Major Arms Trafficking Risk in the Central African Republic

Despite a May 2015 peace agreement, major arms traffickers still have a potential market in the Central African Republic.

By Aaron Gluck
Staff Writer
July 7, 2015

The Central African Republic (CAR) is not new to domestic violence, but the latest spate of conflict that started in 2012 appears to be having far more devastating effects on the country considering President Michel Djotodia has been unable to reassert significant governmental control. Currently, there are two primary umbrella groups actively rebelling against the government: the Seleka (an alliance of Muslim groups) and the anti-balaka (a Christian response to the Seleka takeover of Bangui). Despite a consortium of international peacekeeping missions by the French, the African Union, and the United Nations to bring peace and stability to the CAR, violence is still prevalent. Even with the signing of a peace agreement on May 11, 2015, criminal elements will continue to exploit the current unrest. The international community should take advantage of this small opportunity opened by the agreement to overhaul the UN arms embargo system to give it the necessary teeth to stem the flow of weapons into the CAR.

Although the CAR is not considered a main arms trafficking destination, its past experiences and the continuation of conflict create opportunities for leaders of the decentralized groups of Seleka and anti-balaka to work with major arms traffickers known as “lords of war.” Historically, the CAR received only small shipments of armaments from Chad, China, France, Israel, Libya, and Romania. Additionally, rebel groups or government soldiers fleeing conflicts in Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo sold their weapons in CAR markets. This illicit arms trafficking occurred sporadically and on an ad hoc basis. Still, the CAR does provide a foundation for larger arm trafficking networks. Small-scale, informal exchanges have created their own networks and demonstrated that a weak border security situation exists. Weak borders are easily exploited for larger arms trafficking operations. Further, past arms transfers to the CAR have depended on third party go-betweens. These intermediaries could be exploited yet again to ship larger volumes of weapons and avoid the arms embargo. While not an epicenter for arms trafficking, the CAR does provide a foundation for larger shipments of illicit weapons.

The UN Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts concurs that illegal arms trafficking in the CAR is not a major problem yet, but there are signs of market liberalization which could allow arms brokers to enter the mix. The UN monitors also note that an increasing number and broader range of weapons are entering the CAR. For instance, anti-balaka fighters were seen carrying machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) in August 2014 for the first time, demonstrating their graduation to higher caliber weapons beyond their traditional hunting rifles. In an effort to curb additional inflows of weapons and ammunition, border security was stepped up in Cameroon and international peacekeepers are seizing and destroying illegal weapons and ammunition.

While considered necessary components of ongoing peace and security operations, such actions can create an illicit arms market where one did not exist previously. For instance, increased destruction of weapons and arms trafficking interdiction efforts are creating a potential opening for experienced arms brokers who routinely evade UN arms embargos to offer their services. These brokers continue to attempt to procure weapons and ammunition for rebel groups because the monetary rewards are so high for successfully delivering even a fraction of the weapons. The CAR’s vast gold and diamond reserves, which can be exploited as the ideal form of payment for large arms supplies, make the country an attractive site for smugglers.

Although major arms brokers have yet to reveal themselves in the CAR, recent changes in the armament of Seleka and anti-balaka groups indicate either the start of a major arms broker entering the market or the potential for one to do so. Major arms brokers already have experience in the region, notably in Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan, so while the CAR would be considered a “new” market, it would only require slight alterations for arms brokers in their supply chain.

These warlords or brokers often arise in a power vacuum, where a national government has lost control or is weakened to the point of ineffective reaction. However, for a warlord to properly exploit a failing state, both manpower and equipment are required. Lords of war provide the answer for half of that equation when they smuggle arms and other needed supplies to a warlord. Effectively combating these traffickers can be a complicated endeavor considering not all warlords or lords of war are non-state actors.

Throughout the Horn of Africa, states are directly responsible for supplying goods to insurgent groups in South Sudan and Somalia. In such an instance, it becomes more challenging to enforce UN arms embargos, as sanctioning a country or a leader would require a reformation of foreign policy and the agreement of the international community. Individuals are easier to handle as they can be targeted unilaterally, but this requires knowledge and potentially making proof of wrongdoing publicly available. Arms brokers acting on behalf of a state or who have experience may lurk in the shadows and effectively evade the gaze of investigators. Thus, combating the threat of instability requires a multi-tiered approach.

Internationally, efforts to criminalize arms sales have largely been unsuccessful and responsibility is largely left to national governments to prevent and thwart such actions. This translates to significant loopholes for lords of war to exploit. Weaknesses in each country’s governance structures often help to mask illicit trafficking domestically and internationally. Successfully deterring, preventing, and intercepting illicit arms trafficking requires unprecedented steps that sacrifice state sovereignty that almost no national government would be willing to forgo.

The best alternative would be to include an enforcement mechanism in UN arms embargos that would allow willing member states to prosecute lords of war. Although UN arms embargos obligate member states to prevent weapons proliferation to the sanctioned entities, violators face no criminal consequence. An enforcement mechanism would not directly target states that act as arms brokers to sanctioned entities, but it might provide room for prosecuting and stopping illicit arms sales by targeting the individuals involved in the process. By including this as a potential amendment to the Arms Trade Treaty, it would provide the necessary teeth to prosecute lords of war.

This type of change can help reduce the ability of warlords to be resupplied. Additionally, taking such measures now can prevent current conflicts from escalating further, as has occurred in the CAR. While warlords will always spring to take advantage of political, economic, or social instability, reducing the ability of lords of war to operate can improve attempts to reestablish governance in affected areas. Until individual gunrunners can be effectively prosecuted, conflicts will continue to be fertile ground for warlords and lords of war to converge and exploit a conflict for their own benefit.

Aaron C. Gluck is a master’s candidate in the Elliott School’s M.A. in International Affairs program, with a specialization in international security. Prior to GWU, Aaron graduated from American University with a BA in International Studies. He can be reached at aarongluck@gwu.edu.

"Picture" by DVIDSHUB, is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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