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SALW-related assistance to states in sub-Saharan Africa: Hitting the target or missing the mark?

Credit: UN Photo/Basile Zoma
Light Weapons Destroyed at Ceremony in Abidjan. Credit: UN Photo/Basile Zoma

The cost of poorly designed or weakly enforced controls on small arms and light weapons (SALW) on crime, conflict and development in sub-Saharan Africa is well documented. Through efforts like the African Union’s Silencing the Guns initiative, African states continue to focus international attention on addressing these challenges. In August 2021 Sierra Leone used its chairmanship of the seventh conference of states parties to the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to highlight efforts to eradicate the illicit trade in SALW through improved stockpile management. In October 2021 Kenya used its one-month United Nations Security Council presidency to organize a thematic discussion on illicit SALW proliferation and the threats posed to peacekeeping operations.

A wide range of programmes have been established to provide states in sub-Saharan Africa with technical, financial and material assistance to strengthen controls on the production, trade and ownership of SALW. Mechanisms exist via the UN Programme of Action on SALW (UNPOA), the ATT and the 2001 UN Firearms Protocol for states to request and receive assistance. Nonetheless, ensuring that assistance programmes effectively address states’ needs has long proved challenging.

Since 2015 SIPRI has maintained the Mapping ATT-relevant Cooperation and Assistance Activities database to map assistance provided to states in SALW and arms transfer controls. In 2021 the database was updated to provide a timelier and more accurate picture of assistance in SALW controls provided to states in sub-Saharan Africa. In connection with this update, this SIPRI Topical Backgrounder seeks to assess the extent to which this assistance is effectively addressing the needs and priorities of states in the region. To do this, it compares the types of assistance that states have requested via their reports on the implementation of the UNPOA with the information collected in the SIPRI database on the types of assistance provided. 

The picture that emerges indicates that effectively matching offers and requests for assistance in the field of SALW controls continues to be a challenge. In key areas, the types of SALW control-related assistance offered to states in sub-Saharan Africa do not appear to address the needs and priorities of national governments. More generally, the systems through which states can request such assistance are not operating effectively. Based on this overview, this Topical Backgrounder presents recommendations for both future research and steps that could be taken by states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations to improve the coordination and effectiveness of SALW-related assistance efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Mapping requests for assistance in SALW controls in sub-Saharan Africa

The UNPOA outlines steps that should be taken at the international, regional and national level to counter the illicit trade in SALW ‘in all its aspects’. Since its adoption in 2001, states have stressed the necessity for international assistance aimed at helping states to implement its provisions. To facilitate this process, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) created a template for states to use when reporting on their implementation of the UNPOA that allows them to request assistance. Requests are categorized according to the eight main provisions of the UNPOA—manufacturing, transfer, brokering, stockpile management, destruction, seizure, record keeping and tracing—as well as ten additional categories that touch on broader issues of state capacity-building. States can also indicate whether they have developed a proposal for a specific project activity. In 2012 UNODA tried to match assistance needs and resources by circulating project proposals based on UNPOA national reports. Although UNODA did not maintain this effort, it continues to present information that states report on assistance requested, offered, and delivered in a searchable database.

The UNPOA shows the same inconsistent levels of participation that characterize most reporting instruments in the field of arms transfers and SALW controls. However, recent years have seen an upwards trend in reporting levels among states in sub-Saharan Africa and globally, both of which peaked in 2018. From 2011 until 2021, 35 states in sub-Saharan Africa submitted 99 national reports using the reporting template, which constitutes 40 per cent of the reports due over that period. Regional differences are significant: only 16 per cent of due national reports are available from Central Africa compared to 51 per cent for West Africa (see figure 1). Some countries such as Burkina Faso and Namibia have submitted a report in each cycle, while others such as Chad and Cameroon have not submitted any reports. Several countries including Cabo Verde, the Comoros, Lesotho and Mauritania have only reported once.

