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Arms and Conflict in Africa

Bureau of Intelligence and Research
Bureau of Public Affairs
July 1999


Arms transfers and trafficking and the conflicts they feed are having a devastating impact on Sub-Saharan Africa. For the first time since 1989, Africa has more armed conflicts than any other continent. Defining a "major armed conflict" as one with at least 1,000 battle-related deaths, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute identified 11 major conflicts in Africa in 1998. It is not surprising, then, that during that year approximately 8.1 million of the roughly 22 million refugees in the world were in Africa. Millions more Africans are internally displaced. The proliferation of light weapons, financed by cash, diamonds, or other commodities, did not cause Africa's wars, but it has prolonged them and made them more lethal.

By the late 1990s, wars in Africa increasingly had taken on a regional character, especially in the greater Horn, the Great Lakes region, and southern Africa. As of mid-1999, large-scale wars were ongoing in Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan. Low-intensity conflicts plague several countries, including Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, Senegal, and Uganda. Other countries suffer from internal instabilities which could evolve into greater civil strife.

To the extent that arms transfers and trafficking contribute to these conflicts, they undermine the promise of African democracy and development, contribute to political decay, and facilitate state collapse. As conflicts drag on and escalate, they can cause widespread violations of human rights and exacerbate famine conditions, particularly in areas such as southern Sudan and the Horn of Africa. Wars divert scarce resources away from social services, disrupt trade, discourage tourism, and contribute to the breakdown of family structures. The pervasiveness and persistence of conflict also have grave psychological consequences as children are traumatized or become accustomed to a culture of violence.

Organized crime also has become active in arms trafficking to strengthen its illegal activities. Gun runners and drug peddlers in southern African are beginning to pool their resources to maximize profits. Unconfirmed reports suggest similar trends in other areas of Africa.

There has been a fundamental change in weapons sales in Sub-Saharan Africa since the end of the Cold War. Many nations and manufacturers eager to empty warehouses and arsenals of arms made superfluous by post-Cold War political and technological advancements have seen Africa as an attractive market. The consequent widespread availability of cheap weapons, easy to use and maintain (AK-47s sell for as little as $6 in some African countries), fuels destruction throughout the continent. In some countries, it is easier and cheaper to buy an AK-47 than to attend a movie or provide a decent meal. Although the infusion of weapons is not large compared with arms transfers in the rest of the world, the impact of arms trafficking on Sub-Saharan Africa's politically fragile countries has been catastrophic.

Light Weapons

During the Cold War, state-to-state arms transfers to Sub-Saharan Africa involved primarily heavy, high-maintenance equipment such as jet fighters, helicopters, transport aircraft, and tanks. Such items accounted for the largest portion of many African military budgets. After the collapse of Communist governments in the former Soviet Union and its East European allies, state-to-state transfers declined from $4,270 million in 1988 to $270 million in 1995.

At the same time, however, gray (commercial) and black (illegal) arms trafficking in light weapons increased. Because no agency keeps comprehensive statistics on such sales, and arms dealers have little interest in revealing the details of these transactions, their annual value is unknown. An educated guess is hundreds of millions of dollars. Arms trafficking involves primarily low-maintenance, durable light weapons (e.g., AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars, and land mines). However, heavy weapons remain popular with some African countries, including Angola, Botswana, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Local Wars and Regional Conflicts

The growth of arms trafficking has coincided with a change in the nature of warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa. Warfare has become more complicated as guerrilla groups have proliferated and divided into warring factions. The region has also seen the emergence of warlords (e.g., in Somalia) and cult movements (e.g., the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda).

Warfare by proxy has helped spread conflicts regionally. For example, the armed forces of eight countries and several militia groups are entangled in the conflict in the Congo-Kinshasa. Kinshasa, for its part, provides military support to rebel groups in Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. In response to the evolving regional conflict, Uganda and Rwanda have provided military support to rebel groups in the Congo-Kinshasa. In another example, Sudan provides assistance to the Lord's Resistance Army and other Ugandan insurgent groups in large measure, it claims, because Uganda supports the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Such cycles of violence complicate conflict-resolution efforts and increase the damage suffered by local populations. The use of mercenaries and private security firms has increased, and targeting of civilian populations or individual ethnic groups is more widespread. To prevent chaos, regional peacekeeping forces have sometimes become involved in conflicts as combatants (e.g., ECOMOG in Liberia).

