Counting the guns

After half a century of civil war, South Sudan is awash with small arms firearms but no one knows just how many guns are out there or who has them. To get a handle on the situation, the government has asked a South African company to conduct a ‘census’ of firearms by marking them. Tom […]


After half a century of civil war, South Sudan is awash with small arms firearms but no one knows just how many guns are out there or who has them. To get a handle on the situation, the government has asked a South African company to conduct a ‘census’ of firearms by marking them. Tom Nevin reports.

At the height of Sudan’s civil war, truck loads and camel caravans of small arms, mainly AK47s, were distributed around the then rebellious South Sudanese territory. They were handed out indiscriminately with no attempt at keeping such records as weapon registration, identification, ownership or locality. In the fight for independence there was no time or place for bureaucratic niceties.

Now that peace has broken out, and South Sudan is the world’s youngest new nation, the fledgling government faces the awesome task of building an administration with an infrastructure, economy, social services and laws.

One such task is tracing all the firearms because all the government wants to know right now is how many there are out there, where they are and who owns them. The licensing of these small arms and light weapons (SALWs) will come much later when the administration and its ministries and departments are in place. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has enlisted the services of a South African security partnership to establish a weapons marking and identification system in South Sudan. Once the programme is successfully up and running, it will be replicated in other African countries where the world body has operations and where weapons need to be identified for licensing as personal property, warehousing, destruction or deployment.

The marking and identification process is unique in Africa. It was designed and developed in South Africa by a partnership of FACTT, a company specialising in industrial authentication and tracking, and Traceability Solutions, a hardware development and manufacturing organisation.

“If ever there was a baptism by fire for our product, this is it,” comments FACTT CEO Daan Davis. “The South Sudan area is awash with weapons after the decades-long war with Sudan, nearly all of them AK47s and each considered illegal because none is licensed “and that’s because there is no way yet in the formative government of licensing them.” Davis has no idea of the number of weapons to be counted and marked. “It’s probably in the thousands,” he says, “but that’s just a guess because no one kept records.”  

Making a fresh start

South Sudan is a landlocked country of about 10m people just beginning the intricate task of nation building. Half a century of civil war between the North and the South means South Sudan is starting from scratch. The country, about half the size of South Africa, inherited a shambolic transport system of less than 100km of tarred roads, a Wild West mentality and half-hearted infrastructure and services. That’s changing, and the SALW registration is one of the projects that’s helping the country take its place in stability, recovery and lawfulness. South Sudan is also setting out to make friends with its neighbours, the wider regional community and the world at large. It must demonstrate that it is serious about being a good citizen in the global village and part of that job is making the country safer and security conscious. An important start is with its SALW census.

“Our system of unique 2D data matrix barcode encoded with a unique FP marked on weapons is not totally impervious to removal, but it is the most permanent way of marking the weapon ownership accountability chain,” says Jordaan. “FACTT has issued over a million registration and identification markings, known by the trademarked name of Industrial Fingerprint (FP), for SALW application in South Sudan and the SADC.”  

“The identification process we have been tasked with is a census, if you like,” says Kyle Parker, whose Traceability Solutions company specialises in the hardware aspects of all manner of identification and codification.

Traceability has a process unique in South Africa of marking weapons in such a way that the printing does not break the arms’ protective “blue” rust-resistant coating and yet is scored deeply into the metal.   

Andre Jordaan, a FACTT operations executive, says nearly everyone in South Sudan has a weapon “At the height of the civil war between the north and the south of the country, rifles and handguns were handed out to virtually every able-bodied man or woman in the fight for independence. No attempt was made to register the weapons and owners or keep any information about their whereabouts.”

Although the civil war has ended, the region is still a dangerous place with interfactional conflict, livestock rustling and banditry. Personal weapons have taken on an intrinsic value as a means of defence and they won’t be easily surrendered.

“And that is not the intention,” says Parker, “all the UN is after at this stage is a Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) census, and we are supplying the equipment and technical means to make that possible. Training of South Sudan government operatives as trainers and demonstrators will start in October.”

Klem Ryan, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration officer at UNMISS and a delegation of South Sudan government officials visited the South African facilities last month and confirmed after “valuable exposure to weapons marking and management processes” that the organisation would work further with the South African partnership “on this important issue”.

To date, Traceability Solutions has delivered five mobile marking and registration kits and a further five are being assembled while FACTT has supplied the software and installed a central database in the UNMISS headquarters in Juba, the South Sudan capital. The kits are being deployed throughout South Sudan operated by Sudanese technicians trained in South Africa and South Sudan.

Simple system

Africa is a polyglot continent with the diversity of languages, and often a communications and comprehension barrier in exchanging sometimes critical information. The marking system neatly overcomes this issue by communicating in a language of its own, universally understood technologically. The field operator simply points his laser ‘gun’ at the ID mark on the weapon. Its image is immediately relayed to the system database where it is decoded to reveal the weapon’s registration number, owner’s name, residence or unit and other pertinent information.

Parker adds, “There are no laws in South Sudan governing firearms ownership and licensing, so we have the paradoxical situation in which it is not illegal to own an illegal firearm. So marking and registering firearms is a starting point in a very active market where accountability of weapons will be a big factor. An early aim is to curtail the current free circulation of a lot of weapons, with untraceable firearms falling into the hands of criminals.”

The FACTT-Traceability Solutions alliance appears to have stolen a march on the competition by snapping up the cream of the market. The partnership’s perseverance and solid performance has in a short time wrapped up the big players for ID marking, not only for weapons but for other valuable items. Counted amongst their clientele are such organisations as the SADC, SAPS, SADF, SARB and G4S in Namibia.

“A few competitors have appeared in the past couple of years, but they have fallen by the wayside because this is not a business you can simply start up on a whim,” says Davis. “You need a massive amount of experience in security at the top level in both software and hardware development and you must have intimate knowledge of the conditions in the field. We have that kind of background and we are respected for it. Another big customer could well come from the vehicle manufacturing industry. Our marking systems could take vehicle and parts identification to levels not seen before, greatly increasing motor vehicle security and crime prevention.”

“Synergistically, the phone and identity marking are heading in a remarkable direction,” says Parker. “It won’t be long before you’ll be able to confirm all sorts of information about everything simply by pointing your phone at an ID mark on a product and reading a used car’s history, for example, or the composition of medicine you’ve been given. The data matrix 2D code is unique in the same way as a fingerprint and as reliable.”     

Davis, a former high-ranking officer with the South African Police Services, believes the partnership “has done something extraordinary” in the name of South African ingenuity and innovation. “In the eyes of the UN we have proved that a weapons identity marking task that seemed practically impossible in a remote and difficult place such as the emerging nation of South Sudan could be tackled and uniquely solved. The result is that the UN now has sufficient confidence in our country and our companies. Sierra Leone could be next.”

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