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Urbanisation and arms trafficking: a deadly mix in Bamako and Lagos

Growing populations, established criminal networks and thriving gangs make these cities the perfect market for smugglers.

Urban growth in Africa means cities are becoming more globalised, and crime is increasing in complexity and scope. With in-migration comes the coexistence of various cultures, and the problems associated with managing these differences and the conflicts they provoke.

The proliferation of arms in West African cities, especially since the conflicts in Libya (2011) and Mali (2012) began, has exacerbated the situation. Cities such as Abidjan, Accra, Bamako, Dakar and Lagos are connected to international markets. This enables organised crime syndicates to collaborate with groups in and beyond Africa. Illicit weapons are an important trafficked commodity, and a means to protect and control populations and smuggling routes.

Research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) shows that the arms trafficking economy in Mali’s capital Bamako and Lagos, Nigeria, involves diverse actors driven by mutually reinforcing factors. These include transnational criminal groups, violent extremism and thriving gangs that require arms, and the pressures brought on by an influx of people into these spaces.

In Bamako, the increasing presence of transnational terrorist groups is a major driver of weapons trafficking. The dominant groups use their global reach to procure and smuggle arms into Mali, and operate cells in Bamako’s outskirts.

In Lagos, kidnappers, armed robbers, petroleum pipeline vandals, ethnic militias, road transport workers, commercial motorcycle riders and criminal gangs in various neighbourhoods provide a ready market for arms dealers. The No Salary Boys, Awawa Boys and One Million Boys cult gangs terrorise residents with guns bought from local blacksmiths and other sources.

Easy access to small arms in Bamako and Lagos prolongs existing conflicts such as terrorism and ethnic violence

Military sources in Bamako say weapons trafficked along the Niger River are mostly small calibre. Many are either obtained through armoury pillaging when insurgents attack security establishments or are manufactured in illegal workshops in the city. Bamako’s rugged geography helps conceal these factories, which are behind hills and in caves and ravines, ISS research shows.

Firearm importers and traffickers use different smuggling strategies and concealment methods in Lagos. They falsify import papers and merchandise declarations to bring firearms through the city’s seaports. In one case, 1 100 rifles seized at Tin Can Island Port were concealed in a 20-foot container, which the importer had declared as containing toilets and hand basins. Another gun runner hid illegal firearms in a container declared as plasma TVs.

According to the ISS study, poor urban planning and maintenance enable arms trafficking. Bamako’s inner city is dotted with slums, which have been identified as critical arteries for the concentration and circulation of small arms. Numerous slum settlements in Lagos also serve as strategic outlets for arms trafficking and havens for criminals.

Incomplete or abandoned buildings in Bamako and Lagos have become places where criminals plan operations and stockpile and distribute illicit firearms. In Bamako, Kalabancoro Police Station officers recovered illicit firearms from a syndicate occupying an unfinished building in Commune V. In Lagos, guns hidden in derelict houses and plots were retrieved by the Lagos State Police Command’s task force. Improvised explosive devices, bombs, AK47 rifles, cartridges and daggers were also recovered in similar settings from suspected terrorists.

Linked to the challenges posed by poor urban planning is the use of commercial motorbikes as a means of transport in Lagos. The Association of Commercial Motorcycle Operators has emerged as an urban militia using illicit weapons to foment violence. In the first half of 2021, 320 bike operators were arrested in connection with 218 crimes. Police seized 480 guns of various calibres from them.

Incomplete buildings are used as hideouts for planning criminal operations and stockpiling illicit guns

The collusion of security personnel through armoury theft remains a major source of illicit weapons and ammunition in Lagos, partly due to poorly managed police and military stockpiles. In Bamako and its outskirts, insurgents regularly attack security force outposts, military installations, security convoys and checkpoints to loot weapons.

Easy access to small arms and light weapons in Bamako and Lagos prolongs existing conflicts, such as terrorism in Bamako and ethnic violence in Lagos. It threatens the stability of polarised communities, putting civilians at risk of death or injury.

Data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) Project and the ISS show 34 attacks in Bamako and its surrounds since 2011 – attributed to armed criminals (62%) and terror groups (21%). ISS reported 20 attacks linked to armed groups in Lagos in 2020, 18 in 2021 and 25 from January-June 2022.

According to ACLED, attacks since 2011 were perpetrated by unknown criminals (43%), the National Union of Road Transport Workers (16%), cultists (7%), and communal militias (9%). ACLED reported that 241 people died in targeted attacks by various armed groups in Lagos since 2012.

Addressing arms trafficking and associated security challenges in cities requires state authorities, multilateral agencies, civil society and city residents to work together. They will need new ways of thinking about what effective responses look like in Bamako and Lagos.

In Lagos, commercial bikers have become an urban militia using illicit weapons to foment violence

Bamako’s municipal authorities should register all gunsmiths to garner intelligence about their operations – specifically the scale, pattern and supply to designated government agencies such as police departments. City governments in Bamako and Lagos must enact planning regulations to curb the proliferation of incomplete and abandoned buildings, and ensure that unfinished structures are properly policed to avoid conversion into criminal hideouts.

Mali and Nigeria’s central governments must improve infrastructure and contraband-detecting technologies at ports of entry. Electronic surveillance systems will enable better immigration checks and security at unmanned borders. Lastly, civil society organisations should hold governments to account on their plans to stem illicit arms flows into the two cities.

Download the full report.

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The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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