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Updated Aug 13, 2020
Armed Dinka cattleguards in South Sudan in 2018. Photo via AFP.
Armed Dinka cattle guards in South Sudan in 2018.

Illegal firearms trafficking remains a critical problem for African states, and a new United Nations’ report on the problem may reveal just the tip of the iceberg. 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report on firearms trafficking in July, a follow-up on a 2015 study on firearms. “Pistols are the world’s most seized type of firearm… driven to a large extent by the Americas,” the “Global Study on Firearms Trafficking 2020” notes. “In Africa and Asia, shotguns were the most prominent type. Rifles were the main type of firearm seized in Oceania, and in Europe the distribution was equal between pistols, rifles, and shotguns.” 

Africa’s oversupply of shotguns suggests many of the weapons seized are used for poaching activities, particularly the poaching of birds. Yet, in focusing on trafficked weapons, the UN report left out the role of improvised weapons, an essential part of the illegal weapons trade in Africa. 

Relying on data from 2016 and 2017, the report noted that some 550,000 firearms were seized in eighty-one countries. By comparison, a January 2019 BBC news report on Ghana’s illegal arms trade suggested that illegal gunsmiths in Ghana have the capacity to make up to 200,000 guns a year. While much of the improvised weapons are used to commit crimes, a large portion of these guns are essentially single use. 

About 90 percent of armed robberies in Ghana are reported to involve the use of homemade guns, according to the Ghana Police Service. Such weapons can be purchased for as little as US$9, and most are used for home defense by residents who live in areas with a high crime rate. Many of these weapons are crudely fashioned single-use zip guns. 

Ghana’s blacksmith may be the most productive on the continent. By comparison, Mali authorities estimate that some 5,000 guns are produced in the country each year. 

Ghana’s blacksmiths have been making guns for centuries after European traders often refused to sell Africans firearms in large quantities to not lose their comparative military advantage during colonial era conflicts. Ghana’s gunsmiths are perhaps the most advanced on the continent capable of producing weapons that mimic in appearance (but, not functionality) Kalashnikovs AKMs, for example. What they lack in modern machinery they more than compensate with skill. 

Some twenty-two African countries have notable illegal firearms manufacturing, most of which are located in West Africa. Such ECOWAS countries include  Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, and Mali. 

Homemade weapons usually lack the durability to become a significant combat arm of insurgent groups. One exception is in the Cameroonian conflict known as the Anglophone Crisis, where the relative lack of availability of internationally produced weapons has led some armed Anglophone separatists to rely on improvised hunting rifles as their primary combat arm. 

 In 2019, the African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey released a study, “Weapons Compass: Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa”, that identified the scale, availability, and supply patterns of illicit small arms on the continent. The study estimated there were some 40 million firearms in the hands of African civilians (including militias and rebel groups), whereas governments held fewer than 11 million firearms. 


Weapons originating outside the continent can have diffuse origins. Europe and the Middle East have long been a source for Africa’s illegal small arms trade (especially in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. However, China is a growing source for much of the continent’s weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s conventional arms sales surged from US$645 million in 2008 to US$1.04 billion in 2018. Though only a small percentage of those weapons have ended up in Africa, the number is growing. 

A 2020 study released by Conflict Armament Research found that most of ammunition used to fuel conflict between herders and farmers in Nigeria originated in China.  

Checkpoints for weapons searches and quicker response times to reports of shots fired by local security forces are two measures that can lead to more arms seizures. Indeed a combination of tighter enforcement measures within countries and renewed searches at borders suggest probable.

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