The African Union Peace and Security Council, working with the Regional Centre on Small Arms (RECSA), has undertaken a Mapping Study on Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa, and one of the most significant findings was the number of civilian-held weapons across the continent.
The study estimated the number of guns in the hands of civilians in 2017 to be 40 million.
Let us provide some perspective.
The number of 40 million guns accounts for 80 percent of the total arms in the whole of Africa. We are taking here of weapons that are in the hands of individuals, businesses and rebel troops, all of them with varying intentions on how they want to use these arms.
In comparison, regular armed forces and law enforcement agencies – as per the findings of the AU Peace and Security Council and RECSA study – were in control of 11 million weapons.
This means non-military and non-law enforcement people are in possession of nearly eight times the number of weapons that regular troops, the police and intelligence officers have.
That is not all, of the 40 million civilian-held weapons, about 5,8 million are officially registered, 16 million are not registered, and the status of 18 million is opaque.
So only around one-eighth of the 40 million weapons in the hands of civilians can be certified to be for legitimate purposes.
Earlier this year, the SADC Ministerial Committee of the Organ (MCO) on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation held a virtual meeting to, among other things, consider the Report on the Threat to Peace and Security in the Region in 2020.
Among other issues, the MCO considered the security situation in the DRC and in Mozambique, and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, necessitating the proposed amendments to the SADC Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other Related Materials.
The SADC Secretariat told the MCO that, “As part of its think-tanking mandate, the Secretariat has carried out a security threat assessment, which shows that the region is marked by several obstacles to socio-economic and political transformation, including poverty, inequality, and unemployment.
“The assessment categorises peace and security threats into five clusters relating to terrorism and cybersecurity; transnational organised crime; climate change and epidemics; governance and democracy; and cross-cutting issues.”
The “cross-cutting issues” referred to “include marginalisation and exclusion, radicalisation and extremism, political and economic exploitation, as well as forms of violence, including gender-based violence, criminal activities, abuse of social media, and a migration crisis”.
In essence, a cocktail of political, social and economic problems, coupled with increased access to weaponry by civilians, make for a heady mix that can plunge the Southern African region into unimaginable crises.
Our politicians have to ask themselves if they are doing enough to foster development in communities that have been historically marginalised?
The continued marginalisation and exclusion of the majority from the mainstream economy creates a breeding ground for the next generation of insurgents. Just look at what is happening in the DRC and Mozambique. Consider the simmering tensions in eSwatini, Lesotho and Madagascar.
Will hungry people continue to fold their arms when they see the rich get richer? What will they do when opportunists present them with guns and incite them to “change the order”?
Away from the matter of weapons in civilian hands, we should also seriously look at the matter of how much is officially spent by governments across Africa on the military and related expenditure.
According to Julia Faria in a listing for Statista online, “Military expenditure in Africa increased to US$43 billion in 2020, growing from roughly US$41 billion in the previous year. Overall, spending on defence has grown in the continent and more than doubled in comparison to 2000. That year, military expenditure in Africa was at nearly US$19 billion.”
Relatively speaking, Africa’s US$43 billion spending on arms is a drop in the ocean when compared to the global picture. In fact, it was just two percent of global military expenditure in 2020.
But there are two things to bear in mind.
The first is that we all know that military expenditure anywhere in the world is shrouded in secrecy. So it would be fair to assume that the actual expenditure by African countries in 2020 is significantly higher than the US$43 estimate.
Secondly, it ultimately does not really matter if Africa’s military expenditure constitutes a mere two percent of the global figure. The issue is: can we afford it and should we be spending so much on arms?
Related to that, it must be borne in mind that much of this expenditure is on items that are imported from outside Africa.
This means we are sending billions out of Africa (to rich countries no less!) every year so that we can buy guns with which to shoot other Africans.
Ok, if we are really serious about guns, why do we not build up our internal defence industries capacity?
Either way, whether we are speaking of civilians or of governments, Africa is spending more than it can afford on guns.