Stemming the Flow of Weapons to Conflict Areas in Africa’s Great Lakes Region

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Rwandan police demonstrate how to operate a weapons marking machine. The box in the foreground programs the machine to engrave a unique code on each weapon. (Department of State photo)
Rwandan police demonstrate how to operate a weapons marking machine. The box in the foreground programs the machine to engrave a unique code on each weapon. (Department of State photo)

Stemming the Flow of Weapons to Conflict Areas in Africa’s Great Lakes Region

The countries of the Great Lakes region -- Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda -- are located at the crossroads of the African continent. Many of their surrounding neighbors are deeply embroiled in conflict: from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to their west and Somalia to their east, to South Sudan and the countries of the Sahel region stretching to the region’s north and west. One thing all of these conflicts have in common is that they are fueled by the widespread illicit availability of small arms and light weapons trafficked by corrupt officials, extremist groups, and criminal organizations. I recently traveled in the region and saw first-hand how the Department of State's Conventional Weapons Destruction program is helping Africa’s Great Lakes countries safeguard arms stockpiles and promote regional security.

Arms and ammunition intended for use by military and police forces enter illegal circulation through a variety of ways; terrorists, insurgents, and criminal organizations can attack and steal poorly secured government stockpiles. Without effective systems to keep track of weapons, corrupt officials steal and sell weapons for personal profit.

Back in 2004, the governments of the Great Lakes region established the Nairobi Protocol, an agreement to work together to reduce the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons in central and eastern Africa. Building on this effort, these countries subsequently established the Regional Centre on Small Arms in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and Bordering States (RECSA) to coordinate the Protocol's implementation. Since 2006, the United States has invested more than $6.3 million to support RESCA efforts to help Great Lakes region governments improve physical security and stockpile management (PSSM) at their munitions depots.

Physical Security and Stockpile Management

Physical security and stockpile management assistance helps countries improve physical infrastructure to store arms more securely, trains security and police forces on effective stockpile accountability practices, and as needed, helps partner governments to safely destroy small arms, light weapons, and ammunition excess to their national defense needs that might otherwise be vulnerable to theft or pilferage.

What does this assistance look like? Sometimes it’s as simple as this:

The United States provided this steel arms locker to the Ugandan Police Force to secure their service weapons in a police station. (Department of State photo)

One cheap and simple upgrade for many security forces are basic steel arms lockers. The arms lockers add a critical layer of security for weapons stored in police and military facilities sometimes lacking even basic security features, such as locked doors or metal bars on windows. In recent years, the United States has provided over 1,200 arms lockers to the region. In Kenya, the Assistant Inspector General of Police shared that steel lockers sent to the areas bordering Somalia have had a “substantial impact” on weapons security.

In other places, these projects support infrastructure upgrades to secure weaponry. For example, this last April, the United States handed over a new armory to the Tanzania Police Force in Dar es Salaam. Through U.S. support to RECSA, the United States is supporting the construction of four such regional armories for the police.

Through U.S. funding, RECSA handed over this armory in Dar es Salaam to the Tanzania Police Force in April 2019. (Department of State photo)

There, the police receive training on how best to secure and track their weaponry, and the new facilities will demonstrate proper storage conditions and security features as a model for other facilities. In the handover ceremony, the police thanked the U.S. Government and called the armory a “clear manifestation of the generous support” in the fight against the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

Marking, Tracing, and Training

Keeping track of armaments is as important as the physical security of secure storage. The United States has provided 36 weapons marking machines to 14 of RECSA's member states. These devices engrave a unique code on each weapon in state-held stockpiles. Coupled with U.S.-provided computers, tracing software, servers, and training in proper recordkeeping procedures, security forces are substantially improving accountability over their own stockpiles, making it far more difficult for corrupt actors to steal weapons and sell them to illicit trafficking networks.

To take full advantage of these upgrades over the long term, physical security and stockpile management programs also help build the capacity of partner nations to manage their own stockpiles according to international best practices. PSSM courses teach storekeepers about inventory management, security and access protocols, fire safety, and proper storage techniques for explosives, among other modules.  To date, the United States has trained over 350 personnel across the Africa’s Great Lakes region, which also improves accountability and prevents accidental depot explosions. Through these and similar donor-funded programs, RECSA member states now have a cadre of expert instructors who provide PSSM training to police and military personnel responsible for munitions storage facilities across the continent.  

With U.S. support, RECSA trained 60 Tanzanian police in stockpile management best practices in August 2018. (RECSA photo)

Disposing of Obsolete Weapons

A third element of PSSM is the safe disposal of obsolete and aging small arms, light weapons, and ammunition. As weapons age, governments replace them with newer and more effective materiel. However, the older arms and ammunition frequently remain in national stockpiles. This is problematic for a few reasons: it creates an ever-expanding stockpile of arms which requires more storage facilities and more personnel to safeguard them; there is greater likelihood that poorly-trained security forces will overlook obsolete weapons, store them under inadequate conditions, or lose track of them altogether; and, as ammunition ages it degrades, becoming increasingly unstable with the passage of time. When older, degrading ammunition is stored in inadequate facilities, it significantly increases the danger of massive, accidental depot explosions. The United States has worked closely with partner nations in Africa’s Great Lakes Region to address this challenge. In Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, we have helped RESCA safely dispose of over 30,000 excess small arms, as well as 400 tons of aging ammunition. In 2019, the United States provided a hydraulic shear to the Kenyan police so that they can safely destroy their obsolete weapons without continual external support.

U.S. officials Macy Johnson and Michael Tirre inspect the hydraulic shear that the United States donated to enable the Kenyan police to destroy obsolete SA/LW routinely. (Department of State photo)

Small U.S. investments in Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM) can make a big difference supporting a range of activities aimed at bolstering regional security, and ultimately U.S. national security. To learn more about the United States’ global conventional weapons destruction efforts, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM. You may also follow the Regional Centre on Small Arms in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and Bordering States @recsasec.

About the Author: Michael Tirre is the Assistant Program Manager for Africa Programs in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.