Trafficking in the Sahel: Muzzling the illicit arms trade


In this feature, part of a series exploring the fight against trafficking in the Sahel, UN News focuses on the illegal arms trade that is fuelling conflict and terrorism.

In the Sahel, home to 300 million people, it’s a buyer’s market for guns. Insurgency and banditry plague the region, rooted in, among other things, endemic intercommunal tensions, clashes between farmers and herders, a spread of violent religious extremism, and competition over such scarce resources as water and arable land amid extreme climate shocks.

“Non-State groups are fighting among themselves for supremacy, pushing States to the margin, and causing untold misery to millions of people who had to flee their communities to seek safety,” Giovanie Biha, Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), told the UN Security Council, presenting the Secretary-General’s report on the region.

Firearms trafficking flows in the Sahel

‘We bought more rifles’

Behind the chaos and misery simmers a thriving illicit arms trade.

Many arms trafficking hubs in the Sahel rim borders or transportation routes where multiple criminal activities take place, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Illegal markets – often hidden in plain sight in towns and villages along strategic corridors – lay unhampered by the presence of authorities.

All the groups involved in clashes are now dealing with firearms and ammunition, according to a recent UNODC report on firearms trafficking. As the numbers of group members multiply, so too do business opportunities for traffickers.

The report tracks cases with a view to better understand the phenomenon and its drivers. When Nigerian authorities asked a suspect how his group had spent the $100,000 ransom paid to free the schoolgirls they had kidnapped, he said “we bought more rifles”, according to the report.

Fleeing her village in northern Cameroon after armed insurgents seized control, Mamma Hamidou (centre) received income-generating funding from UNDP and, with her earnings, built a small house and sends her children to school. (February 2019)

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Fleeing her village in northern Cameroon after armed insurgents seized control, Mamma Hamidou (centre) received income-generating funding from UNDP and, with her earnings, built a small house and sends her children to school. (February 2019)

Cascade of consequences

A cascade of consequences spilled across the region over the past decade, destabilizing nations and spreading a tide of trafficked weapons into villages, towns, and cities. In Nigeria, Boko Haram expanded its area of control and spidered into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

Small arms ammunition at the unexploded ordnance pit at the Malian Army Camp in Timbuktu, Mali.

MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

Small arms ammunition at the unexploded ordnance pit at the Malian Army Camp in Timbuktu, Mali.

In the first of the Trafficking in the Sahel features, we described the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya as a pivotal moment. Tuareg soldiers serving in the Libyan army looted weapons, returning to Mali, where a series of rebellions created a dangerous, chaotic security vacuum.

Extremist groups captured Malian military and police bases, adding fresh stockades of weapons to their expanding arsenals. The Liptako-Gourma transborder area became a battlefield and bartering ground for a burgeoning illegal arms trade.

The chronic violence has killed thousands and displaced more than two million Sahelians, as of December 2022.

Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in Sudan has caused further disruptions, said Mar Dieye, who heads the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS).

“Soldiers are selling their guns to get food, and this will add fuel to fire,” he told UN News. “This is extremely serious, and we are calling for all international actors to scale up their support.”

Women care for a market garden in Tillaberi. Niger, located in the Liptako-Gourma area, which has felt a heavy impact from local conflicts and the spillover of fighting in Mali and Burkina Faso.

© WFP/Mariama Ali Souley

Women care for a market garden in Tillaberi. Niger, located in the Liptako-Gourma area, which has felt a heavy impact from local conflicts and the spillover of fighting in Mali and Burkina Faso.

African-tailored terrorism

Against this backdrop sits the ever-present threat of terrorism, according the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee’s Executive Directorate (CTED).

In a bid to appeal to local audiences, Islamic State (ISIL) affiliates have, since 2017, attempted to “Africanize” references and languages, using African literature to justify the terrorist group’s views, CTED said in its report ISIL in Africa: Key Trends and Developments.

Currently, the Lake Chad Basin and Central Sahel have emerged as epicentres and incubators of terrorism and violent extremism, authorities warned.

