Weapons go up in flames during a ceremony to destroy illegal arms in Nairobi on 29 June 2005. “Easy availability of small arms both nationally and regionally has made crime so violent and this is deterring investment and exacerbating conflicts between communities in border areas,” said Peter Eragae, coordinator, Kenya National Focal Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons.
Milton Bwire was approaching the gate to his home in the eastern Nairobi suburb of Buruburu when he was accosted by a group of young thugs, who tried to rob him. When Bwire called for help, the gangster he was wrestling shot him through the temple and fled.
Bwire survived because the bullet did not pierce his skull. However, he lost hearing in one ear; his mouth is now askew; and he is unable to blink one of his eyes. Nearly five months since the attack, he is still taking medication; he will have to endure at least 18 months of physiotherapy before he is able to work again. "My body trembles uncontrollably sometimes," he said.
A senior insurance executive driving to his home on the outskirts of Nairobi in early 2005 was oblivious to a car that was trailing him from a distance. When he stopped in front of the gate to wait for the guard to open it, a gunman emerged from the car behind him and shot him dead, execution style. The motive for the murder was not immediately established.
In January, 69-year-old British filmmaker Joan Root was shot and killed by intruders, who broke into her home near the town of Naivasha in the Kenyan Rift Valley. The assailants stole nothing from the house. Police said they were investigating whether the attack was a bungled burglary attempt or premeditated murder.
These are only three of the numerous crimes committed at gunpoint in Kenya each year, most of which are carried out using illegally held small arms. Such attacks claim the lives of hundreds of Kenyans annually, and the majority of the perpetrators are never brought to justice.
"Easy availability of small arms, both nationally and regionally, has made crime so violent, and this is deterring investment [in Kenya] and exacerbating conflicts between communities in border areas," said Peter Eregae, coordinator of the Kenya National Focal Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons. "Families have lost breadwinners, people have been maimed."
In rural areas, small arms have replaced traditional weapons in ethnic warfare over land, water and livestock. In one of the most vicious eruptions of conflict in northern Kenya in recent years, more than 70 people were killed in Marsabit District on 12 July 2005, when armed raiders, believed to have been members of the Borana ethnic group, attacked villages inhabited by the Gabra community. Scores were wounded and thousands displaced. The attack underlined the volatility of relationships between communities in arid areas, where pasture and water sources are often limited and rivalry between pastoralists - who are often armed with illegally acquired weapons - is intense.
The use of firearms has risen to alarmingly high levels in Kenya during the past decade, a trend blamed on the easy availability of small arms, mostly pistols and assault rifles. Armed conflicts in the Horn of Africa, especially in Somalia, some parts of Ethiopia and the Great Lakes region, have been cited as one way through which illegal guns have fallen into the hands of gangsters and livestock thieves.
Eregae said most of the weapons used in urban crime, cattle rustling and poaching were smuggled into Kenya from neighbouring countries that have experienced civil strife. According to a source within the Kenyan law enforcement, an illegal pistol would sell in some Nairobi suburbs for about 10,000 shillings (US$140). Larger weapons, such as AK-47s, which are not readily available from smugglers in the city, would cost three times more.
There have also been rumours of police officers renting out their guns to criminals. Although he did not rule it out completely, the source said, "Only a very foolish policeman would do that."
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in 2002 on the proliferation of small arms in Kenya found that some weapons had originated from places as far away as China and the United States. Most arms had circulated through war zones in neighbouring countries before making their way to Kenya's illegal gun markets. The report also observed that the spread of sophisticated weapons among communities had intensified conflict and blurred the line between longstanding ethnic competition, that had traditionally manifested in cattle theft or rustling, and political violence.
The resort to the use of already available small arms in some parts of the country affected by insecurity is sometimes triggered by rivalry between politicians who have been blamed of inciting their supporters to attack other groups for selfish political motives.
Northwestern Kenya. Turkana children outside Kakuma refugee camp. The spread of weapons among communities has intensified conflict and blurred the line between long-standing ethnic competition-traditionally manifested in cattle theft or rustling and political violence.
"The increased presence of modern weapons facilitates the ability of opportunists in the Kenyan political arena to instigate armed violence for political gain. Similarly, the spread of sophisticated weapons makes it easier for groups under attack to arm themselves in what they portray as self-defence," the report said.
To deal with the proliferation of small arms in Kenya, the government is working on a national weapons-management policy. "The main objective is to eradicate illegally available small arms through strict control measures," said Eregae, adding that the policy is expected to be ready by July and would be used as the basis for new arms-control legislation.
Provisions in the draft policy include marking, to ensure state and privately owned firearms can be traced; amnesty for voluntarily surrendered guns; and social services for communities that perceive arms to be the only way to ensure access to resources.
"All arms coming into the state will be marked to facilitate tracing.
Anything that is not marked will be considered illicit. Even the weapons that are already here [state-owned firearms] will be marked to identify manufacturer, seller and end user," Eregae said.
The policy also would take into account that the desire for guns was the result of communities feeling marginalised. "Underdevelopment is part of the problem. There is too much poverty among communities in remote areas," said Eregae, adding that the government was addressing the issue of marginalisation by drilling boreholes, building schools and health centres as well as providing school meals in areas where amnesty has been declared for people who voluntarily surrender their arms.
Mikewa Ogada of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), however, said the implementation of the draft policy would only succeed with public support. "The policy is fine, but there seems to be a lack of appreciation that greater public awareness is needed. They [the government] seem to be working in a vacuum," he said. The KHRC had shared its concerns with the government.
In April 2005, the Kenyan government started an exercise to collect firearms voluntarily surrendered by communities in the northern Rift Valley districts of Pokot, Turkana, Marakwet, Samburu, Trans-Nzoia and Laikipia - areas where interethnic violence, mostly prompted by cattle rustling and rivalry over water and pasture, had claimed the lives of hundreds of people during the past decade. So far, some 2,300 firearms and 5,000 rounds of ammunition have been surrendered in the six districts, a paltry figure considering that people in these areas hold an estimated 50,000 illegally acquired firearms. Still, Eregae saw the exercise as a major success. "This is the first time we have collected that number of weapons," he said, adding that public awareness and persuasion by local elders, religious groups and civil society were paying dividends in the disarmament exercise. "Previously, the government used force [to seize arms] - but that will never succeed."
Kenya is also a signatory to the Nairobi Declaration on the Problem of the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa, which was launched as the Nairobi Protocol in 2000. On 21 June 2005, signatories to the declaration agreed to set up a centre on small arms to combat the proliferation and use of illicit light weapons and strengthen cooperation in the region. The Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa (RECSA) is based in Nairobi. Signatories to the protocol include Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.