How Arms Proliferation Fuels Political Instability

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There are more than 1 billion small arms in circulation across the world, with 87% of them in the hands of civilians, including terrorist, militia, and rebel groups who use the weapons for various heinous acts. For years, despite efforts by world leaders to control the movement of arms in their jurisdictions, illicit weapons still make their way into the hands of criminal minded individual and groups.

The increasing rate of uncontrolled arms has exacerbated and elongated armed conflicts across the world. From the middle east to Africa, all the most impacted countries by terrorism have a long history of arms proliferation, giving non-state dangerous actors easy access to a wide range of semi-sophisticated and assorted weapons. While the labelling of organisations as “terrorist” groups is clearly a political process mired in controversy, it is also clear that the presence of armed groups who seek to overthrow the current political dispensation poses a major challenge to political stability.

In the past decades, armed conflicts – sustained by illicit arms – has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of forced migrations, and great financial costs. Between 2000 and 2018, “terrorism” cost the world economy $855 billion.

War-Torn Countries and Illegal Arms Circulation

According to the latest global terrorism index, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Somalia occupy the first five spots on the list of the most affected countries. While the exact classification of countries and organisations on the index continues to be a subject of debate, a look at some of these countries nonetheless demonstrates the role of uncontrolled arms in the lingering crises they have endured for years.


Since the emergence of Africa’s deadliest terrorist group, Boko Haram, in 2010, Nigeria has been a highly volatile country. Currently, the country occupies the 3rd spot on the global terrorism index due to the high rate of terrorism and banditry in its northern region. In 2018, Nigeria accounted for 13% of all terrorist-related fatalities globally. Since its inception, Boko Haram has killed more than 36,000 people and displaced millions.

The seemingly unending crisis has created a refugee crisis in the country, which has now spilt over to its neighbours in the Lake Chad basin, including Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Currently, the four countries have over 3.2 million displaced people. This includes over 2.9 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in north-eastern Nigeria, over 684,000 IDPs in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, just as the four countries have a total share of 304,000 refugees.

Much like other terrorist groups, Boko Haram and other bandits and militias in Nigeria sustain their activities with illicit circulations of arms. Their sources include stolen weapons from security agents and illegal purchase from corrupt officers. In the past few years, Boko Haram has been raiding military bases, killing dozens of soldiers and carting away their weapons.

From its multiple attacks on those bases, the group has grown its arms stockpile to the level whereby it now confronts soldiers and sometimes overpowers them. Currently, the organisation is said to be in possession of millions of rounds of ammunition, thousands of assorted firearms and assault rifles, and hundreds of military vehicles, including self-propelled artillery and armoured tanks.


Syria is 4th on the global terrorism index due to the decade-long civil war that has been significantly sustained with uncontrolled arms, mostly from foreign countries. Both government forces and armed opposition groups have strong alliances with international governments, which serves as their major sources of arms. For instance, between 2008-2012, Russia supplied the Assad-led government 71% of its imported arms, just as Belarus, China, and North Korea also supplied sizeable amounts.

As for the opposition camps, their sources of illicit weapons include foreign governments, black markets, Syrian national stockpiles and battlefield captures. In 2013, the United States was reported to have secretly transferred and an estimated $1 billion in arms, ammunition, and training to the opposition groups. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Croatia, Jordan, and Turkey are some other countries involved in such a deal with the opposition groups.

This explains why 10 years down the lane, the war remains unending and has consistently earned the country a top place on yearly global terrorism rating. Since then, more than 500,000 lives have been lost – over 300,000 documented deaths and over 200,000 missing and presumed dead.


Somalia is Africa’s second most impacted country in armed conflicts and terrorism, only second to Nigeria. At the world level, the country occupies the 5th position in the global terrorism index due to the war that has lasted for decades. Since the start of the war in 1991 to date, an estimated 350,000 to 1 million people have been killed.

In the past decade, the country’s most deadly group, Al-Shabab, was responsible for around 4,000 deaths. Currently, the country has one of the highest numbers of displaced persons in the world, with approximately 2.6 million IDPs.

Somalia is one of the African countries with strong arms black markets, with many dangerous weapons in circulation. At the popular Bakaraaha arms market in Mogadishu, dangerous weapons are sold to all comers, and the market is routinely resupplied by Yemeni smuggling groups. Ethiopia and Egypt are other countries responsible for the illicit arms flow into the hands of Al Shabab. Apart from the illegal trade, the group also diverts arms seized from military materials and sometimes self-manufactures improvised explosive device (IED).

Conclusion: The need for change

Illegal possession and circulation of arms is a big threat to global peace and must be addressed with strong political will by world leaders. To win the war against global terrorism, arms proliferation must be effectively curtailed. This is because easy access to weapons is one of the reasons why warring parties usually embrace violence in settling their differences instead of dialogue. Governments, especially in war-torn countries, should strengthen their military institutions to avoid the illegal diversion of weapons from security officers to criminal elements.

There must also be adequate legal action against individuals and groups engaging in illegal trade and possession of arms.

Beyond that, however, sociopolitical inequalities that motivate people to traffic and bear arms illegally must be addressed. In most war-torn zones, there is a high unemployment rate, poverty, and illiteracy, which makes the young ones sometimes embrace illegalities as a means of survival. Political leaders must deal with all these issues decisively to foster lasting peace, tranquillity and progress in their jurisdictions.

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organisation affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the U.K.

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