Jinja — As flames licked the tightly stacked pyre of carefully positioned weapons, an occasional loud crack pierced the air, as some gun with ammunition lodged inside discharged its payload straight into the ground.
The weapons had been driven firmly and vertically into the earth to prevent any risk of injury to the workers and the people watching the destruction in the town of Jinja, in eastern Uganda, on Monday.
The pyre included weapons ranging from crude homemade arms to pistols, semiautomatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortar tubes. After being burnt to eliminate any wood or plastic, the weapons would be smelted into molten metal then recycled into blocks, from which products such as iron bars could be produced.
The destruction - organised by the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) and the Uganda police and supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and SaferAfrica, a South African based NGO - is expected to yield in excess of 280 tonnes of metal.
"The initiative is attempting to turn the tide against the flow of weapons in Uganda," said Joe Burua, advocacy officer of the Uganda National Focal Point (NFP) on small arms and light weapons.
"The NFP is an interagency body comprising government ministries and agencies and organised civil society," he said. "Our mission is to coordinate action to prevent, combat and eradicate the problem of the proliferation of illicit SALWs [small and light weapons] through a comprehensive, integrated and coordinated approach."
Some of the weapons being destroyed are surplus government stock dating back to the days of the King's African Rifles, when Uganda was a British protectorate. Many others had been used for illegal activities, a result of the relative ease with which small arms circulate across Africa. Some were collected from Karamoja pastoralists and cattle rustlers in northeastern Uganda and from apprehended criminals. The proliferation of such weapons over the last few decades has seen the continent become awash with guns, fuelling instability and violence wherever they are available, Burua said.
Stemming the flow
Uganda launched a national action plan in 2004, and in September 2005 destroyed 3,000 weapons. UNDP, too, established a human-security programme in northern Uganda, where an ongoing insurgency by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has forced many illegal weapons into circulation, Burua said.
"There is huge trafficking in weapons in this part of Africa. Security needs to be enhanced, and conflicts need to be resolved. Disarmament efforts have to be increased in ways that address not only the weapons themselves, but also the conditions that allow these weapons to exist in society," said Robert Scharf, programme manager for human security at UNDP Uganda. "Many arms have been recovered from the LRA after the Amnesty Commission promoted the voluntary surrender of weapons. Some of these are serviced and put to use, but most are destroyed."
As of this week, some 57,000 small arms and light weapons have been destroyed.
A regional problem
Guns being burnt in Jinja, Uganda, as part of an initiative to combact the flow of weapons in the country.
"The instability in Somalia and southern Sudan form a corridor through which arms flow into this area, and cattle rustling in northeastern Kenya and northwestern Uganda become an issue," said Maj Felix Kulayigye, acting Ugandan army spokesperson. "The instability in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also encourages small-arms proliferation. These are the major challenges we are facing."
The instability Uganda has experienced throughout its post-independence history is another factor. "During the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979, soldiers deserted their barracks, and the population were able to gain access to these unprotected weapons," Kulayigye added. Over time, there have been efforts to recover some of these "disappeared" weapons that remain in circulation. The hope is they will be gradually recovered.
A recent disarmament drive in the Karamoja region, where pastoralists who once armed themselves with traditional weapons now carry semiautomatic rifles - fuelling cattle rustling and cross-border raids from the Pokot region in Kenya - has yielded some results.
"We started with voluntary disarmament, where individuals on their own surrender their weapons. The next stage is a combination of both. The voluntary aspect continues, but at the same time, if we find someone with a weapon, the person is arrested and arraigned in court. It is a carrot-and-stick approach to the problem," said Kulayigye.
The Karamoja Development Plan, a government initiative to promote voluntary surrender and disarmament, is proving successful as weapons are handed in. It is a slow process, but in spite of the huge task at hand, it is getting somewhere.
Recently, Uganda and Kenya signed a joint border communique to deal with cross-border activities, particularly in the Karamoja and Pokot areas, and to cooperate in dealing with the issue of illegal firearms. In addition to disarmament in northwestern Kenya and northeastern Uganda, Kulayigye believed "the stabilisation of Somalia, the government of southern Sudan taking effective control, and a lasting peaceful settlement in eastern DRC will reduce the percentage of small arms finding their way in to Uganda."
Impact on society
The use of illegal firearms by criminals has led to people being maimed for life or killed. On a larger scale, it has an economic impact - such as in northern Uganda, where it has caused serious setbacks in progress and development.
"What we are trying to promote is less violence and more tolerance, more of a peaceful resolution to conflicts. The more peace there is in an area, the more development there will be," Burua said. "You tend to find that when people are more involved in their own peace and security, their attitude moves away from owning weapons to activities which are more geared towards development and peace, leading to less need to own such weapons, thus decreasing the illicit trade."
Stricter international controls
In spite of rigorous international protocols - and, in some cases, arms embargoes - many small arms find their way into conflict zones in Africa and around the world.
"There should be stricter measures on the countries producing these weapons. They are the ones making the arms available to buy, and they are willing to sell to anyone who will buy," said Burua.
Robert Scharf of UNDP believed the introduction of export certificates and the strengthening of controls would help stem the flow. "In southeast Europe, where many weapons originate, recent initiatives have scuttled shipments destined for Africa," he said.
Illegal airfields in eastern Africa make it difficult to pinpoint the link between resources and the trafficking of weapons. "In the DRC, planes fly in with one thing and leave with another. We need to look more closely at circulation in the region, weapons moving from war zone to war zone. An AK-47 can last for decades, this is the real problem," Scharf said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]