In the background, the illicit weapons trade perpetuates the chaos. The UNODC report showed that flows of illegal arms from Libya since 2019 have expanded to include newly manufactured assault rifles.

A MINUSMA armoured vehicle in Aguelhock, Mali.

©MINUSMA / Harandane Dicko

A MINUSMA armoured vehicle in Aguelhock, Mali.

Partners against crime

Reflecting this sinister trend, weapons seizures increased by 105 per cent between 2017 and 2021, and sting operations continue, said Amado Philip de Andrès, UNODC’s regional representative for West and Central Africa.

Joint investigations and cross-border cooperation are a winning combination, he said. One such operation crushed a terrorist network’s firearms supply route in December, and new partnerships are flourishing, including Niger’s military cooperation agreements with Benin and Burkina Faso.

Firearms, ammunition and explosives were seized by INTERPOL across the Sahel.

UNODC/INTERPOL

Firearms, ammunition and explosives were seized by INTERPOL across the Sahel.

To fight terrorism and violent extremism, concerned nations in the region launched the Accra Initiative in 2017, deploying joint operations, initiating confidence-building efforts in hotspot areas, and calling for operationalizing a multinational joint task force comprising 10,000 soldiers.

For its part, the UN and the region’s countries work to strengthen the resilience of border communities and facilitate the return of displaced persons. Traction in advancing the African Union’s ground-breaking Silencing the Guns initiative is also under way, with a UN task force supporting an annual amnesty month and lending technical assistance on small arms control.

To build on these successes, UNODC recommended that Sahel countries reinforce efforts to collect data on firearms trafficking to improve understanding of and stop national and transnational flows.

But, political and operational support of partners remains essential to stabilize the region, said Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Africa.

“Decisive progress in the fight against terrorism, violent extremism, and organized crime in the Sahel must be made desperately,” she said. “Without significant gains, it will become increasingly difficult to reverse the security trajectory in the Sahel and the continued expansion of insecurity to coastal countries in West Africa.”

A UN peacekeeper with firearms collected from militias in Côte d'Ivoire.

UN Photo/Ky Chung

A UN peacekeeper with firearms collected from militias in Côte d’Ivoire.

‘We are all Burkinabes’

The backlash of the illicit arms trade is felt strongest on the ground. In the village of Bolle, Burkina Faso, a fragile security landscape crumbled frighteningly in 2019, when fierce fighting among heavily armed groups along the Malian border drove more than 100,000 people into the area to seek safety.

Sahelians like Chief Diambendi Madiega have worked together to welcome as many as they could.

“The concern I had was how to take care of the displaced people,” he said, upon receiving a UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, award in 2021 for hosting more than 2,500 people.

“The responsibility is mine,” he explained. “Anything I can to do help them, I will. I am happy for what this community has done. This shows that we are all Burkinabes.”

Burkina Faso: He convinced communities to share their land with displaced people

UN in action

The UN, partners, and Sahelians themselves working for peace in the Sahel are making inroads and introducing new efforts, including these:

  • UN Peacekeeping adopted a strategy for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants.
  • The UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), in a joint project, assisted nine Sahelian countries in adopting a regional action plan to combat the illicit arms trade.
  • UNDP facilitated the voluntary surrender of over 40,000 small arms and light weapons in West Africa, built more than 300 houses, nearly 300 market stalls, and clinics and schools in northeastern Nigeria, and provided livelihoods for youth to protect them from sliding into poverty or being recruited into violent extremism.
  • The UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) supports the regional G5 Sahel Force in a project focused on criminal justice, border security management, and preventing radicalization and violent extremism.
  • A UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) programme helps adolescents learn about the danger of small arms, combining basic gun safety education with leadership development, vocational training, and conflict resolution techniques.
  • UN regional directors and UNOWAS approved in November the launch of a revamped “peace and security offer” for the Sahel and works with the Timbuktu Institute and the non-governmental organization Dialogue sans frontières on an initiative aimed at strengthening traditional dialogue and trust-building platforms between communities in the border regions of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.



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