Regional/National Consequences

Contemporary arms transfers and trafficking make today's conflicts more lethal and contribute to devastating humanitarian and refugee crises that spill over state borders from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Ongoing conflicts in Angola and Congo-Kinshasa have forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to seek refugee status in neighboring countries. As many as 1 million other Angolans may have been internally displaced by the renewed civil war. The same is true of hundreds of thousands of Congolese civilians.

The region's conflicts have claimed an estimated 7-8 million lives, a large number of which have occurred during the past decade. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than 2 million of the fatalities have been children. Some 4-5 million children have been disabled, another 12 million left homeless, and more than 1 million orphaned or separated from their families. Tens of thousands have become "child soldiers."

Almost 2 million people have died in Sudan's 16-year civil war. Angola's 25-year war has killed an estimated 500,000 persons. During the past 6 years, genocide and insurgency have claimed a million lives in Rwanda and several hundred thousand in Burundi. Liberia's civil war (1989-97) took 150,000 lives. The Eritrean/Ethiopian border war, in less than a year and only a few brief battles, may already have cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides. The Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict has spread to Somalia, where local warlords often exchange allegiance for weapons and other supplies. Somalia shows no sign of emerging from the anarchy that has engulfed it for the past 8 years.

Arms Transfers and Trafficking: What It Costs/How It Works

African nations spend considerable sums on arms to prosecute border wars, counterinsurgency campaigns, and wars of secession. Angola probably has spent at least $4 billion during the past 6 years trying to defeat the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA). Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Congo-Kinshasa probably have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire a variety of weapons including small arms, tanks, artillery, and sophisticated jet fighters. Rwanda and Burundi, limited by the revenues available to their agricultural economies, nevertheless spent tens of millions of dollars.

The arms market provides many opportunities to those with assets other than hard currency to fund weapons purchases through parallel financing. Cash-poor governments and rebel groups often sell or barter diamonds, other gemstones, and minerals to obtain arms. The SPLA and UNITA have exchanged timber, cattle, and animal trophies for weapons and other military supplies. UNITA is estimated to have earned several hundred million dollars during the past 5 years from the sale of diamonds mined and smuggled out of numerous sites in northeastern Angola. Since the early 1990s, the Government of Angola has issued tenders for military equipment on short-term loans, mortgaged against future oil production. Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan have mortgaged crops (e.g., sesame, gum arabic, cotton, coffee, tea, etc.) to pay for guns.

Hutu insurgents in Central Africa buy weapons with remittances from Hutu expatriates and the proceeds from the sale of stolen relief supplies and vehicles. Some Hutus reportedly obtain money for arms by trafficking in wildlife. Somali warlords sell stolen relief supplies or "tax" relief shipments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to get cash to buy weapons. Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone mine diamonds. Liberian President Charles Taylor, when he was a rebel fighter in the early 1990s, sold iron ore and timber. More recently, Taylor has become an important player in the sale of West African diamonds. By supplying money to buy weapons, which he provides to the RUF, such activity enables him to influence the war in Sierra Leone.

Arms Merchants

The people who operate the arms trafficking network in Africa come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are former military or intelligence officers. For example, an ex- KGB official operates a fleet of transport aircraft which flies arms throughout Africa. He also recruits East European mercenaries for African clients. Others work as arms and drug dealers. Senior ex-government officials, including some associated with South Africa's former apartheid regime, have been accused of arranging arms deals for UNITA. Another South African has been linked to arms shipments to Hutu extremists. All are motivated by profits and are masters at leaving false paper trails, making prosecution extremely difficult.

Arms Trade Labyrinth

Monitoring state-to-state weapons transfers is relatively easy because there normally is only a seller and a buyer. The gray and black arms trafficking businesses are significantly more complex operations involving African and non-African, corporate, and individual suppliers and an array of transshipment points, brokers, and financiers throughout the world. African states or insurgents interested in obtaining weapons can choose from numerous manufacturers whose headquarters span the globe. A single weapons purchase can involve several nations, corporations, or brokers.

