Counting the costs of arms proliferation in Africa

Olusegun Akinfenwa: 25 May 2021:

For decades Africa has been plagued by devastating armed conflicts that continuously hinder it from assuming its potential despite being richly endowed with many natural and mineral resources. These seemingly unending crises have a strong link to arms proliferation, which is another perennial challenge in Africa.

With weak military setups, porous borders and coastlines, and sheer corruption in many African countries, arms traffickers and criminal elements have been having a field day circulating and acquiring various kinds of small arms and light weapons (SAWLs) illegally.

According to Small Arms Survey (SAS),  an independent research centre, 80% of SALWs are in the hands of civilians, including militant and rebel groups. The civilian population holds more than 40 million of these weapons, while government-related entities hold fewer than 11 million.

Human Cost

According to the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), 52% of all global armed conflicts occurred in Africa in 2014, despite having just 16% of the world’s population. The situation has even gone worse in recent time, as armed groups increase in sizes and numbers across African countries.


Uncontrolled arms have been blamed for the continued wanton killings and other human losses that have slowed down the continent’s progress and make many countries unsafe. A report by Oxfam shows that between 4.3 million to 8.4 million people were killed between 1983 and 2005 in just three countries – Sudan, DRC, and Rwanda, as a result of armed conflicts. In Nigeria, over 36,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram since the group emerged in 2010. Some of its recent attacks in late 2020 include the kidnapping of school children and slaughtering of farmworkers. In Somalia, an estimated 350,000 to 1 million people were reported to have lost their lives since the protracted civil war started in 1991.

Forced Migrations

The crises have led to millions of forced migrations, which has thrown the continent into a serious refugee crisis. While natural disaster is the main reason for displacements in countries like China and the Philippines, in Africa, it is majorly a result of armed crises. Somalia and Sudan are some of the African countries with lingering armed conflicts, and they have 2.6 million and 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), respectively. In South Sudan, the total population of IDPs and refugees stands at around 4.3 million people. In the Lake Chad Basin comprising Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, there are more than 3.2 million displaced persons. The highest number is concentrated in northeastern Nigeria, with 2.9 million IDPs.

Some African countries hosting refugees from the war-torn zones are already grappling with the cost of catering for the needs of these vulnerable people, who are mostly children and women. For instance, Kenya hosts the largest refugee populations in Africa, with a total of 495,000 refugees and asylum seekers, including over 265,000 from Somalia and around 122,000 from South Sudan.

Other continents are also burdened with Africa’s refugee crisis. For instance, the past few years have seen a spike in asylum seekers in the U.K., and a great number of them are from conflict-torn African nations. The United States, Canada, France and many other developed economies also have their own fair share of displaced persons from Africa. In many war-torn African zones, children are some of the most affected populations. Between 1995 to 2015, an estimated 4.9 to 5.5 million children under the age of five were killed in Africa, due to armed conflicts, according to a recent study by Lancet.

Life-Threatening Famine

Famine is another downside of armed crises in Africa, as the unrests greatly affect and displace local farmers in various communities. Some communities have been overrun and taken over by terrorists. In cases like this, the locals, who are typically subsistence farmers, are targeted and killed or driven from their ancestral lands. Sometimes their farm produce will be harvested by the terrorists. With more and more farmers unable to visit their farmlands due to armed crises, some parts of the continent have been suffering acute hunger for years, and the situation worsens by the day.

According to UNICEF, 6 million children suffer from acute malnutrition in West and Central Africa. Already, the continent grapples with natural issues, such as land and crop degradation and periodic drought. Adding the recurring armed conflicts to these indicates that there is no end in sight to the life-threatening food crisis in those regions. For example, in Nigeria, the age-long farmer-herder crisis has discouraged drastically hampered farming activities and food production. About 3.7 million people are already predicted to be experiencing acute hunger in Northeastern Nigeria. In 1992, a year into the Somali war, the country experienced a devastating famine that claimed 500,000 lives. Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Niger, CAR, and DPR also grapple with various degrees of armed conflict-induced food insecurity.

Financial Cost

Financial loss is another downside of armed conflicts in Africa. Over the years, many African countries have been forced to increase their military spending, despite the dwindling economic condition in the continent. In the past decade, the overall military expenditure in Africa increased by nearly 20%. The resources that are better used for infrastructural and humanitarian needs are spent on defence, yet the security situation in many of these countries worsens by the day.

