By William Church

Director, GLCSS


The Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies (GLCSS) believes a clear Post Cold War conflict cycle has emerged in Central Africa and the Horn of Africa. It is also the misreading of this cycle that has led to a lack of or misdirected arms embargo enforcement in Africa.
As the GLCSS Africa Weapons Cycle demonstrates the primary criteria for stability in the region is the well-worn phrase good governance. Current practitioners of state building theories have acted as if democratic elections lead to good governance; however, the events in Central Africa develop the reverse view: good governance should lead to democratic elections.


In other words, it is necessary to build a strong state with rule of law and democratic governance before democratic elections are held. This will be the determining factor that breaks the Africa Weapons Cycle.

The second issue that the GLCSS Africa Weapons Cycle discusses is the primary conflict question: Where do weapons come from? Based on a reading of some United Nations Groups of Experts, the answer is they are flown into the region on covert aircraft in the middle of the night and the natural resources of the country are both the cause of the conflict and means to pay for it.

One aspect of this statement is embodied in the following quote:

“It transpires from the Group’s previous reports that, since the establishment of the embargo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, air transport is the main conduit for arms and ammunition in the Great Lakes countries.” DRC Experts Report July 2006

As the GLCSS Africa Weapons Cycle demonstrates, the source of weapons depends on the conflict phase. However, generally, the primary sources of weapons are legally imported weapons prior to the beginning of the conflict and small-scale regional weapons and ammunition flows that travel on land through the porous borders of countries without good governance.

The Africa Weapons Cycle has identified four transition states (See Chart 1) and one Dual Path state that include:

  • Transition State: Fragile/Proxy State
  • Transition State: Fragile/Proxy State Overwhelmed
  • Transition State: Open Combat
  • Transition State: Ceasefire/Transitional Government
  • Dual Path: Legitimate State or return to Fragile/Proxy State


Fragile/Proxy State

In the Great Lakes region, the best historical examples are Habyarimana’s Rwanda and Mobutu’s Zaire. Prior to 1994, Rwanda was a proxy state supported both militarily and economically. Force was used to maintain power with a supply of weapons from France, the host state to the proxy.

In a Fragile/Proxy State, lack of good governance is manifested in political dissent, repression, social dysfunction, potential economic collapse, which requires the host state—in this case France—to increase weapons shipments in anticipation of active combat. Mobutu’s Zaire was a Fragile State at the time of the 1996 war, but earlier it had been both a Fragile/Proxy State, with support from the United States and France.

Chad is a current example of a Fragile/Proxy State. Without military support from France and to a lesser degree the United States, Chad would implode. President Deby came to power in 1990, and Chad has had a series of elections since 1996 that are reliably characterized as fraudulent and not democratic.

By 2004, his support had declined to the point that Defense Minister General Mahamat Nouri deserted with soldiers and weapons and established bases in Sudan. This is a prime characteristic of the Fragile/Proxy State: many of the initial weapons used by opposition forces come from within a legitimate structure.

This was definitely the case with the Fragile State of Uganda’s Obote. Museveni’s forces deserted with their weapons. Later, they captured weapons and bought small quantities to maintain the rebellion.

The 1990-1994 conflict in Rwanda has variations of this theme but has primary application in the 1996 war in Zaire. It was the weapons supplied to Habyarimana’s military and Interahamwe—by France–that fueled the later wars, when it spilled into the region.

Obviously, no one model—especially in Africa—fits all situations exactly but the general statement is that the Fragile/Proxy State is a recipient of legal shipments and when that government collapses those weapons flow into the region, or as part of its proxy relationship the weapons are supplied to another state.
It is that Proxy State relationship which fuels other conflicts.

Weapons delivered to Chad—as a Proxy State—found their way to the Zaghawa Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) in 2003 and also fueled the tribal violence in Darfur. When General Nouri deserted in Chad, his weapons became a resource for his rebellion and other groups in the region, which in turn fueled additional violence in Darfur and the Central African Republic (CAR).

According to the Somalia Monitoring Group, another variation of this theme is playing out in the Horn. The Proxy State—in this case Ethiopia—is delivering weapons directly to a conflict. As reported early, Ethiopia has received nearly $19 million of weapons from the United States in the last few years.

