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How smugglers are flooding Kenya with arms

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

There are estimated 530,000–680,000 firearms in the wrong hands in Kenya. The number of illegal arms has grown over the years and is said to fuel the conflicts witnessed within Kenya and the region. In an investigation that took close to a year, our correspondent KASSIM MOHAMED tracked down some of the people who smuggle small arms and light weapons into Kenya and unveils a dangerous trend that can affect the current peace if nothing is done by not just the Kenyan Government but the international community.

Ibrahim Fuad makes a phone call. With a rather authoritative voice he gives instructions while pointing fingers as if the person on the other end can see his gestures. In less than three minutes he disconnects but frustration fills his face.

“He can’t hear me well. I keep telling him but all I get is a different answer of just hello,’’ says Ibrahim in Somali.

Ibrahim is a gunrunner and we are in Beled Xaawo, a small town in the Gedo region of Somalia. The person on the other end of the line is one of his arms suppliers based in Baidoa, Somalia’s third largest city of south-central Bay region.

“This is the fourth time I am doing business with this guy. He has been keeping his promises in the past. I like him. I sent him a lot of money a few days ago and he was to deliver my goods on Thursday which is tomorrow. I wanted to confirm but he couldn’t hear me well.”

Dressed in a deep blue kikoi, commonly known as Alfajri, with some white spots and a black shirt, Ibrahim cuts the image of an average businessman in this area. While sipping black tea, at a makeshift restaurant in Beled Xaawo, he tells me he is not a resident of this tiny town and opens up about his trade.

“I was born and lived in Mogadishu most of my life but I also spent a few years in Yemen. I couldn’t get a job there so I decided to come back. I raised some money and started buying and selling guns inside Somalia.”

Ibrahim says this is largest consignment he has ordered from his contact in Baidoa so far. In his early 40s, he has been involved in the arms trade within Somalia for six years but has been expanding his business over the last two years. His illegal arms are now trading well in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. It took me several months to gain his confidence prior to our meeting. I had to promise him we will not publish his picture.

“I have realised expanding my business into Kenya has doubled my profit. I no longer just limit my business to Somalia. They are willing to pay more for guns in Kenya since it is illegal to sell guns there,” Ibrahim said.

The bubbly Ibrahim knows it is a risky business but the prospects of financial gains drive his boundless ambition. The long porous-ragged border between Kenya and Somalia is a perfect avenue for this kind of trade yet Ibrahim has tactfully devised other avenues that are less common. These days he passes through Ethiopia as a transit route to smuggle arms into Kenya and other destinations across the Great Lakes region.

In line with his fear that his weapons might not arrive as per the stipulated time, the Baidoa consignment took a week more to arrive. In the waiting period, Ibrahim was involved in laying the ground for the transportation plans.

In that time he visited Dollow and Sufta, two small and strategic villages in Ethiopia along the triangular border line between Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. He was also in Mandera, Kenya a couple of times.

On the day the weapons arrived in Beled Xaawo, the Star was given exclusive access by Ibrahim. A truck with a faded maroon colour and an old Nissan brought in the goods. The arms were securely packed inside empty sugar bags and sacks labelled WFP.

We confirmed the WFP bags were meant just for the transportation in order to evade capture but had nothing to do with the World Food Programme.

The truck also had food and clothes for sale within Beled Xaawo. The consignment arrived late afternoon and was offloaded at a local shop but first Ibrahim had to affirm whether everything was intact. He opened each bag and sack to confirm the content.

Each bag had a small mark on the side with the letters WP, WA and WR. These letters, according to what I later learnt from Ibrahim meant World pistol, World AK47 and World rocket respectively. These abbreviations were meant only for the person who is to receive the arms. The arms were varied and many: from AK47 rifles, Chinese and Russian pistols, Rocket propelled Grenades, hand-held grenades to ammunition.

Ibrahim didn’t want to give the exact number of each category but nodded his head and said, “many but not more than I wanted.”

Beled Xaawo is a significant arms trade route for fearless people like Ibrahim. This small town borders Mandera and has been in and out of the hands of the Al-shabaab, the Somali-based militant group. It is a town that has hardly known any peace from Somalia’s two decades of destruction and just like its capital Mogadishu, there is a powerful indictment of the conflict.

Over the past few months, Beled Xaawo has been under the control of the Somali government. This arms dealer however knows his way out. Most of his dangerous caches are meant for customers in Kenya.

