Africa Defense Forum
ADF is a professional military magazine published quarterly by U.S. Africa Command to provide an international forum for African security professionals. ADF covers topics such as counter terrorism strategies, security and defense operations, transnational crime, and all other issues affecting peace, stability, and good governance on the African continent.

Illicit Weapons Trade Plagues Lake Chad Basin


A group of herders were tending to their cattle in a pasture near Airamne village in Nigeria’s restive northeastern borderlands when the shooting began.

Boko Haram fighters emerged from their camps in Gajiganna forest on December 24, 2022 to launch an attack. The herders returned fire.

Babakura Kolo, a self-defense militia leader, said 17 pastoralists were killed in the fight, their cattle stolen.

“The herders put [up] resistance but were outgunned and outnumbered by the attackers, who had better weapons,” he told Agence France-Presse.

The clash shows the extent of insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin, which has grown worse as the illicit weapons trade has expanded.

One of Africa’s hotspots of terrorism and banditry, the Lake Chad Basin (LCB) is a wetland straddling the borders of four countries that struggle with security — Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

The region’s topography presents a steep challenge for security forces. A mix of savanna and desert that’s prone to flooding and droughts, the wetlands are dotted by hundreds of small, marshy islands surrounded by shallow water.

Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) have bases in surrounding forests and on several of the small islands.

Comprised of Soldiers from the four basin countries, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) was revived in 2015 to confront the two insurgent groups.

The flow of illegally trafficked and smuggled arms is fuel for the extremists’ fire, according to an October 2022 report by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

“The illicit circulation of weapons and ammunition represents one of the primary conflict drivers in the LCB,” the report stated.

“Main sources of illicit materiel are diversions from regional national stockpiles (mainly through raids and theft, and corruption to a lesser extent), materiel ‘recycled’ from previous conflicts in the region, as well as craft production.”

Eric Berman, director of the Safeguarding Security Sector Stockpiles initiative, said that in addition to losing light and heavy firearms, the four basin countries have lost large weapon systems.

These include self-propelled artillery, rocket-launching systems, mortars, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, armored infantry vehicles and tanks.

“The levels are such that Boko Haram has been able to sustain its operations for more than 10 years without being resupplied externally, as occurs in most insurgencies,” Berman wrote in a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari also has brought attention to the influx of weapons that are making a bad situation worse.

“A substantial proportion of the arms and ammunition procured to execute the war in Libya continues to find its way to the Lake Chad region and other parts of the Sahel,” he said.

“This illegal movement of arms into the region has heightened the proliferation of small arms and light weapons which continues to threaten our collective peace and security in the region.”

More than 30 million people in the basin have been impacted by terrorism since 2009, including more than 11 million who require protection and humanitarian assistance.

Fighting increased in 2022, as the U.N. recorded 917 violent incidents. Since the insurgency began, more than 40,000 people have been killed, primarily in Nigeria, and 3 million have fled their homes, according to U.N. data.

Berman has called for more accountability from regional forces.

“An unacceptable status quo has existed for far too long,” he wrote. “Security-service deaths in the Lake Chad Basin are extremely high.

“Enhancing these forces’ weapons and ammunition management practices ought to help reduce the number of casualties.”

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