Mr. Eric G. Berman is a Researcher and Director of the Safeguarding Security Sector Stockpiles (S4) Initiative, based in Switzerland. Berman is also a visiting scholar at Northwestern University’s Program of African Studies. He was formerly the director of the Small Arms Survey. The S4 Initiative strives to reduce the loss of contingent-owned equipment (COE) and recovered material within conflict settings by promoting good practice and accountability. He has carried out many research projects that seek to expand the number of actors promoting sound weapons and ammunition management (WAM) practices in conflict settings, and the type of equipment concerns (i.e., small arms and light weapons as well as heavy weapon systems and non-lethal materiel). His latest work is the Lake Chad Basin region study entitled: ‘The Management of Lethal Materiel in Conflict Settings: Existing Challenges and Opportunities for the European Peace Facility. In a short article that summarizes many of the study’s findings, Berman noted that “loss of munitions and other lethal materiel from African armed forces and peace operations is a key factor sustaining militant groups driving instability on the continent”. According to him, poor practices regarding weapons and ammunition management remain a serious concern across the African continent. Consequently, non-state armed groups have regularly targeted and overrun peacekeepers and national armed forces to seize lethal and nonlethal material. In the research paper focusing on the European Peace Facility (EPF), a European Union effort to assist peace support operations across the globe, he revealed that terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State for West African Province (ISWAP), had launched more than 500 attacks on military bases and formations of the Multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and state security forces operating in, and near, that mission’s area of operation between 2015 and 2020. In these attacks, the terrorists were able to capture and seize lethal weapons including small and light arms and heavy weapons to sustain the 12-year insurgency in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.
Key points from the research
The key points from the research as gleaned from the article published in Africa Center for Strategic Studies include:
- COE loss has become a critical vulnerability for national armies and peace operations in Africa. Such seizures of weapons systems and ammunition have allowed militants in the Lake Chad Basin and other parts of the continent to sustain their up-tempo operations.
- Non-state armed groups have regularly targeted and overrun peacekeepers and national armed forces to seize lethal and nonlethal materials that represent a significant source of armaments for Africa’s militant groups, fueling instability on the continent.
- The primary sources of illicit weapons in Africa, according to the study, include national stockpiles and peacekeeping forces, while weapons diversions are largely due to battlefield loss, mismanagement, theft, and corruption.
- Attacks on security forces by Boko Haram and ISWAP in the Lake Chad Basin underscore the seriousness of this challenge as these have sustained their insurgencies for years utilizing massive amounts of COE seized from the armed forces of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
- Military bases across the Lake Chad Basin have been attacked and looted by Boko Haram and ISWAP, securing lethal materiel from security forces in transit such as patrols, convoys (both supplies and troop movements), and during escort duties.
- The S4 Data Set has recorded more than 700 reported attacks against the MNJTF and adjacent military units since 2015 including numerous fixed sites, and checkpoints. Platoons have been targeted at outposts, companies at forwarding operating bases, and battalions at sector headquarters. Dozens of supposedly secure sites, both small and large, have been overrun and their stores looted.
- While the Islamist groups produce some handmade small arms and obtain a limited supply of lethal materiel on illicit markets, the insurgencies persist largely without external support.
- Boko Haram and ISWAP did not limit their seizures to small arms and light weapons. They have also seized many heavier weapons like artillery and many more vehicles.
- Details on status, illicit procurement methods, and quantities of materiel holdings are difficult to verify, thereby, giving the governments reasons to deny and obfuscate losses, and armed groups to overstate their seizures. However, data collected from open-source reporting suggest an incomplete snapshot that is likely only a fraction of actual losses.
- Non-lethal material seized from Lake Chad Basin governments—such as uniforms, communications equipment, and civilian vehicles—has also had serious ramifications for force protection.
- Militant groups have used civilian vehicles as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. Additionally, they have used captured military vehicles and uniforms to camouflage their activities and enhance the effectiveness of their attacks by making their targets less vigilant.
- To mitigate this trend, the reporting requirements for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) provide control measures that should be aggressively employed. This is because ECOWAS and ECCAS have legally-binding arms control conventions—with explicit references to peace operations—that entered into force in 2009 and 2017, respectively.
- Similarly, small arms control frameworks of the Regional Centre on Small Arms in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and Bordering States (RECSA), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should be strengthened. This is because they contain provisions for the disposal of confiscated or unlicensed firearms that, if more effectively employed, could help counter the recirculation of recovered lethal material in such missions.
- Unfortunately, the current practices have failed to stem the flow of lethal materiel to the armed groups that soldiers and peacekeepers confront on the battlefield. Without meaningful change, providing more weapons to states combatting non-state armed groups may exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it.
