West Africa and the Moratorium on Small Arms

By: Musue Noha Haddad

The Perspective

August 27, 2001

Recently the Moratorium on Small Arms in West Africa was extended. Set in place in October 1998, the moratorium was extended on July 5, 2001, by the current ECOWAS Chairman, President Alpha Omar Konare of Mali. But the extension has been described by many as inadequate and carried out in a "light handed manner" - thus prompting the lingering question: "Has the Moratorium been effective since its declaration in October 1998?"

The Moratorium took effect in 1998 after heads of State and governments of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) realized that the proliferation of light weapons constitutes a destabilizing factor for countries within the sub-region and a threat to the peace and security of its people. As a means to prevent further conflicts in their region, the leaders declared a Moratorium on the importation, exportation, and manufacture of light weapons in ECOWAS member states in October 1998, which took effect November 1st 1998 for a renewable period of three years.

The Moratorium first signed in Abuja, Nigeria was instantly considered a welcome gesture but actually since its implementation there has been an escalation of crisis in the West African Sub-region. With the growing number of guns and crisis in the sub-region since its declaration, many have viewed the Moratorium as a "PAPER TIGER". That is, though it has strong statements against the importation of small arms, the Moratorium lacks enforcement mechanism. As a result of the lack of enforcement mechanism, some governments and rebel leaders bent on self-imposition and or extension of dictatorial activities are deliberately circumventing the sub-regional convention.

Two years after the signing of the agreement, civil strife continues to escalate in the sub-region. Although, the Liberian war, which began in 1989, was at its peak during the declaration of the moratorium, Liberia has been consistently accused of engaging in illegal arms activities thus threatening the peace of its neighbors as seen in especially Sierra Leone and Guinea. The rebel Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone has remained intransigent in spite the Moratorium. The intransigent RUF, which has been killing and amputating innocent civilians, has been allegedly supported by the government of Liberia for which the United Nations has imposed selective sanctions on the Taylor government. The Moratorium was signed before the insurgents went on the rampage in Southern Guinea bringing another round of trauma to the over 300,000 refugees and tragedy to that country.

In Ivory Coast, former President Robert Guei is described as law in the western sector of that country where he crouches. Emerging reports from Ivory Coast and the international media as well as the Ivorian government situational reports indicate that former military leader Guei has become law unto himself; he does not take orders from President Laurent Gbagbo. During the parliamentary election early this year, Guei restricted his home area for Ivorian politicians he opposed even from President Laurent Gbabo's ruling party. The Washington Post newspaper stated in one of its recent publications that Liberian President Charles Taylor is abetting the ex-military leader.

Meanwhile, in the Cassamance province, the moratorium has not extinguished the insurgency in that part of Senegal.

"Since the Moratorium was put in effect, we have seen an escalation of the war in the Mano River Basin, we have seen the problem in Guinea Bissau with the military disturbances. We have seen in Cote d'Ivoire quite a problem of instability. There is no light up in the kind of criminality and armed violence that come out of marginalization in Nigeria ", former President Dr. Amos Sawyer describes the situation in West Africa.

Dr Sawyer believes that in order to yield positive results, the moratorium should be strengthened. He views the level of progress being achieved in Sierra Leone, the compliance of the rebel factions and cooperation in disarmament as the result of the arms embargo and sanctions.

Ms. Fatoumata Maiga, President of de' long, a rights organization in Mali disclosed recently that over 10 million weapons were already in circulation in West Africa. She noted that the 10 million are weapons considered cheap and accessible.

Ms Maiga pointed out that the 10 million does not include weapons illegally transported and those used injudiciously and indiscriminately by rebels and unscrupulous governments in the region.

She describes West Africa as a theatre for tragic events of conflicts with arms rebellion in spite the mechanism set in place to control arms.

