Mozambique arms explosion exposes more than poor stockpile management

from Institute for Security Studies
Published on 26 Mar 2007
Mozambique's bloody civil war came back to haunt it after a depot containing old weapons exploded, killing more than 80 people and injuring hundreds more in a fiery cascade of ignited rockets and ammunition. (Emmanual Camello, "Mozambique Reeling After Blasts", Saturday Star, 24 March 2007)

The tragedy of the explosions at the Mozambican Armed Forces (FADM) ammunition storage facility in the Maputo suburb of Laulane on 22 March 2007 raises serious questions regarding the state of Mozambique's other 17 weapons depots as well those of similar such arsenals in the hands of security forces in other African countries. In addition, one must question why Mozambique has not fulfilled its commitment to the legally binding Southern Africa Development Community's Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other Related Material (hereafter referred to as the SADC Firearms Protocol).

The blast, which killed more than 80 people and injured many more, occurred place at Mozambique's' largest storage facility, which is estimated to have contained thousands of tonnes of armaments and explosives.

This event is reminiscent of the 2003 blasts in the Beira arms depot, which killed three people and destroyed some 130 houses, and of the 1985 explosion at Malhazine in Maputo, which killed 13 and injured 100.

These are not the only such events in Africa. In January 2002, an ammunition dump in the centre of Nigeria's largest city Lagos, exploded, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. The depot was located at the Ikeja military base, situated in a busy residential area and close to the main commercial centre. Many buildings, including the market and a nearby church, were also destroyed and a hospital and local school were damaged.

The Mozambican Armed Force's ammunition storage facility is also close to one of Maputo's poorest neighbourhoods - Malhazine. The Maputo International Airport near the depot was forced to close down.

Mozambique officials have claimed that the blasts were triggered by intense heat. Emmanual Camello who is quoted at the beginning of this article, ends his piece by stating, "Mozambique has been battered by natural disasters this year affecting more than 500 000 people.... Heavy rains have inundated much of the country since January causing flooding and prompting tens of thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes".

This was, however, not a natural disaster. The truth is that weather conditions - even temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius seldom alone will have an impact on ammunition - even old, poorly maintained and decaying munitions. Most accidents are caused by chemically unstable propellants; copper-acid in detonators; uncoated detonators or fuses without detonator safety. It was thus human error, at whatever level one looks at it.

As a legally binding Convention, the SADC Firearms Protocol (1) requires all Southern African states to: enact national legal measures to ensure proper controls over the manufacturing, possession and use of firearms and ammunition; to promote legal uniformity and minimum standards as to the manufacture, control, possession, import, export and transfer of firearms and ammunition; and, to ensure the standardised marking of firearms at the time of manufacture.

Importantly, SADC member states undertake to establish national inventories of firearms held by security forces and other state bodies and to enhance their capacity to manage and maintain their secure storage as well as to destroy surplus, redundant or obsolete State-owned firearms and related materials. Clearly, Mozambique has not done so.

The SADC Firearms Protocol entered into force in November 2004 and Mozambique signed it on 14 August 2001 and ratified it on 20 September 2002. By ratifying the Protocol, Mozambique undertook to identify and adopt effective programmes for the collection, safe-storage, destruction and responsible disposal of firearms rendered surplus, redundant or obsolete through, inter alia, peace agreements; demobilisation or reintegration of ex-combatants; and the re-equipment, or restructuring of armed forces or other armed state bodies.

One must ask:

- Has Mozambique, encouraged its security authorities to prepare for and implement the collection, safe-storage, destruction or responsible disposal of firearms and ammunition?

- Has it established and implemented guidelines and procedures for ensuring that firearms, ammunition and other related materials rendered surplus, redundant or obsolete through the re-equipment or re-organisation of armed forces or other state bodies are securely stored, destroyed or disposed of?

- Why has Mozambique, some 15 years after the peace agreement ended the war, and ex-combatants were demobilised and reintegrated, still not destroyed surplus, redundant or obsolete firearms and ammunition under state control?

- Why has the armoury not been relocated to an area away from where civilians live?

- Why have the munitions been allowed to deteriorate to the extent of being unstable?

Destroying surplus and obsolete weapons stockpiles is not only a safety mechanism but is also a simple, cost-effective strategy for reducing illicit arms transfers. The SADC Firearms Protocol also aims at combating and eradicating the destabilising accumulation and spread of SALW and related ammunition, by encouraging states to reduce their stocks to levels consistent with the countries' legitimate security needs. Has Mozambique undertaken such an assessment and, if not, why not?

According to Biting the Bullet, since 2001 [when the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (UNPoA) was drafted], there have been several disturbing accounts internationally of egregiously poor practices and a steady stream of reported thefts and diversions from government arsenals. Furthermore, the study found that globally only 99 governments had "standards and procedures for the management and security of stockpiles," and only 64 claimed that they conduct "regular reviews of stocks"(2).

Ammunition and explosives may deteriorate or become damaged unless they are correctly stored, handled and transported. Effective management and security of national stockpiles requires the application of high standards. In 2003 the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) published a detailed guide to stockpile management and security and began providing advice and assistance on stockpile security and management to states.

While no means exhaustive, the following should, at least, be taken into account:

- While it will normally be most practical to locate stockpiles close to where they may be required for issue to military or police personnel, the environment surrounding the stockpile location should be planned and constructed with proper consideration for the potential security risk to both the stockpile and the surrounding population. An area heavily populated may be suitable for weapons but not for explosive devices or ammunition.

- According to the OSCE, arms and related ammunition should be stored separately. Small quantities of arms and ammunitions could, however, be stored together for the purposes of maintaining limited site security (such as arming a reaction force to provide security for the storage site or arsenal).

Checking of stores, which should also include unannounced 'spot checks', ought to be conducted by authorised personnel other than those allowed unsupervised access to holdings. Particular attention should be focussed on the condition of conventional ammunition, explosive material and detonating devices, and degraded or mouldy munitions should be removed immediately.

The fight against the illicit trade in ammunition is a pressing task. Tens of thousands of small arms are in circulation, especially in conflict zones. For military combat, ammunition is needed in large quantities. Surplus ammunition can be diverted from military stockpiles into these zones where it fuels conflicts or may also get into the hands of criminal gangs. Ill-managed ammunition stockpiles pose a risk of loss and explosion. Stockpile safety and security thus aims at preventing losses of ammunition as well as protecting the stockpiles themselves against physical dangers.

However tragic this particular event, the need now is to ensure that all African countries act on the continentally agreed Bamako Declaration on an African Common Position on the Illicit Proliferation, Circulation and Trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons of 2000 which calls on all African states to develop and implement, where they do not exist, national programmes for the responsible management of licit arms; and, for the identification and the destruction by competent national authorities of surplus, obsolete and seized stocks in possession of the state. And in Mozambique's case, to fulfil their legal obligations under the Southern Africa Development Community's Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other Related Material.

Noel Stott, Small Arms Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)


(1) The Protocol on Firearms, Ammunition and Other Related Materials in the SADC Region is a regional instrument to increase control over the proliferation of small arms in Southern Africa. The SADC Protocol remains one of only a few multilateral legally binding instruments on the control of small arms and light weapons that have entered into force.

(2) Biting the Bullet, International Action on Small Arms 2005-Examining Implementation of the Program of Action, International Action Network on Small Arms, July 2005, p. 31.