Confronting Conventional Weapons Challenges in Africa’s Sahel Region

Posted by Izora H. Baltys
August 7, 2014
Mortar Shells and Boxes That Once Held Anti-Aircraft Missiles Are Pictured at an Arms Depot in North Africa

Nestled in the southern Sahara, northern Africa’s Sahel region is on the front lines of some of the world’s most pressing international security challenges.  The region’s vast open spaces and porous borders have attracted both terrorist activity and transnational crime, including illicit small arms and light weapons trafficking. In addition, many communities face risks from abandoned landmines and unexploded munitions from previous conflicts that hinder economic and social development.  U.S. efforts in Niger, Chad, and elsewhere in the Sahel region show how the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction Program invests in regional partnerships that strengthen local capabilities to address these challenges and strengthen regional security.

Recent years have illustrated the impact of unsecure and unstable stockpiles of small arms and munitions in the Sahel.  Since the 2011 collapse of the Qadhafi regime, incoming flows of weapons from neighboring Libya has threatened security in the region even further.  In 2012, militants from Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operating in southern Algeria took advantage of political instability in neighboring Mali, seizing significant territory until military personnel from France and the African-led International Mission to Support Mali (AFISMA) pushed them back.

After these and other successful operations in the region, neighboring Niger partnered with the United States in 2013 to improve controls on its own inventories of small arms, light weapons, and munitions.  The government of Niger conducted a national stockpile survey to identify sites for physical security and stockpile management improvements.  Based on the survey, Niger made key safety improvements including improving door locks and shelving; identifying and safely disposing of excess and outdated arms; and instituting new accounting procedures.  These efforts have proven effective worldwide in the global effort to keep weapons out of the wrong hands.  The United States plans to increase engagement with Niger, and to extend our collaborative efforts to additional Sahel countries.

In addition to assisting countries with their current security needs, our multifaceted approach to conventional weapons destruction confronts the lingering problems posed by landmines and other unexploded ordnance contamination left over from previous conflicts.

The Government of Chad has emerged as a key partner in our ongoing efforts to facilitate cooperation on regional security in the Sahel, despite challenges posed by ongoing tensions in surrounding Libya, Central African Republic, and Nigeria.  Contributions of over $11 million in U.S. conventional weapons destruction support since 1993 have empowered Chad to address the lingering threat of unexploded ordnance from internal conflicts dating back to the 1970s.  In 2010, U.S. Africa Command joined ongoing efforts to build capabilities within Chad by instructing local forces on demining, stockpile management, and medical first response.  Today, the Chad National Demining Authority assists their American instructors in teaching demining operations to personnel from other countries in the Sahel and throughout the African continent, establishing a promising foundation for long-term regional cooperation.  While the slow and dangerous work of landmine clearance tends to receive the most attention, U.S.-supported mine-risk education programs in Chad, Gambia, and Senegal prevent injuries and saves lives by engaging directly with schools and communities to reach the most vulnerable populations.   Unfortunately, decades of conflict have already made an irreversible impact on thousands of individuals and communities.  In response, the United States also invests in survivor assistance programs.  This assistance has already helped more than 1,600 survivors in Chad to recover from their accidents and to meet the needs of their families and communities. 

The United States is proud to be the world’s leading provider of financial and technical assistance to help countries address this serious humanitarian challenge.  Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $2.3 billion in aid to over 90 countries throughout for conventional weapons destruction.  These programs address not only clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance, but also destruction of stockpiles of excess or loosely-secured munitions to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands, and better stockpile management of munitions to prevent depot explosions that could endanger civilians.  Our efforts have helped to dramatically reduce the world’s annual landmine casualty rate, and even assisted 15 countries to become free from the impact of landmines.

To learn more about the United States’ conventional weapons destruction efforts, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety.

About the Author: Izora H. Baltys serves in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

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