These are not legitimate weapons for government but end up in the wrong hands and are often used for committing crimes affront to the Kenyan law.

Security and conflict experts say Kenya’s vulnerability to arms smuggling emanate from its proximity to Somalia and a host of unresolved historical conflicts coupled with corrupt law enforcement agencies.

“If I were to do a presentation and if I were to put arrows into Kenya from where this arms emanate, I would put thicker arrows directly coming from the Somalia side, smaller arrows coming from the north which is Ethiopia, a slightly bigger arrow coming from Southern Sudan, thinner arrows from Uganda and very thin arrows from Tanzania,” says John Patrick Ochieng, deputy director at Kenya National Focal Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons.

Agencies like KNFP believe that possession of illegal arms in Kenya is on an upward trend. According to one of its surveys done in 2011, the number of illegal firearms currently in the wrong hands is shocking.

“The number of illegal arms has grown. According to our last survey, we came up with conservative number of 530,000- 680,000 firearms in the wrong hands. That’s a big number. The findings and recommendations from this research are going to inform the policy and review of our legislation in the management and control of arms in this country.”

KNFP is a multi-agency initiative within the ministry of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security. Established in 2002, the agency brings together various government ministries, departments and civil society organisations in the management and control of small arms and light weapons in Kenya.

Dr Francis Sang, who is the executive secretary at The Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons, says the availability and use of illicit small arms and light weapons continue to pose a threat to peace not only in Kenya but the region at large. Recsa is a regional inter-governmental organisation that deals with the prevention, control and reduction of arms in its 15 member-states including Kenya and her neighbours.

The former police officer sees poor governance as one of the main factors why some Kenyans arm themselves.

“The main aspect as a result of the research we carried out is people arm themselves because of insecurity. In pastoralist communities, for example, these people are still keeping animals and to protect their animals from being raided by their neighbours who are equally armed, they have to get illicit arms. That brings the question: why are they insecure? The remedial action is for the government to provide them with security.”

Sang notes that some communities in Kenya celebrate when a boy is born because they believe his addition to the family means an additional gun. Sang emphasises the need for the government to carry out educational campaigns to counter the cultural mindsets.

The global menace

According to the 1997 UN Panel of Governmental Expert, small arms include weapons like revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, assault rifles, sub-machine guns and light machine guns. Light weapons are heavy machine guns, hand–held under barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable and anti-aircraft guns, portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems, and portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile system and mortars of less than 100-metre calibre.

The global arms trade amounts to billions of dollars. According to The Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, the annual value of authorised international transfers of small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition is at least US$8.5 billion (Sh722.5 billion). The new figure, the result of a four-year investigation completed last year, is more than double the previous estimate of approximately US$4 billion (Sh340 billion), released in 2006.

Some of these arms however end up with criminal gangs and unauthorised individuals who may cause bloodshed. More than half a million people are killed in armed violence each year from the use of conventional weapons and hundreds of thousands more uprooted from their homes across the world.

Insecurity in Kenya

Kenyans are paying a heavy security price from proliferation of small arms and light weapons: from Mandera, Wajir, Turkana to villages in Tana River to the Coastal city of Mombasa and Nairobi, deaths have been reported.

Last year saw an increase in deaths related to gun shots, grenade and bomb detonations. On August 22, 2012, at least 52 people were killed in ethnic violence in Reketa village of Tana River between the Orma and Pokomo communities. However, not all the fatalities were as a result of arms. Clashes between different communities are normally attributed to disputes over water and grazing rights but are also largely fuelled by politics.

In Mandera, several people have been killed in armed raids as the Garre and Degodia communities were marred in tribal conflict. The exact figure of those who lost their lives is not known. A few days later after the Mandera skirmishes, two communities in Wajir fought in what was viewed as revenge missions following the unrest in Mandera. Several houses were torched.

Security agencies have not been spared. In November, cattle rustlers killed over 40 soldiers in the Suguta Valley, Baragoi, putting into sharp focus the access civilians have to sophisticated weapons. The Internal Security minister Katoo ole Metito has described the incident as a disaster. This is considered as the worst single attack on the police since independence.

Briefing the media after the Suguta killings, the immediate former Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere said the terrain is a major challenge and that the government should put in more effort to open up those areas through good infrastructure.