- To this end, degrading and preventing militant groups’ capacity to divert COE will require efforts and resources at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. On the ground, tactical adjustments for better force and equipment protection are essential to prevent battlefield losses.
- Because illicit small arms and light weapons already circulate in the conflict-affected areas, mission mandates should include interventions aimed at severing illicit firearm sources through pre-deployment measures to include: mission-specific training in weapons and ammunition management, marking and electronic record keeping of all weapons, and effective management or destruction of all recovered small arms and light weapons,
- Clamping down on corruption will enhance procurement plans without increasing defence budgets including; rotating uniformed personnel out of conflict zones within their expected periods of service to enhance morale; greater transparency and fidelity to payment and benefit schemes to reduce troops’ proclivity to divert or abandon material.
- Strategically, African and international organizations should take full advantage of existing arms control frameworks across the continent such as the ECOWAS and ECCAS conventions. Applying the control measures in these conventions more robustly and uniformly would provide enhanced oversight and professionalism.
- Finally, AU should also take advantage of its longstanding meetings with its eight Regional Economic Communities and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the Sub-regional Arms Control Mechanism (SARCOM), and RECSA to generate a better understanding of the scale and scope of material loss. This is something the AU’s “Silencing the Guns” initiative could lead to, including assessing the challenge of securing heavy weapons systems.
The interview with Eric Berman
Speaking to Global Sentinel in May, Berman gave more insights about outcomes of the research studies over the years with particular reference to the latest one on the Lake Chad region. He also explained why weapon seizures by non-state actors have remained endemic within peace support and enforcement operations including the United Nations-led ones. Read the full interview below:
You recently conducted a study on the Lake Chad region with some detailed outcomes. Can you give us insight into your findings, your current, and previous works, as well as why you are in Nigeria?
I am here in Nigeria to explore partnerships for a new organization that I am establishing: the Safeguarding Security Sector Stockpiles (S4) Initiative. I haven’t been here since December 2019 when I was in Maiduguri and had also done some work at the National Defence College for my previous job when I was director of the Small Arms Survey. So, with COVID-19 and with some other pursuits, it’s been a long time. It’s good to be back.
In terms of the focus of S4, it dates back to the work that was undertaken in 2012, when I was at the Small Arms Survey. We asked two questions: what was the scale and scope of loss of lethal materiel in Darfur [Sudan] and South Sudan; and could anything be done about it? We were focused on the African Union (AU) peacekeeping missions, the subsequent AU-United Nations (UN) hybrid force, and the two UN peace operations. I had been to El-Fasher and also to Juba. I knew that there had been a lot of attacks on peacekeepers and that they were losing a lot of equipment. Thus, the decision to explore the issue further and seek to engage the AU and the UN.
I should note that there wasn’t great enthusiasm at the AU or the UN for this line of inquiry. UN officials felt that they knew the answers to the questions we had posed, that troop-contributing countries (TCCs) sometimes were underperforming, but that the UN was doing the best it could. And when things didn’t go right, they could take appropriate measures. They felt they were on top of things.
So, the point to underscore is that we were transparent. We explained what we were doing. And then we published our findings in a 2015 study: Under Attack and Above Scrutiny? It showed that the number of attacks was significantly greater than what the UN had thought was the case. And that the level of loss was also significantly greater than what the UN thought was the case. Another finding was that force commanders of the AU-UN mission told us that they didn’t have guidance on how to deal with recovered weaponry. This is quite important. Within a typical Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) program, there’s funding, there’s structure, and there’s robust record keeping. But when you don’t have a DDR mandate, and you recover weaponry from negative forces, the force commanders said that they were without resources, without guidance, and they had to rely in an ad hoc manner on sector and contingent commanders, which they rightly did not believe represented “best practice”.
So, when that study came out, a lot of people said “well, okay, thank you, not exactly what we were expecting, but we appreciate the effort”. We secured additional funding to undertake an expanded study that was not limited to missions in South Sudan and Sudan. And we subsequently found out that it was a general problem: that peacekeeping forces in many missions were coming under attack, and were losing material. That study—“Making a Tough Job More Difficult: Loss of Arms and Ammunition in Peace Operations ”—was published in 2017.
Indeed, as an aside, I can note that shortly after I joined the UN (back in 1990), I went to Cambodia for a peacekeeping operation there. It was the largest mission the UN had undertaken since Congo in the early 1960s, comprising more than 20,000 uniformed personnel. And even though the Khmer Rouge, one of the four signatories didn’t necessarily participate fully as agreed, and they attacked some of the peacekeepers, it was still a classical peacekeeping context and had a “Chapter Six” mandate. The UN lost materiel in that mission too. But nowadays the UN authorizes peace operations frequently with “Chapter Seven” mandates where it’s more about peace enforcement. So, the environments in which peacekeepers deploy are more challenging.
