Armed and aimless: armed groups, guns, and human security in the ECOWAS region

Armed and aimless: armed groups, guns, and human security in the ECOWAS region

Weapons in hands of West African youths spell trouble

This study looks at the armed groups and small arms in the 15 member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. Armed groups in this report are defined as groups that have the capacity to challenge the state’s monopoly of legitimate force. It provides a region-wide mapping of armed groups, covering all 15 ECOWAS member countries, including groups that have been active at any given time since 1998, when the ECOWAS Moratorium on Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Light Weapons in West Africa was introduced.

The survey:

  • highlights the wide variety of armed groups that continue to threaten the region, using Nigeria and Mali as case studies. Armed violence in Nigeria involving various types of groups has reached dramatic levels
  • looks at the challenges linked to armed groups’ armament, looking more specifically at craft firearm production and the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants. Craft small arms production is a region-wide phenomenon, raising fears that it might become a source of weapons for armed groups
  • documents some of the human security implications of armed groups and small arms in the region, including the militarisation and demilitarisation of refugee camps, and the linkages between small arms availability and children associated with fighting forces

The survey concludes that armed groups are active in a majority of ECOWAS countries and represent a clear threat to regional and human security. Regardless of their original motives, armed groups can quickly become aimless - but remain no less deadly. They have a dangerous tendency to shift allegiances or to morph from groups originally established to support law and order to those that actively undermine it. Original ‘ideology’ tends to evaporate rapidly in the face of temptations to engage in financial or political aggrandisement - usually at the point of a gun. Ostensibly formed in support of the state, many armed groups, such as the Young Volunteers and Young Patriots in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, may evolve into genuine threats to national and regional security.

The recirculation of existing stockpiles of weapons, in particular of official state-owned weapons, through theft, seizure, and corruption is a primary source of armament. It is imperative that rigorous and transparent stockpile management and securityaccompany supply-side initiatives.

Arms collection initiatives, such as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programmes and other initiatives, such as weapons for development (WfD) are taking place, although with mixed results.

Finally the authors state that West Africa is at a crossroads. On the one hand are small but hopeful signs of progress. On the other, the seemingly intractable social and economic problems that gave rise to conflict in the first place remain. Although there have been some improvements, the combination of high youth unemployment, demographic bulges, and the ready availability of small arms is a serious cause for concern. Moreover, the region’s history shows that violence is contagious and that "spillover" is common. Furthermore, several critical upcoming elections have the potential to trigger yet another round of violence and, with it, tremendous suffering, as witnessed in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria. If current efforts to contain and disarm armed groups are not stepped up, history could judge the period of this study as a relatively quiet interlude in a destructive cycle of unremitting violence. Today’s armed and aimless youth could well be the spark that ignites tomorrow’s conflagration. [adapted from authors]

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