20 March 2009: The Danger of Arms and Ammunition Stockpiles
Proper management of State stockpiles of arms and ammunition is the responsibility of the government. The stark reality, however, is that many stockpiles throughout Africa are decaying rapidly and many governments choose to ignore the situation.
Over the past decade there have been accidental explosions in military arms and ammunition storage facilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Guinea, Nigeria, Mozambique, Angola and Sierra Leone. Many of the explosive devises were remnants of past internal conflicts with little or no connection to the countries current political or military situation. These could quite possibly have been prevented if proper inspections were undertaken and effective stockpile management principles were adhered to.
The State is ultimately responsible for the protection of its citizens from external, as well as internal, threats to safety and security. However, the careless attitude adopted by many States towards stockpile management is a threat to civilian life.
In Southern Africa, the SADC Protocol on Control of Firearms, Ammunition and Other Related Materials aims to change the current situation. The Protocol places a legal obligation on States to enhance their capacity to manage and maintain secure storage of state owned firearms.
According to the official report compiled after the tragic explosion that occurred in Mozambique in 2007, the explosion was the result of extreme temperatures in the range of 35°C. This could have been one factor contributing to the explosion, but it is highly unlikely that this was the only reason.
States have to realise that stockpiles containing explosives of any kind are at risk of detonation. Proper control mechanisms, effective oversight and the continuing destruction of old and obsolete explosive devices alleviate this threat.
Military explosives are designed to withstand adverse conditions for a reasonable time period. The design anticipates rough handling by armed forces during conflict within limits. Mortars, for example, are usually designed to withstand temperature variations between -10 to +35 °C. However, each explosive compound has an upper temperature limit, after which the rate of decomposition accelerates rapidly and its stability is reduced.
Some of the common factors contributing to unintentional explosions are high ambient temperature, sun exposure, corrosion exposure, and general disregard for safety principles relating to the handling and storage of high explosive devices.
One of the major concerns is that in many post-conflict countries, unsuitable buildings and areas were used as storage facilities. This undesirable situation is the result of a need to reduce the number of weapons in the society and to disarm ex-combatants immediately after peace was restored. These facilities are guarded to prevent theft but not maintained by knowledgeable armourers. This approach was probably the result of the mistaken belief that, because these devices withstood the testing conditions of war, they were invulnerable to deterioration. In turn, this led to the storage of, for example, mortar rounds in open-air conditions. Open-air storage of explosive devices is not desirable because sun exposure, and more particularly exposure to ultraviolet rays, contributes to the accelerated decomposition of explosive compounds containing nitrogen, reducing the stability of the explosive compound.
It is not reasonable to expect States to acquire and train HAZMAT (Hazardous Material) experts overnight. Nevertheless, States need to acknowledge that there is a need to actively engage in the management of pre- and post-conflict weapon stockpiles. Countries should realise that there are several international sources containing stockpile management information and standards, and should consider consulting external stockpile management experts. This would reduce the possibility of lowering the minimum standards established through research, testing and evaluation, to a point of ineffectiveness.
For States to comply with their obligations under the SADC Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and Other Related Materials, they should either adopt these standards or incorporate applicable sections into national legislation.
Ben Coetzee, Senior Researcher Arms Management Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)