Sudan’s conflict, which is now in its second month, is raising worries among neighbours that lawlessness there will be exported in the form of illegal small arms.
The problem of illegal arms was already being felt across the Horn of Africa, owing to porous borders and continual violence in places like Somalia and South Sudan.
But Sudan’s conflict is likely to raise the number of arms in the wrong hands as mercenaries flock in from across borders in the face of inability by the government to protect citizens from rogue elements due to the breakdown of law and order.
Just like neighbouring Libya, the current situation is a fertile ground for dealers in illegal arms to flood the country with weapons. Before the fighting broke out on April 15, the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan had estimated that there were more than 2.7 million small arms and light weapons circulating outside of state-controlled stockpiles.
Besides the current conflict in Khartoum, there has been active fighting in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Nuba Mountains. Sudan’s neighbouring countries Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan, and Libya, where conflicts are taking place, have many arms in the hands of civilians.
A report by Small Arms Survey indicates Sudanese-manufactured ammunition proliferates not only in Sudan and South Sudan, but also in other conflict zones, such as in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Syria.
The 2022 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that in Chad, various armed actors, including mercenaries and rebels operating on both sides of the country’s borders with Libya and Sudan, fight over resources and territorial control, as well as with the Chadian government. Once in Chad, weapons moving from Libya may continue on to Sudan as well as the Central African Republic.
During the rule of Omar al-Bashir, the government armed tribal militias and groups during its civil war with the south to suppress an uprising in Darfur.
In Darfur, numerous armed groups started to battle the Sudanese government. Since then, various types of violence have persisted, including clashes between rival militias, disputes between communities, and between herders and farmers.
Small arms and light weapons, and ammunition have spread more widely as a result of conflicts, posing serious risks to regional stability and human security, among other things.
And after the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the Small Arms Survey identified Sudanese military support of key Southern insurgent groups, aiming to topple the Juba government. Since the conflict broke out in South Sudan in 2013, President Salva Kiir on several occasions accused Bashir of supplying Dr Riek Machar's faction with arms.
Dr Machar, in an interview with The EastAfrican sometime back, denied the allegations, saying that his movement got arms from the Juba government after overrunning their positions.
This raises another challenge: most of the weapons in the hands of militias are captured in battle with Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).
In 2020, the UN Panel of Experts reported that the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army based in South Darfur and led by Minni Minnawi, had captured armoured vehicles, including a T-55 tank.
According to the UN Panel, government weapon losses remained high for some years. For instance, the Panel confirmed from open sources that the government had lost 497 weapons between 2013 and 2015.
Losses from peacekeeping forces deployed in Darfur were also a major source of illicit arms for non-state armed groups.
Small Arms Survey and Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, say that non-state armed groups operating on both sides of the Sudan–South Sudan border are a source of arms and ammunition to civilians.
In Sudan, militias such as those formed by Misseriya groups that receive weapons from SAF and its affiliate forces have occasionally supplied the arms to pastoralist communities to advance their quest for land and resources in competition with neighbours.
In 2020, a survey by the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operations in Darfur revealed that civilian disarmament is difficult, especially if residents in Darfur lack confidence in the government and state security institutions’ ability to protect them.
Since the end of the Sudanese civil war in 2005, large volumes of small arms and light weapons have continued to flow into Sudan, including from China and Iran. While these authorized transfers do not violate existing embargoes or agreements on Sudan, investigations by the Small Arms Survey and others indicate that some of these newer weapons have reached non-state armed groups on both sides of Sudan–South Sudan border since the end of the civil war.
Some of the arming has been deliberate, as in the case of Khartoum’s arming of Southern rebel commanders—who subsequently passed on weapons to tribal militias—while some have been affected through battlefield capture and small-scale leakage. With continued conflicts in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and Abyei, Sudan has never had the chance to conduct Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration.
The 2021 Fragile States Index shows that nine out of 15 members of the Nairobi-based Regional Centre on Small and Light Weapons top 20 most fragile states. These are Somalia, Sudan, Central African Republic, South Sudan, DR Congo, Uganda, Mozambique, Burundi and Ethiopia.
The region is performing poorly in the implementation of the 2004 Nairobi Protocol which is supposed to prevent, control and reduce the flow of SALW in the region. The Nairobi declaration on small arms is a legally binding instrument whose aim was to collaborate to curb proliferation of the arms in the region as a complement to existing individual country mechanisms.
Other countries that signed the Nairobi declaration are Djibouti, Eritrea, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Seychelles, and Somalia. Later, they were joined by Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan.
According to the 2018 Geneva Small Arms Survey, there are 7.8 million small arms in the wrong hands in a region where almost half of the countries — Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi — are undergoing or just recovering from conflict. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 30 million arms, of which 59 per cent are in the hands of civilians.
The situation has not changed much as the black-market trade for small arms stands at over $1 billion. In the Horn and the Great Lakes, the possession of small weapons is seen as a source of personal and group security, income, and a cultural symbol like in South Sudan.