According to the 2018 Geneva Small Arms Survey, there are 7.8 million small arms in the wrong hands in a region where almost half of the countries — Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi — are undergoing or just recovering from conflict.
Globally, there are an estimated 640 million illegal firearms in circulation, of which about 100 million are in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 30 million arms, of which 59 per cent are in the hands of civilians.
The blackmarket trade for small arms stands at $1 billion, but in the Horn and the Great Lakes, the possession of small weapons is seen as a source of income, security and a cultural symbol like in South Sudan.
These concerns led the Nairobi-based Regional Centre for Small Arms (RECSA) to convene a seminar to discuss ways how the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) can help in pushing its 15-member states to domesticate the Nairobi Protocol.
The conference was attended by the members of the Eala Committee on Regional Affairs and Conflict Resolution. While the all 15 RECSA states have signed the Nairobi Protocol, only nine — Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea, Rwanda, DRC Djibouti, Burundi and Sudan — have ratified it.
The 2019 Fragile States Index shows that eight of the 15 RECSA member states are in the top 20 most fragile states. These are Somalia, DR Congo, South Sudan, Burundi and the Central African Republic.
The region is also experiencing inflows of small arms from the conflict in Yemen through Somalia to the borders with Kenya and Ethiopia, and the war in Libya through Sudan to South Sudan, and by extension Kenya and Uganda.
According to the director of International Development and Capacity Building, Gen (Rtd) Christo Fataki, there is an increasing recognition that human security and sustainable development will not be achieved in the region unless more is done to reduce proliferation of small arms and promote security.
Most of the instruments address the supply and management illegal small weapons include national and regional legislation for preventing diversion, stockpile management procedures, marking and tracing programmes.
“These procedures are meant to prevent the weapons from being diverted to the illicit market or illicit users. However, these instruments have proven insufficient for restricting or reducing the supply of weapons for they only address the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem,” said Gen Fataki.
Among the factors that fuel possession of small arms are inter-communal conflicts, borders disputes, cattle rustling and poaching, the rise of organised crimes, terrorist activities, drug and human trafficking.
The impact is that small arms and light weapons are the main tools of terrorist violence, and have a significant impact on the intensity and duration of armed conflicts.
They undermine peace processes, and hinder the provision of humanitarian assistance. Small arms are used in poaching across the region while poachers pay arms dealers with poaching products such as ivory and precious gems. Herders are also denied their rights of ownership by raiders with illicit arms.
The human cost of raids is immense: Hundreds of civilians are killed every year and many thousands forcibly displaced. For instance, a report released in July by the International Committee of the Red Cross says that 97 per cent of the admitted patients in their facilities in South Sudan over a recent six-month period suffered gunshot wounds, an indication of the high prevalence and easy access to firearms.