Fragile/Proxy State Overwhelmed and Active Combat

There is no clear line separating these two phases of the Africa Weapons Cycle. Predominantly, the Fragile/Proxy State is overwhelmed in terms of a complete deterioration of governance and the fighting moves from a regional conflict within the Fragile State to fighting that consumes most of the State.

Weapons in this phase originate in a progressive manner based on the duration of the conflict.  First, the existing supply of weapons described in the first phase is exhausted and one side gains an advantage or a tactical stalemate develops.

The 1996 Zaire war is a good example. The former Rwandan Army Forces (FAR) and the Interahamwe benefited from the weapons delivered by France to its previous Proxy State of Habyarimana’s Rwanda. The ADFL, under Laurent Kabila, with support from the new Rwandan government forces gained an immediate military advantage and there was limited reason for resupply.

The 1998 DRC (Zaire) war presented the opposite scenario. Neither side gained a tactical advantage and a stalemate scenario developed. Resupply became necessary and in some cases this was paid for through resource exploitation. It is at this stage large quantities of illicit weapons flow into the region because they are necessary to gain a tactical advantage and are represented by reports that a well known Russian arms dealer resupplied Jean-Pierre Bemba’s forces during this phase.

In terms of arms embargos and enforcement, this phase is the ideal target, with the exception of embargoing Proxy States prior to the start of active combat.

As a counter example, the DRC Arms Embargo did not take place until the Transition Government phase—August 2003–and has produced very little results except for citing the DRC Transition Government for violating the arms embargo while rebuilding their military. 

The reason for this failure is simple: there is a lack of understanding of the Africa Weapons Cycle. Weapons had already flooded into the DRC during the Active Combat phase and there was little reason for a significant resupply of weapons. This is supported by the fact that in nearly two years of active surveillance of DRC air fields by the UN mission and the Group of Experts there has not been a single case of intercepted weapons in violation of the arms embargo (Note: This excludes internal shipments by the Transitional Government).

In addition, it is supported by an examination of the types and age of the weapons found after active combat. For example, the Cote D’Ivoire Group of Experts reported in their 13 September 2006 report that “there were few weapons that indicated sequential serial numbers or were manufactured prior to 2004.”

Many of the weapons like the SIG 540 stopped production in 1986, the AA52 has been out of production for at least 20 years, and the MAS-36-51 has not been produced for 40 years.  This same scenario was played out in the DRC with most of the captured weapons bearing serial numbers that indicate they were manufactured in the 1960, 70’s, and 80’s.

The age of the weapons is explained partly by the early and mid-1990’s phenomena where large quantities of Soviet-era weapons illegally moved to the region and there were also “legal” weapons inflows to Fragile/Proxy States of an earlier period. This coincided with lack of governance in the Central European states that were part of the Soviet Union.

With the European Union expansion and supervision, many of these states are now legal arms producers today and for most part are participating in the arms embargo system as evident by their cooperation with the Cote D’Ivoire Group of Experts and other Groups of Experts.

Obviously there are exceptions like the G-3 Heckler Koch reported by the Control Arms Campaign in October 2006. This only supports the view that battlefield acquisition occurs not only for weapons but ammunition. This view is supported by the Cote D’Ivoire Experts report of weapons captured from a government armory, which, once again, describes the process of weapons flowing out of a Fragile/Proxy State.
In contrast, the Somalia Monitoring Group reports shipments of weapons, by air and land, during Somalia’s Active Combat phase. Each side is rearming to gain a tactical advantage. In essence, Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) is in an arms race with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Finally, this phase sees a continuation of normal, regional weapons and ammunition flows. The source of these flows is described in more detail in the next phase of Ceasefire/Transitional Government establishment.

Ceasefire/Transitional Government Establishment
The discussion of this phase applies only to true Ceasefire/Transitional Government Establishment phases. In this process, weapons tend to flow three different directions.

Demobilization and disarmament is usually a vital stage in this process. 
The success of the future State hinges, in part, on an effective disarmament program. It should be looked as a mopping up strategy.

First, a certain level of the weapons and ammunition are trapped in the disarmament cycle. The more effective the disarmament program, coupled with the established of good governance, the higher the probability the State will make a positive transition.

Second, weapons flow out of the country, into the region and into other conflicts. This is characterized by Bemba’s 2002 support of Patasse against Bozize when both soldiers and weapons from the 1998 DRC war moved north into the CAR.