So, we showed that it was a general problem. And we also learned from practitioners and people who had been in Sudan that the number of attacks that we had recorded or estimated was much greater than what we had reported and that the level of loss was significantly greater than what we had estimated. With that, we then received support to undertake a multi-year project called ‘Making Peace Operations More Effective (MPOME)’, in which we worked with regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the AU. We met with TCCs from across the globe and began to make this less of a taboo subject. Because unlike what the UN had said—that ‘nobody’s going to want to talk about it’—many of the countries that had lost weapons also lost men and women in uniform. While they weren’t happy about it, they recognized it was a real problem, and they were willing to talk about it. They realized it was something that needed to be explored.
Anyway, after leaving the Survey in 2020, I completed a study on the Lake Chad Basin region. And what I discovered was the number of attacks on the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and on national forces—the army, police, and gendarmerie—that had co-deployed in the area of operation and nearby, was at a rate I had not previously encountered. And the level of loss was similarly off the charts. And that’s what brings us to this new organization, S4, which is looking at the issue and expanding the focus of weapons and ammunition management outside of peace operations. The initial focus was on the Lake Chad Basin. But S4 is also looking at the Sahel and Central Africa, and, more broadly, at what is happening across the African continent.
You talked about overrunning military bases, that’s a problem in this country, and of course, when that happens, they take weapons. Why do you think these non-state actors always succeed in overrunning military bases?
I will say many times they don’t succeed, and many times, the Nigerian military and regional countries defend themselves and can push back attackers. So certainly, I don’t want to say that there’s a complete lack of professionalism or that it’s open season on the military, or security forces more broadly speaking. But what has been shown is that non-state armed groups’ attacks are frequently—and worryingly—successful. The reason for that is multifaceted. Part of it is that they are well armed and they sometimes attack with numbers and with greater firepower. Well, I can’t say that they are better armed than troops most times, because it’s very hard to document exactly what’s going on for many reported incidents. There are reports of attacks on military checkpoints—likely staffed by a section of 10-12 soldiers—in which the insurgent group may number upwards of 30 fighters who arrive on several gun trucks. In such an instance, the military unit in question is simply outmatched and outgunned. If it’s a platoon of, say, 30 or 40 men and women in an outpost, and maybe they haven’t been re-armed or they haven’t been kitted with appropriate weaponry and ammunition, then you could have again, a large number that comes to attack. That would also be another instance in which a well-armed insurgent or jihadist group could possess the upper hand. Now you may have a company stationed at a Forward Operating Base (FOB), which could comprise 100 or 130 uniformed personnel. It’s not clear exactly what the strength of each company or each FOB is at each site. And so on. And it’s not just troops being routed at fixed sites such as checkpoints, outposts, or forward operating bases. Sometimes insurgents seize weapons from attacks on patrols or convoys. Now, it is more complicated than just an assessment of the number of combatants and weaponry possessed. Because sometimes these numbers suggest state security forces should have been able to defend themselves, and the attacking force is not as great in number, or may not be as well armed as the state security forces under attack. In such an instance the question raised is “why was the attacking force successful?” What my research has shown—and it needs to be said that others have written about this as well—as there’s sometimes a lack of arms and ammunition…or there’s other equipment that’s not working. But other times the explanation can be a lack of esprit de corps where the morale is bad. You read about a lot of troops that flee from an attack. This can stem from poor leadership, poor training, or poor use of intelligence assets. So, these are some explanations for why attackers are sometimes successful.
How can Nigeria curb these attacks?
Many actions can and need to be taken. One activity would be to increase perimeter security for some of the bases. And it bears underscoring that we’re not only talking about Nigeria here. We’re talking about many countries in which perimeter security is lacking. You have to remember that a lot of times the insurgents come in the vehicles of the military, wear the uniforms of the military, and sometimes they have been reported to be able to get through security checkpoints and get to inside bases too easily pretending that they’re friendly forces. There should be a way to check who’s coming in, identify whether they are friends or foes, and act accordingly. So that would be one thing. Another thing is that security sector reform has to be addressed. If you have bad morale, and unwillingness or resistance to fight back, you have to ask, why. In many instances, it’s because the troops haven’t been rotated for a long time, and I believe that there’s been a recognition that that’s a problem here. I have read that they can stay more than 36 months in the same place. That’s rough because the environment in which they’re asked to operate is not an easy one. Other aspects are pay, benefits and food and so many other things. Again, we must underscore that this is not unique to Nigeria, in my study, I document that there are similar concerns elsewhere. There are also arms control frameworks that are not being used. Indeed, ECOWAS has a small arms convention that is legally binding and needs to be operationalized as a matter of priority. Niger, Nigeria, and Benin are part of the MNJTF. As ECOWAS member states they are bound to this convention, which they signed in 2006 and which entered into force in 2009. Chad and Cameroon are not part of ECOWAS, so they come under a small arms convention developed by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Unfortunately, these legally binding frameworks are not treated as seriously as they should be. They are not being respected. You don’t live it, learn it, and love it. Rather, you do it and you forget about it. That is a big problem.