Requests for assistance have remained persistently high over time and across sub-regions. In more than 70 per cent of reports, states requested assistance in some or all of the eight main categories during each reporting cycle (see figure 2). The rate of requests in the additional categories was much lower, largely between 10 per cent and 20 per cent. The degree to which states have provided details on the assistance they require differs considerably. Besides a yes or no question on whether the state wants to request a specific type of assistance, the reporting template allows states to provide details about the assistance required. While this option has been widely used, oftentimes the details merely state the type of assistance such as technical, financial, material, legislative, or logistical without any further descriptions. Since 2012, only 45 per cent of requests provided details beyond the type of assistance. This is despite experts noting that donors and implementers are less likely to respond to assistance requests that lack details or are seen as low quality.

Since the UNODA reporting template has not changed significantly, the 99 reports that used the reporting template offer consistent, comparable and publicly available data on states’ identified needs in the field of SALW assistance. However, underreporting, differences in the quality of reports, and the lack of detailed information on the specific areas where states are requesting assistance limit the conclusions drawn from this analysis. Moreover, studies have noted that states with the least capacity for SALW control are likely to have less capacity for compiling national reports which mean that the data presented are likely to underrepresent the actual assistance needs.

There are considerable regional differences in reported assistance needs. For instance, while states from Southern Africa requested assistance with ‘seizure’ in only 43 per cent of cases, states from all other regions did so more than 80 per cent of the time (see figure 2). Similarly, states from Western Africa included requests for assistance in developing controls on ‘manufacturing’ in 83 per cent of reports and developing controls on ‘transfers’ in 88 per cent of reports. States from Southern Africa did so in 30 per cent and 48 per cent of reports. These differences might reflect the particular challenges in each sub-region but they could also be influenced by the work of different regional organizations—such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—in helping to coordinate assistance requests. Some differences are also the result of unequal submission rates of reports skewing the statistic. For instance, in Central Africa, the Central African Republic, Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were the only states that submitted any reports. Thus, it is unclear, for instance, whether a request rate of 100 per cent for ‘manufacturing’ in Central Africa is representative. In contrast, the higher rates of reporting in East Africa and especially Western Africa give a better picture for both regions.

Other mechanisms for matching offers and requests for assistance

The range of issues covered by the UNPOA, and hence, the range of areas covered by requests for assistance overlaps with other international instruments in the field of SALW controls and arms transfer controls which have also created mechanisms for reporting offers and requests for assistance. Instruments that also include mechanisms for requesting and receiving assistance in areas covered by the UNPOA include the Firearms Protocol and the ATT (see table 1).

As part of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) review process established in 2018, the self-assessment questionnaire of the Firearms Protocol includes requests for international assistance. In contrast to the UNPOA, where all national reports are published, states can decide whether or not to make their self-assessments publicly available. ATT states parties must submit an initial report on the status of their national transfer control system which can provide information on possible gaps where assistance might be needed. The most recent version of the initial report template, adopted in 2021, will allow states parties to articulate more precisely what kind of assistance they can provide or require. Among the 28 sub-Saharan African ATT states parties, only 13 have submitted an initial report and only six are publicly available

States can and do request assistance through a range of other channels, of which national reports are only one. ATT states parties can directly request assistance to the ATT Voluntary Trust Fund (ATT VTF). Since 2017, 20 sub-Saharan Africa states parties benefited from the ATT VTF in a range of areas including assistance on transfers, record-keepingstockpile managementmarking, or customs enforcement. Implementing organizations can directly or on behalf of states submit project proposals to dedicated funding mechanisms such as the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR). Relevant assistance can now be provided through the newly established Saving-Lives Entity (SALIENT) fund. In 2013–19 sub-Saharan Africa was the region where the highest number of UNSCAR projects (44) were implemented. Pilot activities funded by SALIENT were implemented in Cameroon and South Sudan. These multiple channels give states a variety of possibilities to request SALW assistance. However, they also create the potential to create duplication and missed opportunities, with different providers and recipients of assistance focusing their attention on different instruments.