“The policies of 1930s cannot work. Today you are dealing with people who are armed like the police officers. As a consequence, I think it’s the time we equipped the police with armoured vehicles so that they are better protected.”

Two months before this massacre, nine police officers were killed in an ambush in the Tana Delta.

Grenade attacks have also claimed officers in the coastal city of Mombasa. Earlier in the year, on April 17, 2012, police officers in Todonyang, Turkana, were attacked with gunfire. Close to 300 Merille tribesmen from Ethiopia raided the Police Response Unit camp killing two officers. The foreigners were in this case overpowered by the government machinery and retreated.

Across the border, ethnic clashes in southern Ethiopia over land rights left 18 people dead; several were injured and thousands were forced to flee crossing the border into Kenya. Most of those affected suffered gunshot wounds and internal bleeding.

The disastrous events brought about by the use of arms in the wrong hands are a cause for worry. Kenyan as well as regional arms experts say drastic measures have to be taken to curb the influx of small arms and light weapons.

“Who suffers? It’s the common man. At the end of the day, where there’s an influx of small arms it leads to conflicts which of course fuels the influx and the other way round; so it becomes vicious circle. Let us be patriotic, let’s be caring. Whatever you see report to the police,’’ says Ochieng of the Kenya National Focal Point on Small Arms.

The Ethiopia corridor

Back in Beled Xaawo, Ibrahim using wooden boats smuggled his arms consignment across the River Dawa into Suftu, Ethiopia. This was done in the dead of the night by a team of almost 20 men. Some of them were from Suftu and were the owners of the boats while others were from Beled Xaawo. The exercise took less than an hour.

“They are crucial for my trade. I will I pay them $100 (Sh8,500) each for this work tonight. They help me evade the stingy army of Ethiopia. Without these men it will be hard to do this business. You know, my supplier in Baidoa buys some guns from the Ethiopian troops who are fighting the al Shaaab in Somalia; when they kill the militants, they sell some of the guns to him. He also buys from other traders in Somalia and Yemen," Ibrahim told me, while standing at the banks of River Dawa. We could not verify this particular claim.

The arms were then loaded into a lorry that was packed close to the river. All this was happening with torches and hand-held hurricane lamps. The consignment was then taken to Suftu and the lorry packed near a homestead that belongs to a friend of Ibrahim. The crew spent the next morning making arrangements for the arms to be shipped to Kenya.

“In Ethiopia, they already get arms easily from Somalia so if I were to sell here I won’t earn much profit so I will sell in Kenya,” said Ibrahim.

At this point, the arms smuggler asked me to stop my investigation because he didn’t want me to witness the exact route in Ethiopia the consignment will take before reaching different locations in Kenya. He told me we could meet in Moyale, Kenya in a few weeks time. Exactly 24 days later, I meet Ibrahim in Moyale.

“My arms are already here,” said Ibrahim. “I hope you won’t do anything silly. I do business but I don’t kill so don’t even try,” he warned me.

In Moyale, he divided his consignment to avoid police road blocks by using different modes of transport ranging from Land Cruisers to lorries that transport animals. Most of the arms were offloaded in Meru and were meant for a customer who paid in cash. According to Ibrahim, the man he described as a trader was involved in the arms business in Meru. He mentioned this customer by the name Munene. Ibrahim didn’t want me to interview his ‘secret’ customer and threatened to withdraw his co-operation if I insisted.

Almost a quarter of the consignment ended up in Nairobi and was taken straight to a small house in Mathare from where Ibrahim’s pointman in the area was to sell. He was selling an AK47 for $1,100 (Sh93,500), a Russian pistol for $700 (Sh59,500). Within the course of two months after our first meeting in Beled Xaawo, Ibrahim sold all his weapons and he was making other preparations for another consignment.

Arms smugglers are becoming sophisticated and the ways are limitless. Their greed to make money and ongoing conflicts in the region are only exacerbating the acquisition of weapons in the region hence putting arms in the wrong hands here in Kenya.

Amnesty International Kenya country director Justus Nyang’aya says this is not limited to Kenya.

“We have a lot more guns in Africa than we have jembes and pangas that we use to produce food that we eat. People manufacture these very dangerous weapons and we use our money to buy. We have used billions in buying arms much more than we have used in producing food that we eat. These are the kind of contradictions we need to deal with.”


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