With the statistics provided, it can be understood then that some governments in the sub-region continue to circumvent the agreement to support wars in order to amass wealth and power in the sub-region. There are also others who find it impossible to conceal their stance against the campaign to halt undemocratic and illegal activities including the moratorium on small arms and light weapons. As it was displayed at the United Nations, where some participants of the small arms conference vehemently opposed measures to control the manufacture, use and transfer of small arms, some governments wish not to hear " moratorium and sanctions" of arms. Wars must be fought especially with small arms. Small arms are easily transferable, transportable and concealed so it is reasonably understood why some governments bent on personal greed within the sub-region are mischievously frustrating attempts to control arms proliferation.

A typical example of extreme opposition to the campaign against arms, an episode that has become unique and retold at several fora is the vandalizing and attack on the staff and offices of a non-partisan organization based in Liberia for its campaign on control of arms. Few days after the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), last November hosted a workshop involving international and local organizations on small arms, the board chairman, Dr. Amos Sawyer and the Executive Director, Mr. Conmany Wesseh were attacked and almost killed by a large group of tele-guided thugs. The offices of CEDE were looted and other staff members also brutalized.

Appeared not to be defeated by the attack, Mr. Wesseh who has been working also with the Liberia Action Network on Small Arms and the West Africa Arms Network urged governments within the sub-region to reinforce their commitment to the moratorium and to realize that resources allocated to arms can be used for development.

"The government is the main agency in importing arms. Whether they are doing it within the borders of the sanctions or not but they are certainly bringing in arms or taking arms to Liberia which is in contravention of the sanctions and moratorium. It is in the interest of the government and people of Liberia that we have a society free of violence, a society in which people do not resort to arms every time there is a disagreement" Wesseh said.

"To campaign against arms is to campaign against powerful forces. The fact that we choose to do what we choose to do with respect to combating small arms, we know we are combating powerful forces", Wesseh intimates.

But Dr. Ivor Fung, Director for the UN Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament in Africa said when the moratorium was declared in 1998, it became quickly evident that there would be irregularities. Fung's office worked along with ECOWAS to establish a code of conduct to hopefully regulate the manner in which regimes would function. The code of Conduct, Dr. Fung said provides for monitoring of member states.

But how effective that has been: Fung said "The moratorium does not have an in built compliance or monitoring system in the formal manner. We believe the moratorium should move from a strictly declaratory measure to a measure that even though declaratory can still be at least morally binding, if there is morality in politics". He added that the moratorium, a declaratory measure, is difficult to control.

Commenting further, Dr Fung said it is no secret that some member states have been involved in arms transactions, which contravenes the West African arms convention.

But like many others, Dr. Fung believes that prior to the extension, there should have been inventory of the past three years of the moratorium. That is, reviewing of the past three years to determine whether there have been violations, disregard to the provisions of the code of conduct and encourage the participation of all bureaucracies on small arms in West Africa in the extension process.

Among the code of conduct set up to regulate the functioning of the Moratorium, one provides for an inception regime. That is, if a country finds itself in a difficult security situation and it needed to import weapons, it would go through an exemption process, which would allow it to do so.

When the case of Liberia and the campaign by that government to have the arms embargo lifted to import arms because of what it describes as " threat to its security" was brought up during this interview, Fung quickly pointed out that the moratorium was an additional reprimand of Liberia.

"Actually, the situation of Liberia was unique when the moratorium was declared. The kinds of activities prescribed by the moratorium were not actually applicable to Liberia because Liberia was already under sanctions to import arms. That is, the moratorium was an additional measure to firstly seek solidarity among ECOWAS states and secondly, that Liberia does not effectively import weapons". Whether that has been observed, the Director of Armament in Africa summed, "There are accusations, allegations and assumptions that some member states have been violating the moratorium".

Reflecting the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects held in New York recently, it appears that there is an international goodwill to sensitize the global community on the control of small arms and light weapons. But what is remaining is to see whether dishonest leaders and rulers will not circumvent this international resolve.

Click the link before for related article:
Arms Proliferation Increases Repression

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