For years, unmarked ammunition has been turning up in some of Africa's bloodiest conflict zones — Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ivory Coast. After a six-year investigation, independent arms investigators with Britain-based Conflict Armament Research
(CAR) say they have figured out where the ammunition is being made: Iran.
According to their December 2012 report, “The Distribution of Iranian Ammunition in Africa,"
CAR researchers say Iranian ammunition is circulating widely in Africa despite a United Nations arms embargo on Iran.
Their breakthrough came in 2010: At Papa Wharf in Lagos, Nigeria, security forces intercepted 13 containers holding more than 240 metric tons of ammunition. Later, the offloading bill showed that the containers — labeled “building materials," but holding unmarked cartridges identical to those sighted across Africa — had been sent from Iran.
“A manufacturer will put on its cartridges its own manufacturer's code," says CAR director James Bevan, describing what made the cartridges distinct. "That [code] identifies the manufacturer of origin and by extension the country in which it was produced. That’s not the case for this ammunition: All that it has is a caliber designation and a year of manufacture.”
While Bevan says rebel groups have used the ammunition in major conflict zones, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions have died in more than two decades of bloodshed, he said evidence also indicates that government forces have used the ammunition in Sudan, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Kenya.
"The African governments procure the ammunition from Iran for use by their own defense and security forces," said Bevan, formerly a senior field researcher for the Small Arms Survey and a United Nations sanctions inspector. "This ammunition is then used by those forces, and then, at some point further down the line, the ammunition is transferred, whether to insurgent groups in neighboring countries or rebel forces — that is the general pattern."
Tehran has not responded to the report, and the researchers say they do not know who within Iran is responsible for the transfers.
A United Nations Arms Trade Treaty that would monitor the international sale of arms has yet to be finalized.
International aid agency Oxfam wants ammunition monitoring to be a part of the treaty despite opposition from a number of countries, including the United States.
Oxfam says 12 billion bullets are produced every year by an industry worth over $4 billion. New rules are needed, the group says, to make sure ammunition is secure and its transfer is regulated.
"The single greatest factor in reducing civilian casualties in particular and damping down conflict is to cut off the supply of ammunition," said Martin Butcher, arms adviser at Oxfam. "So there are governments and armed groups across sub-Saharan Africa that are looking for ammunition, and ammunition has become much traded on the gray market and on the illicit market in order to keep these conflicts going."
International troops are currently battling Islamist militants in Mali; in neighboring Niger, Islamists have been reported to use Iranian ammunition. Bevan says in time his team will head to Mali to find out if Iranian ammunition has made its way to yet another African conflict zone.
Peter Cobus contributed to this report from Washington.