Bonfire of captured guns launches police crackdown on small arms

The Ghanaian government has publicly burned a pile of several hundred captured guns to launch a national campaign against small arms proliferation.

Journalists were invited to watch the bonfire in Accra on Thursday. The stack of hunting rifles and hand guns seized by police in and around the capital was covered with wood, doused in petrol and set alight.

It was the second time this year that police have publicly burned captured weapons. A similar bonfire was lit in July.

"We are taking this campaign seriously," said Interior Minister Hackmann Owusu-Agyemang. "Security problems have come up in some parts of Ghana, like the Yendi area, as a result of people having access to small arms."

The minister was referring to the Dagbon chieftancy dispute in northern Ghana, which erupted in 2001. It led to the death of several people in tribal fighting and the imposition of a state of emergency which was only lifted in August this year.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates there are about 40,000 illicit weapons in Ghana, though many experts suspect that the actual figure is much higher.

Guns proliferated in the country during a period of military rule in the 1980's, but today the government is more worried about guns spilling over the border from Cote d'Ivoire, where a civil war broke out two years ago.

"War knows no frontiers," Owusu-Agyemang said in apparent reference to the Ivorian conflict. This remains unresolved, despite the signing of a peace agreement nearly two years ago.

A non-governmental agency, the Foundation for Security Development in Africa (FOSDA) has identified the border area between northern Ghana and the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire as the most active area for arms smuggling into Ghana.

Although the number of illegal weapons in Ghana is thought to be small compared to the estimated eight million small arms circulating in the West African sub-region as a whole, the authorities fear an influx of guns from other countries has contributed to high levels of violent crime.

Security reports have traced small arms proliferation to an increase in armed robberies, violent clashes over land disputes and ethnic fighting in recent years.

Besides the Dagbon chieftancy dispute, they have cited clashes sparked by simmering land disputes at the Tsito-Peki and Alavanyo-Nkonya areas in the Volta Region on southeastern Ghana, near the border with Togo.

Statistics obtained from the Police Criminal Investigations Division, show that 45 percent of all gun-related crime occurs in and around the capital Accra, in the Ashanti Region of south central Ghana, which is reknowned for its blacksmiths who make guns in small workshops, and in Northern Region, which has been plagued by the Dagbon chieftancy dispute.

A police amnesty for the surrender of illegal weapons in 2001 went largely unheeded and is now acknowledged to have been a failure.

"That exercise was not successful. A few weapons were delivered but a lot of people declined to give up their unlicensed guns," Police Commissioner KK Manfo told IRIN. "That amnesty has since elapsed and anyone found with illegal arms will face the full rigours of the law," he added.

Manfo declined to speculate about the possibility of a fresh amnesty.

"That will be up to the government to decide," he said. "We have already pushed across the suggestion. But in the absence of that amnesty, we expect a full compliance in this country with the law on illegal weapons."

The police have made little headway in shutting down the clandestine workshops in and around the city of Kumasi in Ashanti Region that make shotguns and pistols. The government is trying to persuade blacksmiths in the area to make handcuffs for the prison service and farm tools instead.