Arms Trafficking in African Waters

arms trafficking in Africa

A member of an arms trafficking and arms rental network holds an assault weapon.  SIA KAMBOU/AFP/GettyImages

This work forms part of the Stable Seas Maritime Security Index.

Africa is awash with an estimated 100 million illicit small arms. Many of these appear to be legacy weapons from years of conflict. They also enter the illicit market as a result of being captured or stolen from the legal arsenals of regional militaries. However, many weapons are also introduced to the region through illicit maritime trafficking. The combination of low maritime enforcement capacity, limited rule of law on shore, and the presence of and/or proximity to conflict make certain areas in sub-Saharan Africa hotspots for maritime weapons trafficking.

The conditions that breed maritime arms trafficking are well-illustrated in the Somali region. Somali waters have become a focal point for weapons trafficking which feeds the region’s own civil war. These waters also serve as a transshipment point for weapons fueling other conflicts in the region.

In September 2017, a local maritime police force in Puntland seized a boat that had a large cache of machine guns, small arms, ammunition, and anti-aircraft guns. The crew of the boat escaped, but it is believed they were bringing these weapons from Yemeni waters. Eventually the weapons could have made their way into the hands of al-Shabaab, the Islamic State, or any of the various clan-based militias.

But the Somali region is not merely a lucrative market for maritime arms trafficking, it is also a useful transshipment point. Limited capacity to monitor Somali waters and shorelines or enforce maritime law makes the Somali region a prime waypoint for moving arms into various other conflict-affected states nearby.

In 2016, American, Australian, and French vessels seized boats heading for Somalia carrying weapons from small arms to mortars and anti-tank weapons. The weapon types and packaging of the arms recovered in these seizures pointed to origins in Iran. Most experts believe that the Somali coast was being used as a transshipment point before the weapons’ ultimate delivery to Houthi rebels in Yemen.

East African hotspots also include countries such as Kenya, Madagascar, and Tanzania. Trafficking also occurs in Gulf of Guinea countries including Ghana, Togo and Benin.