Weapons and ammunition have flowed north into the current conflicts of the CAR and Chad by a number of rebel groups that use DRC’s Garamba National Park as refuge. This includes the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and a scattered grouping of Chad and even Ethiopian rebels. This was evident by a very active arms market in the Fataki area, until the DRC army took control of the area in 2005.

Third, weapons are retained by active armed groups and ex-combatants and the DRC is a good example of this stage. Nowhere in recent history has disarmament failure been more obvious and damaging than in the DRC. It is a country still occupied by tens of thousands of armed combatants or armed ex-combatants supposedly waiting for demobilization and integration.

Finally, developing the core principles of good governance come into play in the Africa Weapons Cycle and this has been the primary misunderstanding in the region. Good governance, as a first step, means the State takes active control of its territory and secures its borders. In addition, it means the development of rule of law so that civilians do not feel the necessity to maintain their weapons and will cooperate in reporting any new weapons distribution or ongoing traffic.

A vital aspect is the delivery of services—health and education—that signal that the State is functioning again. This also builds cooperation within the government and requires an active administrative system.

Burundi and the DRC are prime examples, for different reasons, of a rush to elections prior to the creation of the principles of good governance and at least for the DRC, it is reasonable to question its future direction to either a Legitimate State or a return to a Fragile/Proxy State.

Final Regional Observations
At the end of the Ceasefire/Transitional Government Establishment phase, the State moves in one of two directions. If good governance principles are forming, it moves to the Legitimate State position. This is characterized by Rwanda and Uganda.

There is little danger of state collapse in either country and the remaining hostile armed groups outside the national territory have little chance to acquire weapons and support from the Legitimate State. Neither state acts as a Proxy State, which diminishes the possibility of weapons proliferation from their legal arsenal.

Burundi is attempting to move into the Legitimate State phase; however, it faces significant obstacles.  It has an active political opposition with little historical understanding of how an opposition party behaves and its role.

A second obstacle is that the current government was formed without the inclusion of an active armed group which had sufficient strength to destabilize the State. It can be argued that the inclusion of the FNL by negotiations into an elected government has destabilized the ruling party and opposition party.

Burundi also has the undercurrent thought that becoming a Proxy State is a quicker development path. (See GLCSS Weekly News and Analysis 20 October 2006 for a discussion of this position.) If Burundi is allowed to rearm its military prior to the establishment of a Legitimate State, it will, once again, join the Africa Weapons Cycle. This is especially true if disarmament is not completed.

The DRC has a difficult path and limited probability of becoming a Legitimate State. The United Nations and the international community pushed for elections prior to the establishment of good governance:

  • Demobilization and disarmament is not complete.
  • Government services and administration is lacking.
  • Good governance of controlling borders, providing security, and collecting taxes is limited.
  • The government is still viewed as highly corrupt especially in the resource management area.
  • It has failed to build a legitimate national army that is independent and professional.
  • There is a limited culture of political opposition cooperation but there is political opposition.

Most importantly the DRC is being allowed to rearm its national army without good governance in place. GLCSS believes it is a strange feature of the current international system that development funds are linked to good governance criteria but weapons shipments are not.

The Central African Republic is like Burundi but with increasing armed violence. It requires an immediate arms embargo and United Nations peacekeepers. The lesson learned from the Africa Weapons Cycle is that arms embargos should be implemented prior to the Fragile State Overwhelmed and Active Combat phase.

Chad will follow the direction of most Proxy States and implode because of a lack of good governance. It is currently supported by Western nations because of its significant oil deposits in the Lake Chad basin and its Chad-Cameroon pipeline. This will aid and abet the destabilization of the region which includes Darfur, the CAR, and possibly the DRC unless a legitimate political structure is in place with good governance. Unfortunately, this would not be in the economic interests of the host states to this Proxy State.

The UIC will consolidate its power in Somalia. There have been steady reports of good—albeit Non-Western—governance with the establishment of services and security. It will conduct an active disarmament campaign and control its border, which could improve security in East Africa generally and Kenya specifically. There is no firm view of establishment of legitimate political opposition. Finally, if the international community takes the UIC at their word, they will not be a threat to regional security.

Ethiopia, a Fragile/Proxy State, will suffer from its failed incursion in Somalia and has a high risk of further deterioration.


William Church is director of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank with offices in Central and East Africa. You may contact William Church at GLCSS trains African journalists, offers an on-site internship to foreign African studies students, and manages an exchange program with journalists from the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe.

Be Sociable, Share!