A report by the World Council of Churches showed that armed crises cost Africa 18 billion U.S. dollars annually. Between 1990 and 2007, some 24 African countries were also reported to have lost 300 billion U.S. dollars to armed conflicts. This amount is equivalent to the total international aid the countries received from major donors in the same period.


Africa’s desire for peaceful coexistence and development is hung on its ability to decisively tackle armed conflicts, which is strongly tied to illegal circulation and acquisition of weapons. African leaders must rise to the occasion and address the causes, which are inherent in the lopsided socio-economic and political structures in most parts of the continent.

The high unemployment rate and ever-widening inequalities between the ruling class and the masses have been identified as some of the major factors motivating young people to bear arms illegally. The continent has hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployed and unempowered youths who are easily targeted and engaged for arms trafficking and terrorism.

The high rate of out of school children in Africa, especially in the sub-Saharan region, is another dangerous pointer to insurgency, which must be decisively addressed. The leaders must prioritize the creation of an enabling environment for growth and innovation among African youths. Only then will all other efforts to curb arms proliferation and conflicts yield the desired results.

About the author

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organization affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the U.K.


  1. The seemingly continuous armed conflicts plaguing Northern Nigeria, Banditry in the oil rich Niger delta , Kidnapping of School children for ransom, Islamist terrorism like Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa in the Sahel, compassing Chad, Bokina Fasso, Mali, Cameroon, Niger. And in the Congo Basin saddling Eastern DRC, Central Africa Republic, then to the Southern Africa region , Mozambique. This web of terrorist activities, both by states responding to quell the violence, and none state actors, is an inevitable tragedy, unleashed to chunk of the African populations. In the process killing millions, and rendering thousands of people homeless, is nothing new in the African continent.What is new is technology have made it more prevalent.In some African countries, it is easier and cheaper to buy a gun than food to feed your family. For example, recent security research on arms proliferation in Nigeria shows as of 2020, there are six million unaccounted light arms in circulation in Nigeria, which the security forces cannot account for.

    Now when you add in to that mix, corrupt military personnel, and businessmen selling arms to Boka Haram fighters for money or profit, you get the picture, why the war in the Northern Nigeria is taking so long to bring under control. Egypt had a similar problem in the Sania with Islamic state fighters, a spill over from the deserts of Iraq, but there government managed to bring them under control. So what is wrong with Nigeria, the most advanced military machines in the West African region? If we look at the countries affected by this terrorists activities, the one thing they all share in common is they are blessed with natural. With weak governance structures, and corruption by governments that have failed to use their God given natural resources to lift their people’s out of poverty, and hunger. Then with no alternative for any meaningful changes to their lives, terrorists leaders fill in the gaps to exploit the situation by recruiting this youngmen, and women that see no future stake for themselves in their own country’s and communities.

    Is easire to get your hands on an AK 47 rifle, than farming tools like a hoe, and a small plot of land. Because this same corrupt governments have sold or leashed this lands to foreign entities. Until governments starts to address real bread, and butter issues that affects peoples lives, Iam afraid the tragedies of arms proliferation and arms conflicts will continue in the African continent .

  2. Gentlemen – A house that is built on sand will not be able to stand gallantly against storms and hurricanes that could come crashing on it’s doors like torpedoes in a time of war being fired from submarines tucked away safely out of sight in the quiet depths of the boundless oceans. Show me an African country that the Western Powers believe is making noteworthy progress and I would show you a country that is built on sand. Mr Akinfenwa the debilitating and malfeasant attitudes of African leaders that has always been intricately interwoven with rampant corruption are the main reasons
    why the seeds of Armed Conflicts have always found a way to sprout with great ease like corn planted in the depths of healthy and fertile soil African leaders are building their countries on sandy ground and on flimsy structures that will not and cannot stand the test of Time.

    To build a society where millions are left behind, where abject poverty is shrugged off by men seeking their own interests is to be asking for trouble – it’s a ticking time bomb;Tick tock tick it sings awaiting it’s moment to explode. It is the humiliations that come with poverty that creates unbridled anger;And Injustices ignite the fuse of rebellion that explodes and shatter nations to unfixable pieces .It has been said that “Idle hands are the Devil’s Instruments.” Totally agree. Unemployment is another factor responsible for armed conflicts in poor African countries; Answer – What’s to stop our young people from picking up weapons in a quest to make the playing field even and safeguard their future in a continent where the sun never fails to rise but only a few are privileged enough to enjoy her consolations blessings favors and warmth.(lol)

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