There are more rules to control global trade of bananas than buy your guns in Africa

In World War I, 40% of casualties were civilians. In WWII it rose to 67%. In Iraq war it was 75%. In Africa today, its 80-90% civilian deaths.

IT’s been a deadly few weeks for several ongoing conflicts around the Africa. This past weekend, at least six people were killed by a car bomb that exploded outside a café in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, in what is believed to be an al-Shabaab attack.

In Central African Republic (CAR), six UN peacekeepers were wounded when an armed group fired at a UN police patrol monitoring a protest in the capital Bangui, and last week’s violence which killed 8 and wounded 25 is said to be the worst since the UN force took over on September 15. So far, 5,000 people have died over nine months of sectarian violence.

And in South Sudan, the chances of a lasting settlement to the violence that has killed thousands and displaced over 1.8 million since December appear “remote”.

The outlook isn’t good even for other countries which are relatively calm at the moment: According to the Global Peace Index 2014, four countries in Africa are among the top 10 countries which are likely to deteriorate in peace over the next two years – Zambia, Chad, Burundi and Liberia. To that we can add Guinea and Sierra Leone, as the ongoing Ebola outbreak is leading to “complete social breakdown”.

Conflict in Africa is exacerbated by the fact that weapons are notoriously easy to obtain. This study on the prices of AK-47s around the world shows that at $267, an AK-47 rifle is $200 on average cheaper in Africa than the rest of the world.

“Africa discount” for AK-47

Several factors contribute to this “Africa discount”. Today millions more AK-like weapons are circulating in Africa than in the Americas, lowering the local African average price relative to the world mean.

It could also be that guns in general exhibit inelastic demand, meaning that people are willing to pay whatever they can afford to, so prices go up with income – in other words, guns are cheap in Africa because people are poor, and are expensive in the west because people can afford to pay more for them.

But a more likely reason is that weapons are more expensive in countries that regulate them tightly, such as in much of Western Europe. This report published in 2007 by the World Bank makes a startling claim: Africa’s borders are so porous, and the flow of weapons so poorly regulated that trade approaches a perfectly deregulated market where arms supply almost meets demand and prices converge.

In other words, the price of an AK-47 in Africa is its “true price” in a capitalist market where there are negligible trade barriers.

Incredibly, there are more standards to regulate the international trade of bananas than there are of AK-47s, according to this blog by Oxfam. Bananas are subject to at least three internationally binding trade agreements, but there are no global treaties to regulate the trade of assault rifles, and no international organisation charged with monitoring the transfer of small arms and light weapons.

The price of weapons can be astonishingly low in Africa - especially if one takes a historical view. In 1991-95 the average price of an Kalashnikov assault rifle in Angola was just $12, with one report by Unicef claiming that at some point in the 1990s, an AK-47 could be exchanged in Mozambique for a bag of maize, or in Uganda for a chicken.

Fortunately, most of these conflicts have quietened down. But researchers warn it is important to monitor the prices of guns, as cheaper weapons lead to an increased risk of civil war, independent of other factors – so gun prices can be used as a type of “early warning system” that hints at the threat of an outbreak of violence.

And after conflict breaks out, the price of weapons spikes in the early stages of war, as demand increases. This graph on the price of an AK-47 in Somalia demonstrates a spike in late 2011, just when the Kenyan Defence Forces began their military campaign in southern Somalia, which is still ongoing.

Another reason availability of arms is a bigger issue today is because of the manner in which the casualty profiles in wars have changed. Conventional wisdom suggests civilians are always the biggest casualties in conflicts, but this hasn’t always been the case.

In World War I, for example, the civilian-casualty ratio was about 2:3, with an estimated 6.6 million civilians and 9-10 million soldiers killed - so civilians were 40% of casualties. Because the war mostly played out in trenches, civilians were largely able to avoid getting hit, so the vast number died from famine or Spanish flu rather than military action.

African civilian casualty horrors

The ratio in World War II was between 3:2 and 2:1, or 60-67% of deaths were civilians. Deaths from direct military action was higher than in the first world war, as a result of more powerful weapons capable of mass killing, such chemical weapons and incendiary bombs, as well as ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Two decades later, the Vietnam war had a ratio of 2:1, with 2 million civilians and 1.1 soldiers killed.

The ratio in Iraq since the 2003 invasion is difficult to pin down, with various wildly differing estimates. But the most commonly cited is 3 civilians for every combatant, meaning that 75% of deaths have been non-military.

But Africa’s conflicts, especially since the 1990s, have seen much higher deaths among civilians, so much so that war in Africa seems to be little more than deliberate targeting of civilians for shock value – and this is where the AK-47 has a starring role, as the legendary simplicity and reliability of the Kalashnikov rifle makes it the favourite weapon of rebel groups around the continent.

The conflict in the DRC is a prime example, with the ratio approaching 9:1, according to these estimates. The wars in northern Uganda, Darfur and Somalia have similarly recorded 80-90% civilian deaths, mostly as a result of famine, disease and general societal breakdown, as well as direct targeting.

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