In your latest study, you talked about arms proliferation, and that the terrorists are now having access to heavier weapons.
There is in the latest report a list of equipment that has been seized. It’s quite detailed and alarming. When insurgents overrun a base, you’re frequently talking about the seizure not just of small arms and light weapons, but you’re talking about the diversion of heavy weapons systems as well. So, we’re not just speaking of assault rifles and 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine guns. Some seized vehicles possess 14.5mm machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. Another material the insurgents secured included self-propelled and towed artillery. So, we are talking about having insurgents able to engage targets at considerable distances, and with greater firepower. An assault rifle can engage a target 100 to 300 meters away. The equipment seized allows insurgents to engage targets several kilometres away, which changes the nature of one’s ability to attack a city or a base or whatever. They have also seized armoured vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, armoured cars, mine-resistant vehicles, and even main battle tanks as well. This is significant and very well documented, it’s not just a question of small arms and light weapons it’s a very big concern.
Why do you think legally binding frameworks and agreements are not respected, especially in the ECOWAS region?
I won’t say the problem is unique to this region. I will say it is a more generalized problem. The number of these regional organizations and subregional organizations with arms control conventions is numerous. And certain states are members of more than one of these organizations. The point is, that there are a lot of initiatives. But remember, that if states don’t implement one article of a particular treaty, it doesn’t mean that the entire convention is without merit. Having said that, it is for sure that the level of implementation is quite uneven, and in the case of the small arms convention that ECOWAS established, article 11 says that each ECOWAS member state participating in peace operations is to report to the Commission the number of small arms and light weapons that it takes in, what it resupplies, what it recovers, what it destroys, and what it takes out. And it’s not just a requirement for ECOWAS missions such as the current ones in the Gambia or Guinea-Bissau. Rather, it’s any deployment in a peace operation, which would include the MNJTF and MINUSMA, for example. Now, that’s very powerful, because if an ECOWAS member were to report all that, then someone at the Commission reading the report would know what the missing numbers are. It would allow for informed questions to be asked about what was used possibly for self-defence in implementing the mandate, or what was perhaps lost or otherwise diverted. It would start a conversation that isn’t being had at the moment, which is a lost opportunity to promote good practice. I’ve been told that this has been partially done for parts of some missions, but is not yet standard practice. You have to remember that the military forces being deployed, or responsible for overseeing these missions, may not be knowledgeable about their commitments under the ECOWAS convention. So, who will tell them or remind them what needs to be done? And there are donors or arms exporters who might be aware of it, but maybe it’s not their first concern—which is understandable. So, it’s perhaps a mixture of a lack of knowledge and a lack of seriousness. But the bottom line is, whatever describes it, it’s a missed opportunity for better oversight and useful checks and balances.
There’s been a growing concern that the Islamic State (IS) is expanding in the African continent, and there’s this concern that Nigeria is becoming a hub for IS attacks, do you agree?
The Islamic State West African Province has been active in Nigeria since 2015. ISWAP is known to have attacked Nigerian security forces, as well as security forces from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. So, while the group certainly is active in the territory of Nigeria, it is active in the territories of these other countries. So, I wouldn’t want to characterize Nigeria as its “hub”. Moreover, there are other armed groups in other parts of Africa that are associated with the Islamic State and they operate independently of ISWAP.
Apart from arms loss what would usually say is a major source of weapons for these non-state actors?
There are different conflict dynamics in much of what I have been studying in the last 15-20 years. In many settings, the weaponry comes from the state. I understand that there’s weaponry that has come from different conflicts across the continent. For example, weapons from post-Gaddafi Libya have spread out across many states in the continent without state control. I guess that would still be described as “arms loss”, but I don’t believe it’s in the same category as what the 2021 report on the Lake Chad Basin documents. That said, I don’t think that the majority of material that is circulating now with non-state armed groups in the Lake Chad Basin in the hands comes from former Libyan stocks from over 10 years ago. Based on research, it’s coming from large seizures from state security forces within the sub-region. This is a general explanation of how armed groups seize material. Some non-state armed groups can produce some of their material, but most of what they have comes from attacking state security forces.