Mapping the provision of assistance in SALW controls in sub-Saharan Africa

SIPRI’s Mapping ATT-relevant Cooperation and Assistance Activities database provides an additional and publicly available source to identify assistance in the fields of both SALW and arms transfer controls that have involved sub-Saharan African states. Although the database is not comprehensive, it represents a useful and unique tool for understanding the overall content, type and focus of assistance activities that have taken place. Therefore, it is a useful source to compare with information that states in the region have submitted through their reports to the instruments outlined above. 

As of 8 December 2021, the database includes 876 assistance activities implemented from 2012 onwards of which 386 involved states in sub-Saharan Africa and focused on SALW controls. A significant proportion of entries included a thematic focus on inventory and stockpile management (157), followed by ammunition (99), tracing (89), and marking (75). Most of these activities included an institutional capacity-building component (236) or were partly or fully aiming at sensitizing the recipient countries on specific topics (164) or providing technical, material or financial assistance (114). 

The European Union (EU) (93), Germany (89) and the United States (52) were donors in most of these entries. This picture is also partially confirmed because these donors were the largest providers of Official Development Assistance in support of activities in the field of ‘Reintegration and SALW controls’ in this region during 2012–19. Multi-donor funds such as UNSCAR and the ATT VTF are also indicated to have funded some of these activities. 

Activities funded by these donors have included projects aimed at improving states’ technical capacities in different areas of SALW controls. For instance, the EU and Germany have supported the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa’s (UNREC) assistance work in the field of physical security and stockpile management (PSSM) in the Sahel and training in marking and record-keeping procedures in Togo and Mali. The USA has supported the work of the Mines Advisory Group and the Halo Trust in reducing excess stockpiles or providing weapons and ammunition management-relevant assistance in several sub-Saharan African countries. The USA has also funded assistance work implemented by the Regional Centre for Small Arms (RECSA) at the sub-regional level. Other activities were part of projects aiming to help states establish tools to criminalize, investigate and prosecute firearms trafficking-related offences or strengthen their transfer control systems. These included, for example, training activities implemented by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and INTERPOL as well as capacity building in support of the implementation of the ATT. Finally, a series of activities, such as those implemented by the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies, have focused on supporting African regional and sub-regional organizations, e.g. the African Union and ECOWAS, with a view to promote coordinated approaches in the implementation of relevant regional and international standards.

Comparing assistance requested and assistance provided in sub-Saharan Africa

Comparing the assistance requests submitted through the UNPOA reports with the information on assistance provided that has been included in the SIPRI database in recent years points to several cases where the focus of requests for assistance and assistance provided align. For example, in its 2014 report, Burkina Faso indicated the need for assistance in the field of stockpile management and specifically the construction of weapons and ammunition storage and related training. In 2015, it received support from the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in the construction and rehabilitation of armouries and in 2016, it was involved in a regional project implemented by UNREC and aiming at improving PSSM in the Sahel. In 2016, both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, under the category ‘tracing’ specifically sought assistance for the use of INTERPOL’s iARMS database. INTERPOL Firearms Programme conducted iARMS training courses for Ivorian and Ghanaian officials in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Côte d’Ivoire also received legislative assistance on transfers as requested in its 2016 and 2018 reports. In 2019, Madagascar received UNREC’s support on stockpile management, marking and record-keeping, as requested in its 2018 UNPOA report.

The comparison also points to some discrepancies between assistance requested and provided. For example, there are countries that have received assistance in areas on which they did not request any support. During 2016–21, the DRC was involved in at least six activities that included a focus on ‘border controls’—e.g. workshops or meetings on cross-border cooperation—without indicating an assistance need in this field in any of its reports. The same applied to Burundi. Further, the Republic of the Congo did not seek any support for stockpile management in its 2018 and 2021 reports but there are four activities in the SIPRI database that were implemented in the same period which indicate that this country received assistance in this field, including a PSSM training organized in 2021 by RECSA and the International Peace Support Training Centre. Other states have submitted assistance requests that may have never been followed up to or have been answered with some delays. For instance, Burundi requested assistance on enforcement in 2012 but according to the SIPRI database it was involved in relevant activities only in 2018 and 2019. In 2018 and 2020, Rwanda requested technical and financial assistance in the field of destruction, marking and tracing; Togo has requested technical and financial assistance for tracing since 2016. However, the SIPRI database has not identified any relevant activities implemented in these countries in this timeframe. 

