Déby’s death accelerates illicit arms flows across Central Africa

2021-08-30

Idriss Déby’s death in April 2021 has raised concerns that arms trafficking from Chad into neighbouring states such as Nigeria and Cameroon could increase. Observers also fear for the future stability of the country’s neighbouring West and Central African states, as Déby’s formidable military response was the bulwark against multiple insurgency forces in the Sahel.

The Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union Commission estimates that there are at least 120,000 Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALWs) in illegal circulation in Cameroon, including revolvers, pistols, rifles, assault rifles and machine guns. However, the government has granted only 3,800 authorisations to carry weapons, according to data provided by Paul Atanga Nji, Minister of Territorial Administration.

On 8 June, Cameroon’s House Speaker of the National Assembly, Cavayé Yéguié Djibril, announced an urgent need to retrieve illicit weapons possessed by civilians in the country amid rising criminality and insecurity.

Evidence suggests a strong link between arms trafficking into Cameroon and an upsurge in criminal activities in the capital Yaoundé, and in the country’s two Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions, where there is ongoing insurgency and separatist conflict.

The country’s military has a huge role to play in stemming the tide of arms trafficking in Cameroon

The illicit proliferation of SALWs also affects peace and security and increases the rate of violent crime and regional instability in Central Africa. Non-state armed groups have recently increased attacks on civilians in towns and villages in Cameroon’s Far North region.

While Cameroon and Nigeria have a history of cooperating to combat arms proliferation, rebels continue to use Nigeria to smuggle arms into Cameroon’s northern corridors, providing a critical source of arms inflow into the country. Libyan and Chadian rebels traffic SALWs along routes through Libya-Chad-Nigeria to terrorist groups in northern Cameroon and separatist movements in the two Anglophone regions.

Conservative estimates by residents in these regions who spoke to ENACT indicate that there are over 250 footpaths from Nigeria’s Borno, Adamawa and Benue states leading to Cameroon. These paths are mostly unknown to the security agencies, including the Multinational Joint Task Force.

The routes are unmanned and unprotected, providing unfettered passage for those trafficking arms into the country. They have become dark spots where Libyan and Chadian rebels exchange SALWs for money from terrorists who come into Cameroon via Kousséri, a city in the Far North province that lies on the country’s border with Chad.

Illicit arms flows across Central Africa
Illicit arms flows across Central Africa
(click on the map for the full size image)

Cameroon has a long history as a source, transit and destination country for arms trafficking. In September 2013, 5,400 AK-47 rifles were seized in Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Northern Region. In January 2014, Cameroon’s security forces arrested a man attempting to transport 655 guns to Nigeria. In 2018, Cameroon’s military reportedly raided a warehouse operated by Cameroonian nationals containing a cache of 10,500 rounds of ammunition, and an undisclosed number of explosives, guns and cutlasses.

In 2019, Cameroon’s military arrested several men and seized and destroyed 2,500 locally made guns, ammunition and other weapons allegedly being circulated throughout the country’s northern border with Chad and Nigeria. The illegal weapons were seized from smugglers, hostage-takers, poachers and suspected Boko Haram fighters.

Many firearms have also been seized from traffickers in northern Cameroon over the past two years, coming from unstable countries like Sudan, Nigeria and Chad, according to a police source in Garoua.

Those trafficking weapons in the region include Boko Haram, separatist rebels and other criminal gangs engaging in banditry in the ungoverned spaces of the border areas linking Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Chad. This area has become known as the ‘Triangle of Death’.

A key consequence of the illicit proliferation of arms is that gun violence, killings, looting of livestock, rape and kidnapping are recurrent experiences for this territory’s residents. 

Déby’s formidable military response was the bulwark against multiple insurgency forces in the Sahel

The government of Cameroon has adopted multiple approaches and policies to counter arms trafficking and related problems in the region, but these have proven ineffective. In 2016, Cameroon made the unlawful possession of a firearm in a manner liable to disturb the public peace or to alarm any person punishable by three months to two years’ imprisonment or a fine.

Cameroon’s military has a huge role to play in stemming the tide of arms trafficking in the country. However, a shortage of military personnel to control the extensive borders that Cameroon shares with Nigeria and Chad makes military patrols across the northern borders almost impossible.

In terms of a regional response, Cameroon hosted the first conference of state parties to the Central African Convention for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, their Ammunition, Parts and Components that can be used for their Manufacture, Repair or Assembly in 2018. The objective of the conference, known as the Kinshasa Convention, was to find solutions to arms trafficking that threatens peace and security in the region.

Given the current situation, however, sober reflection on the progress made towards stemming the illicit flow of arms since the adoption of the convention in 2010 and its ratification in 2017 is needed.

Despite the convention being ratified and structures existing on paper, the Cameroon government’s militarised response to the northern separatist conflict has exacerbated human rights grievances, further fuelling the insurgency rather than quelling it. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that Déby’s death has become a catalyst for increasing arms trafficking in the region. 

Cameroon has made only limited resources available for recruiting, training and deploying adequately equipped military and border policing personnel to the country’s unstable north. While doing so would boost surveillance and intelligence-led responses, inaction is resulting in uninterrupted flows of arms into the country through the northern corridors. In addition, the policing that is critical to intelligence gathering in identifying and tracking the cells of criminal groups dealing in weapons trafficking in the region is consistently inadequate.

Military responses to boost border security through the Multinational Joint Task Force between Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria are insufficient. Resourcing to recruit, train and acquire ammunition to support military capability and emerging operational demands to tackle arms trafficking are lacklustre. Evidence of collaboration through the defence intelligence units of the three countries is absent.

Stabilising the situation is a priority. Yet this needs to be seen as part of the Cameroon government’s strategic investment in human and infrastructural development in northern Cameroon. Addressing the long-term underlying challenges of the region is a critical component of longer-term stability, which at present seems unattainable.

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa

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