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West Africa Battles Flow of Illegal Weapons


West African countries are working to stem the flow of illegal weapons linked to years of conflict and illegal drug trafficking.

The Economic Community of West African States is working to reduce the number of illegal weapons in the region.

Mohamed Lamine Coulibaly heads the ECOWAS Small Arms Control Program. He says it is a problem linked to both good governance and poverty that is too broad for any individual country to tackle alone.

"We have to take a regional approach to it," Coulibaly said. "That is why ECOWAS is encouraging member states to go toward a security collective effort in order to enhance the capacity of individual member states to be able to deal with the small arms proliferation."

Coulibaly says there are many aspects to minimizing the flow of illicit weapons, including a complete review of national laws governing the use and ownership of small arms.

The ECOWAS program is being supported by the United Nations Development Program. Coulibaly says one of its first goals is getting a better sense of the scope of the problem by asking each member state to conduct a national survey to determine how many illicit small arms are currently in circulation.

"If we want to come up with a national action plan, we have to be sure that this national action plan is based on concrete facts," Coulibaly said. "So far Ghana has almost completed the survey. Sierra Leone as well. Liberia has to do other step before concluding it."

Years of conflict have contributed to the proliferation of weapons outside the control of law enforcement, especially in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire.

"We read every day that armed robbers are being killed, armed robbers are fighting police and they are using sophisticated arms," Amoa said.

Baffour Amoa heads the civil society group West African Network on Small Arms. While those civil wars are over, he says the weapons they brought to the region remain a threat to stability.

"The challenge is that as wars are coming to an end, poverty is growing and therefore it looks like young people of today have no patience to wait for tomorrow," Amoa said. "They all want to be rich today, and some of them have taken to armed violence and which is quiet a serious challenge as well given the fact that the drug menace is also growing alongside."

Coastal communities in West Africa are transit points for South American drug traffickers shipping cocaine to Europe. Law enforcement officials say that illicit trade brings with it a supply of small arms.

"Dealing with an illicit problem is a challenging one and all sorts of ideas need to be tried to see which one will work best and therefore if government intends to entice people with small arms to come forward and give them for some token and people respond perhaps it will lead us to some of the communities where some of these are hidden," Amoa said.

The International Action Network on Small Arms estimates that there are more than eight million firearms in West Africa which remain the primary weapons of violence in ethnic feuds, local wars, armed insurrection, and terrorism.

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