(Originally published on October 2008)
Ethiopia is party to the Nairobi Protocol for Prevention, Control in Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa (Nairobi Protocol), which compels signatories to dispose of confiscated and unlicensed small arms and light weapons (SALWs). This provision is also included in Ethiopian law. According to the Ethiopian Police, between 2003 and 2004, there were 9,531 arrests and prosecutions for illegal arms transfers and possession. In addition, Ethiopia destroyed more than 11 700 small arms, 3 000 hand grenades and 170 000 rounds of assorted types of ammunition in 2006 and 2007. These arms and ammunition had either been confiscated by the police or had been voluntarily surrendered.
Despite these arms control measures, Ethiopia is ranked highly in terms of the ease of access to SALWs, according to the 2008 Global Peace Index. This is the consequence of a combination of easy access to SALWs in neighboring countries (such as Somalia) via porous borders, and the demand for SALW in many of Ethiopia’s rural areas. The availability of SALWs has drastically altered the nature, conduct and lethality of inter-community and inter-ethnic conflicts. The demand and use of SALWs is considered below.
Small arms have diverse cultural and pragmatic uses among the Ethiopian population. In many parts of the Ethiopian highlands, a person who owns a rifle is respected and considered to be a ‘great heroic man’, and in areas such as Armacheho and Samre, the majority of the population possesses small arms as they consider themselves to be a ‘warrior race’. In the lowlands, much of the population practices nomadic pastoralism. These pastoralist communities attach high value to bearing arms in order to protect, or gain access to, water supplies, grazing lands and livestock. Armed conflict between communities is often more prevalent during drought and famine when these resources are in short supply. Previously cattle rustling was carried out by means of bows and arrows, but it is now pursued with SALW. According to the traditions of Afars and Somalis, rifles (and camels) are used as bride wealth.
SALWs are also employed in the protection of certain religious buildings and in the religious ceremonies. For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which uses small arms to escort the ‘Tobot’ (Ark of the Covenant) on religious holidays. There are an estimated 70 000 Ethiopian Orthodox Church buildings throughout the country, all of which house small arms for protection and cultural reasons.
There are two possible mechanisms to control small arms in Ethiopia. The first option is disarmament either by use of force, or through consent. The second option is the management of possession of arms by bringing arms under the ambit of government control. Both options would require considerable resources from the State, especially in the provision of services that promote human security, justice and human rights. In the absence of such resources, disarmament would merely deprive people of their right to life and property.
Given the high cultural and practical currency of SALW in the highlands and lowlands, placing arms under the purview of the State would be the preferable option, as it would: require less force to be used by the state; would not actively contribute to creating conflict; and would possibly be the more sustainable. In addition, the Ethiopian government should explore processes of inculcating more peaceful approaches to conflict resolution between rural communities in conflict, which will significantly reduce the demand and proliferation of SALWs. However, the establishment of functioning administration and enforcement mechanisms in the relevant rural areas is essential to success of such an endeavor.
* Mehari Taddele Maru is a specialist in international human rights and humanitarian law, an international consultant on African Union affairs, and an expert in Public Administration and Management.
* The article was originally published on October 2008 on the fourth issue of “Arms Control: Africa” (Vol 1-Issue 4), which is published by the Arms Management Programme (AMP) of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).