A new report on arms transfers shows that countries in Africa purchased only a fraction of the conventional weapons sold worldwide between 2004 and 2008.  But the report notes that even small volumes of arms can have a destabilizing impact on many conflict-ridden countries on the continent.

The report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, known also as SIPRI, indicates the vast majority of African countries are minor recipients of conventional arms when compared to countries such as China and India.

Africa as a whole accounted for just seven percent of the world total, with the lion's share of the arms imported by Algeria and South Africa.  Arms transfers to sub-Saharan countries, excluding South Africa, accounted for only two percent.

But a significant portion of those arms, including combat aircraft, armored vehicles and multiple rocket launchers, was delivered to the government of Sudan in Khartoum.  The Sudanese government has been fighting a six-year civil war with rebels in western Darfur and is in a shaky political alliance with former rebels in the south.

Sudan also has tense relations with neighboring Chad, which in recent years has repeatedly accused Khartoum of backing anti-government rebel groups.

SIPRI's Africa researcher, Pieter Wezeman, says although Sudan imported significantly less arms than Algeria and South Africa between 2004 and 2008, he believes any arms transfer to Khartoum escalates the risk of bloodshed.

"They (arms) are not enormous quantities.  But size does not really matter because they import weapons to actually use them, for example in Darfur, and, of course, there is a risk that they may play a role in tensions between Khartoum and South Sudan," Wezeman said.  And there might even be a risk that these weapons may play a role in tensions between Sudan and Chad."

Wezeman says rising hostilities between Sudan and Chad may be linked to new data about arms transfers to Chad.  He says the central African country imported five times more conventional weapons between 2004 and 2008 than the previous four years.

"In the past few years, the government of Chad has gotten considerable revenues from oil exports, and it seems as if they used some of those to buy weapons considerably more than they did before," Wezeman said.

Kenya is also mentioned in the SIPRI report as a major arms-importing country in sub-Saharan Africa.  Between 2007 and 2008, it took delivery of 110 Russian-built T-72 tanks and 11 BM-21 multiple rocket launchers.

A consignment of 33 tanks and other heavy weapons seized by Somali pirates last September raised troubling questions about the final destination of the arms.  Kenya insists the weapons are for its military.  But western military and intelligence sources have speculated that Kenya may be helping South Sudan build up its forces before an expected referendum on independence in 2011.

Wezeman says the end-user of the arms shipped to Kenya is still unknown.

"There is no hard evidence that those weapons were intended for the government of South Sudan nor have they been spotted there.  But the suspicions remain.  And if they are for the government of South Sudan, then that is a worrisome development that could be considered destabilizing."

Khartoum and southern rebels signed a peace deal in 2005, ending one of Africa's longest and bloodiest conflicts.  But the possibility that Sudan's oil-rich south may secede after the referendum has stoked what observers say is a major arms build-up in Sudan.