It is estimated there are some 30 million handguns and other small arms in sub-Saharan Africa, with the vast majority of them in the hands of civilians rather than soldiers. So widespread are the weapons that they can pose threats to governments in addition to societies.
Some 200,000 people across Africa are believed to be killed every year as a result of what experts say is the virtually uncontrolled spread of small weapons. The United Nations has defined small weapons as guns, grenade launchers and portable anti-tank and aircraft weapons and missiles, generally any firearm that can be used or transported by a single person.
The abundance of such firearms helps fuel everything from terrorism to urban crime, which in big cities like Abidjan, Nairobi and Johannesburg has long outpaced the ability of law enforcement to contain it. Excluding the threat of war and the spread of AIDS, violence associated with the high number of available weapons poses one of the biggest threats to society in some African countries.
"The problem I think is at the beginning, you're dealing with very fragile institutions and when you throw in this access to weapons, which is essentially access to power, they can become a significant challenge to the government,” said Stephen Emerson, head of security studies at the National Defense University's Africa Center in Washington. “Even if you were to cut off the flow of arms into Africa tomorrow, you would still have a problem. There are weapons circulating in Africa from WWII."
In some cases, national militaries can even be outgunned.
"Quite often, these weapons are raided or sold corruptly from police or army stockpiles,” said Owen Greene, an expert on conflict and security prevention in Africa at the University of Bradford in Britain. “For example, there are a number of countries, which I could quote where the simple fact that the government has irresponsibly allowed large numbers of weapons to filter into societies or [transferred to] a militia group or something, has made a very big difference."
The case of the Central African Republic is but one example. During the late 1990s, so many groups with grievances had access to weapons that revolts, including repeated military mutinies, became increasingly frequent.
"As soon as you've got even a country [in] which conflict is a real possibility, violent criminals, gangs, warlords, violent husbands and so on can use weapons with much more impunity,” Mr. Greene said. “A group of 10 young alienated men can be very socially containable if they don't have access to multiple semi-automatic machine guns, because there are only 10 of them and they don't have much status in the society. Give them 10 automatic weapons and suddenly they can probably overwhelm almost all aspects of the local police force, they can challenge local elders and leaders."
The problem is also fueling terrorism. Two years ago, terrorists believed linked to al-Qaida used shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to try to bring down an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. And ten years ago, Islamic terrorists in Algeria hijacked a Paris-bound Air France jet and threatened to fly it into the Eiffel Tower.
Then came the September 11 attacks in the United States three years ago. Now, experts like the National Defense University's Stephen Emerson point to failed states such as Somalia as being similar to Afghanistan under the Taleban: lacking strong government, providing a place where terrorists can plot new attacks far away from world attention, and loaded with weapons.
"In Africa, one of the main concerns is with what we call man pads, man portable air defense systems, things like surface to air missiles, about how there is easy access to those,” said Mr. Emerson. “So there is a concern that those types of weapons, of which there are a large number in Africa, could leak out to other parts of the world and be used to attack airliners and other targets of opportunity."
So what can be done to limit or even regulate the flow of weapons across a continent where weak governments, crime and instability are widespread? Besides working to eliminate the root causes of conflicts, experts, including Owen Greene, point to better control of African borders as part of the solution.
"You need a comprehensive approach,” he said. “One is to prevent new flows of weapons [from] destabilizing existing situations. There's the responsibility of neighboring countries. In practice in Africa, most weapons coming into a country come from a neighboring country even if they come from further a field.”
But he and other experts say what is also necessary is rule of law so that people do not feel the need, as Owen Greene puts it, to be armed to the teeth.