Perpetrating Power: Small Arms in Sierra Leone & Liberia

Access the full monograph, "Perpetrating Power: Small Arms in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone and Liberia".


How can the trafficking of small arms be stopped in Sierra Leone and Liberia? This research looks at the factors behind the demand for weapons in these countries. It argues that policy makers should focus on the buyer side of the market to determine creative ways of stopping proliferation. Only through political empowerment, infrastructure development, and economic alternatives will the flow of illegal small arms and light weapons be stemmed in these countries.

There are eight to ten million small arms circulating in West Africa. Resources such as diamonds, rubber and timber have provided funds to purchase these and sustained civil war in the Mano River Basin. Despite the presence of United Nations missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia, political, criminal and violent factions have continued participating in the international weapons trade. In some cases the United Nations missions have exacerbated the problem. Furthermore, the illicit gun markets have not been affected by the disarmament and demobilisation processes that have just been completed in both places. On the contrary, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration have created their own weapons markets across borders because prices for handing over a weapon vary from country to country.

The ability to make and implement effective policy lies in understanding and acknowledging both sides of the market. Addressing demand requires different, broader, often more long-term and creative strategies.

  • Local conditions influence gun markets the same way that they influence consumption of other goods although there are underlying consistencies that cross geographical and cultural boundaries.
  • Factors fuelling demand include availability of weapons, economies on the margins, and lack of education and development.
  • Regional political dynamics and the relative success or failure of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) play a significant role in the evolution of illicit weapons trafficking and ownership patterns.
  • State-centred solutions to illicit arms proliferation do not work when the state in question cannot fund traditional security operations.
  • Borders are porous and although they should eventually be closed or better monitored, this cannot happen immediately.

Rather than focusing arms reduction policies solely on policing and border control, the international community and national governments should direct funding and support towards infrastructure development on the borders. This should include:

  • Increasing funding for education that reduces the number of illiterate and at-risk young people. Ministries should cooperate to plan and fund projects that recognise the security and state-building benefits to better education, health, and food security for children.
  • Creating youth agricultural empowerment initiatives. By creating alternatives to trading in arms and working as fighters, a culture of peace will at least have the chance to take root.
  • Continuing demobilisation for ex-combatants beyond cantonment sites.
  • Encouraging civic education for adults. Education for both adults and children can change cultural perceptions, create opportunities for growth and changing economies, and produce more active, informed citizens.
  • Sharing responsibility at local and national level for small arms concerns between government departments and NGOs.
  • Building infrastructure to connect border communities to legal markets in urban centres.