Ethiopia has the third highest rate of illicit arms trafficking in the East and Horn of Africa in the ENACT Africa Organised Crime Index, rising by half a percentage point between 2019 and 2021.
Although the country has legislation in place to address this problem, the current federal-regional arrangement appears to put coherent responses for information gathering and sharing, operations, capacity building and community involvement at a disadvantage. Closing the divide between the federal and regional police could be a game-changer in improving security and making Ethiopia less of a haven for arms traffickers.
Firearms trafficking in Ethiopia has been driven internally by the recent waves of ethnic-based violence, armed conflicts and insurgencies in several parts of the country. This instability also makes Ethiopia a viable trafficking route, meeting the demands of terrorist organisations such as al-Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia.
Illicit firearms enter Ethiopia through all its borders. Turkish-made pistols, machine guns and Kalashnikovs find their way into the country via Sudan and Djibouti. This flow to and from Ethiopia is also enabled by long porous borders with Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan. Traffickers from Somalia and Puntland use Ethiopia to transit illegal arms to clients and communities in Kenya, South Sudan and to Karamoja in Uganda’s north, where there is a high demand for guns to rustle and protect cattle.
Often disassembled into small parts, arms are trafficked using camels, donkeys and motorbikes. Traffickers travel at night and use clandestine routes to avoid police.
The illicit flow of firearms in Ethiopia is not just a commercial activity carried out by private individuals, terrorist groups and non-state actors – government officials are also involved. According to ENACT interviews, the political nature of most of the violence in Ethiopia has led to the involvement of state-embedded actors and clan leaders, who encourage and facilitate the flow of illicit arms. Law enforcement personnel are also reportedly involved.
In several parts of Ethiopia, ethnic groups and clans equip themselves with illicit arms to counter or attack groups in neighbouring regions, often over communal conflicts driven by political, religious and resource tensions.
In southern and eastern Ethiopia, politicians and clan chiefs supply small arms and light weapons to their kin groups to defend their communities and attack others over scarce resources. In the west, members of the Anuak and Nuer ethnic groups use illegal arms from South Sudan to perpetrate violence. Illicit arms fuel violence between ethnic Amharas and ethnic Gumuz in north-western Ethiopia.
Until 2020, Ethiopia had no legislation to address the illicit flow of firearms. The Firearm Administration and Control Proclamation No. 1177/ 2020 was enacted to implement the United Nations’ Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunitions, which Ethiopia ratified in 2012.
The current law gives the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission (EFPC) the power to enforce the proclamation or delegate that power to Regional Police Commissions. This is necessary as the federal police are not present in every region.
Through this delegation of authority, the EFPC is expected to liaise with its regional counterparts and build their capacity to undertake illicit arms control, while the regions are expected to compile and send data and implementation reports to the EFPC. The EFPC still has the authority to send its members to the regions to undertake arms control operations when deemed necessary.
However, the current federal and regional arrangement is not proving effective in controlling the illicit flow of arms. There are several reasons for this.
There is limited coordination between federal and regional authorities to address illicit arms flows, save for annual consultative meetings.
Information gathering is siloed. This, says a senior EFPC officer, is because regional states don’t often collect data and send reports to them. As a result, no comprehensive data on the extent of illicit arms flows exists at the federal level. The subsequent lack of evidence-based analysis on the chain of traffickers and trafficking routes prevents strategic and targeted interventions at hotspots.
Operations are also siloed. In eastern Ethiopia, federal police are deployed specifically to check for arms trafficking from Somalia to different parts of Ethiopia. However, it is the regional police who often possess local knowledge of illegal arms trafficking. A senior regional police commander in Jigjiga told ENACT that while the federal police inspect trucks and vehicles along highways, traffickers deliberately avoid such routes. Illicit arms are trafficked through the desert, bush, rough terrain and remote villages that are not accessible, even by police vehicles.
Without coordinating information and operational efforts, the potential to disrupt flows is undermined and criminal actors are quick to take advantage of these inefficient responses.
Ethiopia has limited resources to provide the relevant capacity-building training for its law enforcement members, Ethiopia’s representative told delegates at an African Union Arms Amnesty dialogue on 22 September. A security commander at the Oromia Police Commission told ENACT on condition of anonymity that federal authorities did not provide regional states with the resources and skills needed to combat the illicit flow of arms effectively. He said regional law enforcement was often not invited to skills training.
Regional and international organisations (including civil society organisations) that provide capacity-building training opportunities also focus predominately on the federal police.
This means that resources and training do not often reach the regional law enforcement tasked with controlling illicit arms flows. This, the security commander noted, creates a lack of commitment by regional law enforcement to intercept, confiscate and prosecute trafficking in firearms.
Community sources of information are underexplored, coupled with limited community engagement, outreach and awareness raising. Current efforts by the federal police focus heavily on arresting suspects and confiscating arms. Outreach and sensitisation efforts could be more effective with the help of regional police and other relevant local authorities who are aware of the local complexities of arms trafficking in their area, including the sources, participants, routes and impacts of such trafficking. Such efforts must focus on sensitising families and key actors in communities to the devastating impacts of illegal arms.
The federal government must also empower regional police to work closely with communities in border areas to combat the illicit flow of arms. This is particularly important as traffickers employ members of the local community, including women, youth and the unemployed. Empowering the regional police by creating a sense of ownership in combating illicit arms flows and involving grassroots level intervention may ensure they are more invested in the process.
Developing a national strategy for involving and empowering regional law enforcement could also help authorities to adopt a uniform and accountable approach to combat the illicit flow of arms across all regions and borders of Ethiopia.
Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, ENACT