Your guns or your freedom, please

Thousands of security personnel have been deployed across northern Kenya to confiscate weapons after a voluntary disarmament exercise netted only a small fraction of the 50,000 guns thought to be in civilian hands.

Firearms are widespread among pastoralist communities in east Africa, where police are rare and cattle theft and intercommunal conflict  is common. Similar operations are taking place in neighbouring Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. Borders between these countries have been temporarily sealed.

With previous disarmament operations having been heavy-handed,  some families have reportedly fled their homes ahead of this one, despite assurances that the police have adopted less aggressive methods.

Samburu, Turkana and Marsabit residents oppose the operation and accuse the government of failing to protect them in the past after they surrendered guns.

". Our people were killed, our animals taken away; many families are poor now... We'll never repeat the mistake we made two years ago," said an elder from the village of Lerata.

''We'd rather commit suicide. To hand over our guns is like stripping naked''

But the police say things are different this time. “This operation is different. We have used a different approach; it will succeed [as it is] well planned and involves the largest number of security forces,” said Assistant Police Commissioner Marcus Ochola.

“The government is not using force, nobody will be harassed. We have gathered adequate intelligence reports. Security measures to protect all communities are also being implemented,” he said.

He added that the operation involved paramilitary and regular police; rapid response units and aerial surveillance.

“Those who have gone into hiding will be tracked,” warned Internal Security Ministry Permanent Secretary Francis Kimemia in the town of Isiolo, where five people have been detained for resisting security forces.

Samburu member of parliament Raphael Letimalo said hundreds of local children had failed to report back to school after moving with their families to the areas of Wamba, Seloribi and Archers Post. The second term of the school year has just begun.

A 2009 Human Rights Watch report entitled Bring the Gun or You’ll Die, urged the government to conduct future disarmament operations in line with the provisions of the National Policy on Small Arms and Light Weapons, which calls for the underlying economic, social, cultural and political causes of gun prevalence to be addressed.