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Light Arms Proliferation Contributes to Instability in West Africa

The United Nations says there are millions of light arms in West Africa that could worsen current conflicts in Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast and the Niger Delta, the oil-producing area of Nigeria. Alex Vines, a researcher at the British Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says significant amounts are made in the region itself.

"Light weapons and guns are nothing new in West Africa,” says Mr. Vines. “Blacksmiths were making guns in Ghana 200 years ago to fight the colonialists."

Mr. Vines says politics and poverty are partly to blame for the proliferation of guns in West Africa, including the Niger Delta, where years of neglect by successive governments and oil multinationals have led to local rebellion. Mr. Vines says the large amounts of weapons used by the rebels are financed with money made from the theft of crude oil, known as oil-bunkering. Similarly, he says former Liberian President Charles Taylor used money from Liberia's diamond, timber and shipping registry to purchase weapons used in Liberia, Sierra-Leone and now Ivory Coast.

According to the London-based analyst, getting rid of these weapons is not as easy. For example, in Nigeria's Niger Delta, the authorities have been encouraging combatants to surrender their weapons in exchange for money. But according to Mr. Vines, “"These guns are old… and not very valuable, and so my suspicion is that the best weapons are being stockpiled for a rainy day."

As a more effective solution, he suggests, is joint action by the regional body, The Economic Community of West African States. Already, he says ECOWAS has a moratorium in force that requires member states to get permission to import light weapons. Some members, however, are failing to comply.

"On paper the ECOWAS moratorium is good, “ says Mr. Vines,” but it hasn't been working. In fact, the ECOWAS secretariat and the ECOWAS heads of state and government have recognized that and now they are talking about putting a mandatory convention in place. So negotiations are starting, and as with so much legislation for ECOWAS in West Africa, it's one thing to get the draft text adopted but …the enactment by national assemblies and parliaments in the region …. can take many years."

In addition, Mr. Vines also calls for better coordination among groups trying to disarm combatants in the various conflict zones: “UN disarmament efforts [are not well coordinated]. For example, the Liberian disarmament process was offering significantly less money in U.S. dollar terms that in Ivory Coast. So of, what happens ? People are holding onto their guns in Liberia until they can sell them to Ivory Coast. And what [happens as a result] ? … conflict."

The lasting solution, says Mr. Vines, will depend on the region’s ability to resolve its political and economic problems.