundreds of thousands of people across the continent are killed every year as a result of small arms, with one report indicating as many as 8.4 million people lost their lives as a direct result of wars between 1983-2005 in just three countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Rwanda. In Somalia, an estimated 350,000 to 1 million people have been killed since the start of the civil war in 1991, while in Nigeria, more than 37,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram since the terrorist group emerged in 2010.

“Vigilantism alone is not sufficient to provide security and lasting peace”

Children also bear some of the greatest burdens of these armed unrests. A 2018 study by Lancet showed that 5 million African children under the age of 5 died as a result of armed conflicts between 1995 and 2015. Other human costs include forced migration and permanent disabilities. According to the United Nations, there are 18 million displaced people across Africa. Of these, the vast majority are internally displaced persons (IDPs), the rest having fled to neighbouring countries. The situation has also heightened the influx of African refugees to other continents, with more than one quarter of asylum claimants in the UK last year coming from African countries.

Interventions by Local Leaders

The political structure of many African countries has overwhelmingly centralised power at the federal and state levels, severely restricting the role of leadership at the local level. In Nigeria, for instance, local governments are completely overshadowed and controlled by the state governments and are often left with seemingly insignificant duties such as chieftaincy affairs. A paucity of funds, influence, and motivation has severely limited local leaders’ ability to curb uncontrolled arms in local areas. Many local community and religious leaders have nonetheless devised community initiatives to address the issue, including through vigilante groups and sensitisation campaigns.


The Lake Chad region, comprising Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, has suffered greatly from Boko Haram attacks in the past ten years, leading local communities to form community-based armed groups in the face of terrorist threats.

In Nigeria, for instance, the vigilante formations are based on three models – communal neighbourhood guards, village hunters’ guilds, and the government-recognised civilian joint task force (CJTF). Formed in 2013 in Adamawa State in north-east Nigeria, CJTF has expanded over the years and received commendations from various quarters. The communal neighbourhood guards are village-based formations dedicated to community defence, while the hunters’ guild comprises traditional warriors and hunters that intervene to reinforce the operation.

Together, they guard their communities and apprehend suspicious movement, carrying both traditional and modern weapons as they conduct area patrols and control entry points and borders. Collectively, they comprise an estimated 26,000 members scattered across various communities and have successfully repelled terrorist and bandit attacks, arrested members of the offending groups, and shared useful information with civilians and security agencies. Their partnership with the military helped in locating the first abducted Chibok teenage girl who escaped from Boko Haram in 2016.

Many other African countries also have a history of community initiatives in curbing armed conflicts, such as the Kamajors, who participated in Sierra Leone’s civil war between 1991 and 2002; the Arrow Boys of Teso, who fought against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda in 2003-2007; and Zande Arrow Boys, who also confronted the LRA. At different points, these locally formed groups have complimented their countries’ weak militaries.

But vigilantism alone is not sufficient to provide lasting peace and security. The nature of these vigilante groups and their activities are themselves a source of concern for national authorities, as their unregulated structures risk impeding security operations or undermining efforts to combat violence. Worse, some of these groups have been accused of human rights violations, including the torture and execution of those suspected of belonging to extremist groups. Formation of these groups has also led to harmful reprisal attacks which risk prolonging the cycle of violence.

Sensitisation and Awareness Raising

Local sensitisation initiatives present another pathway for community leaders. There is no doubt that misinformation and indoctrination have contributed significantly to the spread of illicit arms among Africans. Across the continent, there are countless examples of local leaders taking it upon themselves to respond to this. According to research, most prevention efforts are implemented by local civil society organisations and not by governments. In Cameroon, religious leaders visited different towns along the country’s border with Nigeria in 2018 after hearing of a fresh recruitment drive planned by Boko Haram. Their aim was to sensitise youth, as the key target demographic for recruitment, to the risks that involvement with Boko Haram would incur. In Nigeria, various interfaith groups have also worked together using a similar approach to raise awareness within communities.

“Root causes of conflict and weapons proliferation, like inequality levels, also need to be addressed. From educational attainment to income levels, ever-widening inequality leaves many African youths feeling hopelessness and confusion.”

More Work Needed

While grassroots efforts in these instances have helped central authorities and safeguarded communities, there is much more work to be done. It is well documented that illicit arms dealers, buyers and users reside in (and are often shielded by) communities, either through coercion or indoctrination. Local leaders, and particularly tribal and religious leaders, have a significant role to play as both mediators and spokespeople for ending illicit arms sales.

Root causes of conflict and weapons proliferation, like inequality levels, also need to be addressed. From educational attainment to income levels, ever-widening inequality leaves many African youths feeling hopelessness and confusion. Across the continent, an estimated 600 million young people are unemployed, uneducated, or in insecure employment. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate this, with around 100 million children out of school across sub-Saharan Africa, along with soaring poverty rates and many people living on less than one dollar a day.

National governments must therefore prioritise economic development and education strategies alongside their security responses to the challenge of weapons proliferation. In doing so, it is critical to involve local authorities, religious leaders, civil society and other stakeholders through dialogue and collaboration, providing them with responsibilities and opportunities to effect change at the subnational level.

Similarly, developing transnational cooperation is a key component to addressing a transnational issue. There has been some success on this front. Last year, the African Union Commission (AUC) launched the ‘Silencing the Guns’ campaign, which aims to achieve a conflict-free Africa, prevent genocide, and make peace a reality for all. Alongside its effort to promote widespread disarmament through amnesties, the AUC also aims to address the root causes, which include illiteracy and unemployment. This is a laudable initiative that must be sustained and pursued with all sense of purpose to ensure Africa becomes a peaceful continent.

The arms trafficking, terrorism, and other conflicts witnessed today are the culmination of decades of negligence and exploitation. From local to national levels, African leaders must demonstrate the required leadership and political will to bring lasting change for the continent, and help it to attain its potential in development and peaceful coexistence.

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organisation affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the U.K.