There are also some inconsistencies in the distribution of assistance activities among regions in sub-Saharan Africa in the SIPRI database in comparison with the assistance requests that states have submitted through formal channels. According to the SIPRI database, countries in West Africa have been involved in 228 assistance activities with a focus on SALW controls, followed by Central African (153) and East African (140) states. Countries in Southern Africa have been involved in the least amount of these activities (55). While in the case of West Africa and Southern Africa, this overview appears to reflect the level of assistance requests that countries have submitted through their reports to the UNPOA, for Central and Eastern Africa it indicates that there may be more need than is actually being reported.

Finally, there is also a certain tendency for states to continue to request assistance in areas where they have already received support. For example, Kenya has requested assistance in the field of stockpile management from 2016 until 2020 and according to the SIPRI database it has been involved in at least 24 activities with this focus since 2012. In 2012 and 2018 Mali has indicated a need to improve its record-keeping capacities, including its marking practices. In the database, Mali is indicated as a beneficiary country in 23 activities implemented since 2012 and aiming at building capacity or providing technical assistance in the field of marking. A state that repeats a previous request for assistance may be indicating that no relevant assistance has been provided or that help has been provided but that fixing capacity issues requires considerable time and support from different implementers. At the same time, an official might copy-paste a previous report without updating it. Conversely, a change in the assistance requested might reflect a change in the staff or the government agencies that are drafting or providing input on the assistance requests rather than a change of needs.


Mapping SALW control-related assistance in sub-Saharan Africa and comparing them with the actual needs of states in the region remains challenging due to several factors. These include the fragmentation and inconsistency of relevant information provided across several platforms and many states’ low level of engagement with reporting instruments both in terms of the quantity and quality of submissions. There is also a need for more dynamic mechanisms that would help beneficiary states to develop their assistance requests in more detail and then enable them to work with assistance providers in designing the activities and assessing their impact. As one official from sub-Saharan Africa who was interviewed as part of this project noted, the current UNPOA reporting system has produced limited results because ‘it is not complemented by tools to effectively and adequately communicate to and sensitize states about available resources.’ This mechanism does not provide a platform through which ‘states can participate in articulating their needs and accessing the assistance.’ Efforts have been made to fill these gaps and to create processes to work with states to identify their assistance needs. However, the UNPOA and other reporting processes have not significantly changed over the years.

In the case of assistance focused on supporting the implementation of the ATT, mapping SALW control-related assistance is made even more difficult by the lack of a tool that systematically collects and presents information on assistance needed or offered in this field. This gap will soon be filled through the creation of a database for matching offers and requests for assistance for ATT implementation. Together with the newly amended ATT initial reporting template, states will be able to elaborate more at length, although still on a voluntary basis, about their assistance needs. While the existence of several tools through which states can seek assistance is useful to facilitate the matching of needs and requests, this also risks creating an overlap of efforts if bridges are not built between the different forums and initiatives for offering and requesting assistance in SALW controls. 

The analysis outlined above also shows that the SIPRI database could be used to mitigate some of these challenges, including by providing a better understanding of what requests for support have been met and by filling some gaps in the information shared by sub-Saharan African states on their assistance needs. In any case, further investigating and better understanding the reasons behind the discrepancies emerged in the comparison between the assistance requested and the assistance delivered as described earlier in this piece—and whether it points to limitations in the structure or use of the reporting instruments—should be a key focus of attention for states, NGOs and international organizations.


Lucile Robin, former SIPRI Research Assistant, contributed to the researching and writing of this Topical Backgrounder.



Dr Mark Bromley is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.
Giovanna Maletta is a Senior Researcher and Acting Programme Director for the Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme at SIPRI.
Ruben Nicolin was an intern with SIPRI’s Dual Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.