The government of Guinea-Bissau must work on several fronts to cut the number of light weapons in the country – estimated at some 650,000. Regional instability, crime and weak governance toughen the battle, observers say.
Widespread possession of weapons among civilians is fallout from years of war, according to Antonio Mazzittelli, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in West Africa. “The availability of light weapons is left over from the fact that...weapons have leaked from the military to civilians.”
He said it is not a case of people roaming the streets with arms. “Most [people] have a gun at home that they are probably not using. It is more a memory of the past than for use in the present.”
More light weapons are in circulation than in recent years, according to André Nhanca, permanent secretary of the government’s National Committee against the proliferation of light weapons and small arms, set up in 2006.
“We believe the movement of weapons has increased significantly in Guinea-Bissau,” he said. “There has recently been an increase in armed robberies, murders and theft of livestock.”
The committee has drawn up a strategy to curb small arms, but for now it has just US$60,000 to collect and destroy weapons, Nhanca told IRIN.
The flow of arms continues to pose a danger in Guinea-Bissau, given its weak governance system and political volatility, Zeblon Swifon, programme director for the Guinea-Bissau chapter of West Africa Peacebuilding Network (WANEP), told IRIN.
Guinea-Bissau’s history is full of coups, counter-coups and other political violence, including the March assassinations of Army Chief of Staff Gen Tagme Na Wai and President João Bernardo Vieira. Instability and weak governance have also provided fertile ground for drug traffickers.
“If we do not find a solution for small arms flows, the problem of rebuilding Guinea-Bissau will be undermined just as we are planning presidential elections,” Swifon warned. Presidential elections are scheduled for 28 June.
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The import, export and manufacture of small arms were made illegal in 16 West African states in June 2006 when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a landmark, binding convention on small arms, light weapons, ammunition and other associated materials.
But in many ECOWAS states the lack of border controls, weak rule of law and sub-regional allies that allow weapons to cross borders make implementation difficult, said Francis Langumba Keili, assistant chief of staff in Sierra Leone’s Office of National Security.
Non-profit International Action Network on Small Arms estimates that up to eight million light weapons are currently circulating in West Africa.
WANEP’s Swifon said events in Guinea-Bissau affect Senegal because of Guinea-Bissau’s links with Casamance.
Elements in Guinea-Bissau’s military have supported the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance over the years, and have reportedly been involved in smuggling weapons across the border, according to Economic Intelligence Unit.
UNODC’s Mazzittelli says the problem is wider: “Arms will continue to circulate as long as situations of instability arise – such as Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania – and then Chad and Sudan are just around the corner,” he said.
Farmers in southern Guinea-Bissau keep weapons to protect their livestock from a “mounting problem” of cattle-rustling, said Carlos Rui Ripeiro, head of non-profit ActionAid in Guinea-Bissau.
Cattle-rustling, once associated with a male coming-of-age ritual, is now occurring on a wider scale and increasingly involves the threat of violence through light weapons, Ripeiro said.
“More and more people are using weapons to steal cattle… In a modern state you cannot continue to steal cattle and get away with it,” he said.
The government wants to take weapons out of the hands of some military as well as civilians. It continues to pursue a programme to demobilise 2,500 members of its security forces as part of an ambitious reform initiative.
ECOWAS, international donors and the UN Peacebuilding Support Office in Guinea-Bissau are supporting the reforms. At an April 2009 ECOWAS-led meeting in Cape Verde member states pledged $13.5 million and members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union pledged $5.3 million to the effort.