A Young African’s Choice: AK-47 or a Laptop?
By Mohammed Hamid Mohammed
July 27, 2011
The good news this month is that South Africa marks the twentieth year of the end of its nuclear weapons program this July. That may have removed a significant threat but elsewhere in the impoverished and war-ravaged continent the increasing quantities of conventional weapons make any observer of African politics nervous. According to some reports, in 2010, Africa imported arms worth nearly one billion dollars from Ukraine alone. These weapons ended up in countries like the embattled Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan that have, in recent years, seen extremely high loss of civilian life in the hundreds of thousands. Arguably, the potential catastrophes caused by heavy systems like tanks and rockets may not compare with the more abundant small arms that reach all stripes of armed groups including those that are intent on fueling ethnic or religious tensions. It is mindboggling to think that, if asked to choose between a cheap laptop computer and a gun, a young person in a conflict environment in Africa would likely pick an AK-47 rifle for its immediate but high-risk lucre.
More specifically, the two deadly attacks staged in Uganda in 2010 lay bare the unresolved issues of small arms market in the entire East African neighborhood and adjacent countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. The region sits in the middle of various ethnic, political, and religious agendas driven by local and transnational actors whose dynamics often foster morbid economics. The complexity of social structures that straddle — and therefore challenge–East African nation-states allow the flow not only of people but also arms that slip through relatively unprotected borders despite the best legislative efforts of entities like the Kenyan government. By all accounts, the severe drought that has currently afflicted East Africa will only worsen this picture. At around a hundred dollars per unit cost, assault rifles and guns make urban life unpredictable in one of the most the tense parts of the world, especially at night. In stateless Somalia, for example, the ease of obtaining guns compounded by lack of opportunities spawned a new desperate generation of guns-for-hire operating a network of checkpoints for shakedowns inland and out in the Indian Ocean. The otherwise flourishing capital of Kenya, Nairobi, for instance, stands as the foremost victim of the profusion of a guns culture–a convoluted reality some unfairly choose to attribute to a particular ethnic group.
African countries found themselves awash with large stockpiles of weapons, particularly sophisticated small arms, as a factor of the roles they chose to play during the Cold War that corresponded with decolonization processes. The emergence of newly independent nations meant the forging of statehood from scratch together with armies that aspired to protect the interests of evolving nation-states. Externally, ideological competitions that pitted the West against the Soviet bloc presented Africa an unprecedented access to discounted or free advanced military hardware. To make matters worse, not too long after independence, a crop of military juntas more than willing to mortgage their countries’ futures for weapons spread across the continent after deposing weaker regimes. In East Africa, Somalia’s Siad Barre, Ethiopian’s Mengistu Hailemariam, and Uganda’s Idi Amin ran whopping tabs in order to amass huge quantities of weapons that they believed could help settle domestic as well as cross-border challenges decisively. One of the tragic results of this browbeat mentality was none other than the proliferation of small arms and accompanying ethnic or political scars that continue to fester even a quarter of a century later.
The collapse of seemingly invincible dictators in Somalia and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) opened sizeable political vacuums that were soon filled in by ethnic or, lately, religious sentiments. The weapons and vast quantities of ammunitions they left behind following their demise fell into the hands of opportunists with little military training. Army officers transformed into warlords providing essential support for ethnic/clan conflicts such as the tragic Rwanda genocide that spilled over to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and vice versa. Similarly, former Somali high-ranking officers like General Farah Aideed who opposed Operation Restore Hope led by the United States in 1992 threw their lots with their respective clans. Although well endowed with arms, however, many of these non-state entrepreneurial organizations lack funding, making multiple checkpoints “tax-collection” alternatives. When it comes to keeping the peace, there is little or no evidence that controlling the flow of arms was on the to-do list of warlord types nor were there incentives for them to do so.
Relatively peaceful East African countries have been saddled with the problems that come with the collapse of regimes and the challenges they leave behind. Nairobi, for example, is significantly different from the quiet metropolitan center that it was twenty years ago and a relaxed walk or any kind of undisturbed movement at night seems to be a thing of the past, most notably in the feared Eastleigh neighborhood. This busy Kenyan city hosts a large refugee population from neighboring countries together with unscrupulous elements who intend to maintain posh lifestyles by operating a shadow economy that includes deadly arms local gangs purchase. The Kenyan government has made commendable efforts to control arms trafficking but the trade continues unabated and, thus, posing greater danger.
Political transitions often increase the likelihood of violence and large-scale crimes perpetrated using small arms. This is evident in the many regime changes that occurred in Africa over the last twenty years from Somalia to Liberia, Sierra Leon to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ethnic and, to some extent, religious contentions bolstered by economic rivalries in times of scarcity have always existed in Africa, sometimes causing bloody clashes before they got resolved through the art of negotiations that many societies have perfected over time. What is unique to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, though, pertains to the wider availability of all categories of killing machines. To the extent that the Russian-made automatic assault rifle AK-47 became a symbol of freedom at one time, it now represents massacres and genocide committed by drugged children who would not hesitate to take the lives of neighbors or friends.
The absence or weakness of national, regional, and continental bodies that closely monitor arms trafficking is a matter of high concern. Short-term or strategic political problems among neighboring countries serve as conduits for arms slipping through borders to support one dissenting group or another. Rather than reacting to frictions that have already escalated, continental bodies like the African Union and regional bodies need to play proactive roles in resolving tensions between countries and map potential conflict zones within a given country for possible intervention. International organizations and super-power governments should collaborate to control the flow of arms and bring global traffickers selling arms to justice for their actions in order to set the standards for a more peaceful future. A candy store of machine guns in the hands of children and youths cannot be something we condemn but feel constrained to change. Education should be the most attractive option for an upcoming generation, not carnage. Why can we not refocus the attention of young people on productive things like computers rather than guns? This is a challenge to creative minds and policy-makers alike.
Mohammed Hamid Mohammed is Africa Regional Editor for Foreign Policy Digest.
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