Arms suppliers in Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North America, Latin America, and Asia have sold arms to African clients. Sellers include the obvious large producers, such as Russia and China, and less-publicized sources, such as Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, North Korea, Romania, and Slovakia. Clients also may obtain weapons from individual arms traffickers or from African suppliers such as Uganda, South Africa, Sudan, or Zimbabwe, all of which have indigenous weapons-production facilities.

Weapons are flown and shipped into and through Africa by a variety of routes, sometimes directly, often through one or more transshipment points. These nodes make up an elaborate network of options for gray and black arms dealers who skirt customs inspectors and law enforcement agencies.

According to regional journalists, some of the more frequently used African airfields for flights to eastern Congo-Kinshasa include Entebbe, Goma, Kigali, Luanda, and flights also have come from Juba in southern Sudan. After Kampala's military intervention in Congo-Kinshasa in 1998, the increase in arms flows was so significant, according to an African news report, that at least five East African-based commercial air carriers (Air Alexander International, Busy Bee, Sky Air, Planetair, and United Airlines--no relationship to the U.S.-based United Airlines), and Sudanese, Ugandan, and possibly other regional military aircraft transported weapons and other military supplies into eastern Congo-Kinshasa.

African seaports used by arms traffickers include Aseb, Beira, Conakry, Dar-es-Salaam, Djibouti, Durban, Luanda, Merca, Mombasa, Monrovia, and Nacala. After arrival, arms are forwarded to their destination by road, rail, air, or ferry, often to what press accounts describe as interior distribution centers, such as Port Bell, Ouagadougou, and Juba.

Constraints on Limiting the Flow

Several factors limit the international community's ability to control arms flows into Africa. With the exception of countries/groups under a UN arms embargo--Liberia and Somalia and rebel groups like the RUF (Sierra Leone) and UNITA (Angola) and Hutu and ex-FAR extremists (Central Africa)--it is not illegal to sell arms to Africa. Even those nations and organizations subject to a UN arms embargo easily acquire weapons because of the paucity of effective international monitoring and policing mechanisms. As a result of these loopholes, no one has been prosecuted during the past decade for violating UN arms embargoes in Africa.

Another problem concerns the chronic abuse of end user certificates, which supposedly identify the ultimate destination of an arms shipment. Recently, for example, Ukraine sent weapons to Burkina Faso, listed on accompanying documents as the end user. Ouagadougou transshipped these arms to RUF insurgents in Sierra Leone.

Growing concern about the arms trafficking problem has spawned numerous initiatives by nations in Africa and elsewhere to restrict the flow of weapons. For example, the UN Security Council on September 16, 1998, passed a resolution urging member governments to punish those who sold weapons to countries under a UN arms embargo, especially those in Africa.

The lack of adequate policing and enforcement mechanisms undermines UN efforts to control gray and black arms trafficking to Africa. In 1993, for example, the UN Security Council implemented an arms embargo against UNITA (made more robust in 1997 and 1998). However, UNITA easily evaded the embargo by buying millions of dollars worth of military equipment. This buildup allowed UNITA to abandon the peace process and press for a military victory over the Angolan Government.

On a regional level, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on November 1, 1998, announced an ambitious three-year moratorium on the importation, export, and manufacture of light weapons involving member states (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo). According to some estimates, there are at least 8 million weapons in West Africa, with more than half in the hands of insurgents and criminals.

The success of the ECOWAS and UN initiatives and other similar arms control accords will depend on the implementation of strong monitoring and policing mechanisms. As of mid-1999, arms trafficking continued unabated throughout much of West Africa because ECOWAS lacked the resources to establish such systems.


Arms transfers and trafficking will continue to add volatility to politically unstable areas of Sub-Saharan Africa for the foreseeable future. Given the multidimensional and highly complicated nature of the arms transfer/trafficking network, there can be no "quick-fix" solution to this problem. Establishing strong monitoring and policing mechanisms to support ongoing efforts to restrict arms flows to and within Africa will require a demonstration of sustained political will on the part of African leaders and a commitment from the international community to begin sharing information about arms sales and exercising a far higher degree of restraint in approving the transfer of weapons to the region.

Many of Africa's protracted wars continue because the combatants believe military force can resolve political and economic problems. A concerted effort to constrain the availability and flow of weapons to these conflicts might significantly alter the plans of those who continue to choose war over peace.

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African Affairs | State Department