On October 26, 2015, a group of SPLA-in-Opposition soldiers captured a United Nations convoy on the Juba Corridor near Kaka in South Sudan’s Upper Nile region. The soldiers accused the UN Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) of transporting weapons and ammunition for the government.
The Unmiss convoy consisting of Bangladeshi troops was detained and all material on board — resupplies for its operation — including some 55,000 litres of fuel, 16 assault rifles, two machine guns and some 3,000 rounds of assorted ammunition were seized.
A year-and-a-half earlier on April 14, 2014, a riverine convoy was ambushed near Bor in South Sudan’s Jonglei State, with the assailants making away with more than 750,000 litres of fuel and lethal equipment — some 20 assault rifles, two heavy machine guns, mortars, a recoilless gun and 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
The two incidents add to the losses in weapons and ammunition by peacekeeping forces, estimated to be worth millions of dollars. These losses, in at least 20 missions undertaken or supported by the UN, are making it difficult to end conflicts around the world, experts warn. The theft ends up endangering the missions and strengthening the firepower of militias.
A recent report by the Small Arms Survey titled Making a Tough Job More Difficult: Loss of Arms and Ammunition in Peace Operations, notes that the materials lost comprise thousands of weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition.
For example, in South Sudan and Sudan, at least 500 weapons and 750,000 rounds of ammunition have been reported lost from African Union and UN stocks since 2005.
The weapons include assault rifles and pistols, armoured vehicles and numerous types of light weapons such as heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, heavy mortars and recoilless guns.
These weapons are lost through seizures, ambush of patrols and wholesale looting from arsenals, as was the case last year when a contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) — involving Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Burundi troops — was attacked.
The report by the Small Arms Survey was motivated by an emerging consensus that the scale of the global loss of lethal material from UN and regional-led peacekeeping operations is considerably greater than previously understood — with much of the loss probably preventable, the group’s director Eric Berman told The EastAfrican.
According to Mr Berman, the losses are not always preventable because peacekeepers are sometimes in the wrong place at the wrong time, and some arms depots are breached not because of lax stockpile security, but because the assailants are determined, better armed and have planned well.
“The nature of peacekeeping is becoming more challenging and complex. It is moving from the traditional peacekeeping where there are peace agreements to areas where there are spoilers while some countries do not have experience in peacekeeping,” said Mr Berman.
According to Mr Berman, there is a need for peacekeepers to invest in programmes to reduce the losses.
Loss of equipment
The report further notes that peacekeepers are susceptible to losing equipment during the course of everyday activities such as patrols and escort duties, but also during resupply operations, troop rotations or repatriation.
For example, the survey estimates the number of rounds of ammunition seized in an attack on African Union Mission in Darfur (Unamid) near Sindy in February 2014 to be at least 3,500 cartridges.
A former Unamid official informed the survey that the mission had recorded the ammunition lost in this incident at over 6,000 rounds.
The report says the Unmiss has noted that seizures of weapons by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army were commonplace but mostly go unreported.
But a former Unmiss peacekeeper underscored that even if the material were returned, these type of incidents — as well as peacekeepers’ loss and abandonment of weapons — undermined the credibility of the UN and the support it needs to fulfil its mandate.
The former Unmiss official added that the seizure of such material was often preventable, resulting from poor soldering and not poor planning. Indeed, the temporal distribution of large-scale incidents identified to date suggests that losses of weapons occur with regular frequency.
Patrols operating in highly volatile areas are often more likely to be attacked and, since they are also heavily armed, the types and quantities of weapons lost are often more substantial than material captured from peacekeepers operating in more stable areas.
In January 2016, two Unamid patrols came under attack in North Darfur and UN investigators later determined that five personal weapons were lost and presumably between 150 and 450 rounds of ammunition.
The second attack in the same month happened when peacekeepers charged with preparing for the visit of the Unamid Deputy Joint Special Representative Bintou Keita were ambushed 20km south of Anka. The assailants captured five assault rifles and an estimated 450 rounds of ammunition.
In June 2015, the Al Shabaab militants attacked an Amisom convoy near Burhakaba in Somalia’s Bay region, more than 160km from the capital Mogadishu. The equipment reportedly included 11 assault rifles, three sniper rifles, three light machine guns, one RPG launcher with two rounds of ammunition, 33 grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Although losses in fixed sites are not as frequent as those from patrols, the seizure of weapons and ammunition from fixed sites can be more sizeable. It affects headquarters sites, forward operating bases (FOBs), observation posts and the residences of mission personnel.
These were witnessed in Somalia last year, where Al Shabaab attacked the bases of troop-contributing countries to Amisom.
Al Shabaab has attacked Amisom bases at least five times: Against the Burundians in Leego (June, 2015); Ugandans in Janaale (September, 2015); Kenyans in El Adde (January, 2016); Ethiopians in Halgan (June, 2016); and Djiboutians in Beledweyne in October, 2016, besides attacks on Amisom convoys and patrols.
Other studies show that Amisom is far more hazardous than in any of the UN’s 60-plus peacekeeping operations over the past 70 years. Attacks on bases have also resulted in the loss of a substantial amount of weapons.
These bases are typically staffed by an infantry company of 150–200 or more uniformed personnel usually comprising three or four infantry platoons and supporting elements. FOBs should be largely self-sufficient, ideally for up to three months, given the insecure main supply routes by road.
“The exact amount of material held at these bases is difficult to determine because the AU and Amisom understandably withhold data for security reasons, and because the type and quantity of material are determined by expected usage, doctrine and financial means, which vary between bases and among troop-contributing countries,” says the report.
The losses are attributable to human failure, corrupt practices, high-threat environments or unavoidable accidents.
The report says robust inventory controls are essential for detecting and deterring the theft of weapons from storage facilities; tracking weapons issued to individual soldiers; and preventing the excessive accumulation of surplus, obsolete and expired arms and ammunition.
The arrest of Amisom troops in June 2016 from Uganda for illegally selling ammunition, fuel and equipment taken from the mission underscores the importance of these controls, notes the report.
According to Mr Berman, the report will assist the AU to develop guidelines on how to secure and manage recovered arms and ammunition in its peace operations.
The project will also seek to engage major troop-contributing countries to learn from their experiences, develop training modules in their national institutions, and share these lessons and improve their practices.