29 May 2018

Arms trafficking / Africa needs the free movement of goods and people, not guns

The launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area calls for better arms controls.

As African countries prepare to make the recently adopted African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) a reality, policy makers must ensure that gains made in curbing transnational organised crime are part and parcel of this important new initiative.

The framework agreement, which was signed by 44 countries on 21 March, will enter into force 30 days after being ratified by at least 22 countries. Each country has 120 days to ratify the framework after signing it.

The CFTA aims to create a single continental market for goods and services, but its launch comes at a time when the continent faces enormous challenges – including poor infrastructure and the need for streamlined regulations and customs. Africa’s peace and security is also threatened by critical issues such as conflict, terrorism and a range of transnational challenges, including the trafficking of firearms, drugs, contraband goods and people.

The African Continental Free Trade Area comes at a time when the continent faces enormous challenges

Some of these crimes are concentrated around border areas, which, in many cases, are marginalised through unfair political and economic policies. According to some studies, this contributes to weak institutional control over such remote areas, which are often plagued by armed conflict, irredentism and smuggling. These threats further erode government’s legitimacy, and licit cross-border trade in such conditions is often marred by illicit activities.

The question therefore remains how freeing up the movement of people and goods can be done in a sustainable manner that helps to curb, not facilitate, transnational crime.

Many of Africa’s security challenges contain an element of armed conflict, which underscores the need to prioritise the control of small arms and light weapons, which already poses an enormous challenge.

Many of Africa’s security challenges contain an element of armed conflict, which underscores the need to prioritise arms controls

A review of key crises in 2018 points to a growing burden of armed conflicts in Africa in places like Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo – to name a few. These conflicts constitute a major demand for arms, not only for governments, but also non-state armed groups.

The African Union (AU) and the United Nations Office on Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) recognise that the flow of illicit weapons represents a serious threat. The AU notes that weapons ‘...have caused unspeakable death and suffering over the decades, and remain a serious impediment to peace, security, stability and development.’ The UNODA, on the other hand, emphasises that arms undermine security and the rule of law, and are often a factor behind the forced displacement of civilians and massive human rights violations.

Africa’s move to harmonise trade and free the movement of people across its member states is a noble one. Policy makers, however, need to ensure that they are not also ‘liberalising’ transnational organised crimes such as the smuggling of arms and related crimes.

Can the free movement of people and goods be done in a manner that helps to curb, not facilitate, transnational crime?

As the continent moves closer to making the CFTA a reality, it should also increase its efforts to implement the legal mechanisms on the control of small arms and light weapons. This includes the 2001 UN Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Illegal Trafficking in Firearms and Ammunition the first global instrument in the fight against transnational organised crime and arms trafficking – as well as the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty. At the continental level, member states should ratify and enforce the various subregional arms control instruments.

The political will of all countries will be important in ensuring the success of the CFTA. Of particular importance will be the commitment by Africa’s two arms-manufacturing countries, South Africa and Nigeria: two major African economies which are yet to sign the CFTA agreement.

Nelson Alusala, senior research consultant, ENACT project, ISS


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ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
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