The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: How Lack of International Treaty Fuels Arms Smuggling Trade

Whether looking after his herd of cattle or taking them to the watering point, Boru hardly leaves his AK47 behind. He lives in the outskirts of Gambella village, a few kilometres from Isiolo town.

"It has become like a stick for me. I carry it around and my enemies fear me. It gives me more power than I had before I acquired it," Boru said.

Taking cover from the scorching sun under the shade of an old acacia tree, Boru, a father of three, told the Star he bought his preferred firearm at Sh80,000 from a gunrunner in the area. This was two years ago but Boru has not bought this for prestige. He made the decision when bandits, who invaded the village, killed his neighbour and made away with many goats and other livestock.

"That incident made me angry; very angry. I thought the only way to defend my family and I was to buy this gun. If anyone attacks my boma and thinks it will be easy, they will meet this gadget - not just my cry for help," said Boru while unloading his gun.

This weapon may be giving him a sense of fulfillment for now but to own it, Boru had to part with a number of his animals and that left a void in his boma. He sold two bulls for Sh39,000 and 12 goats for Sh41,000.

There is crushing poverty in Gambella village. Farming is not a productive venture due to the lack of adequate rainfall and the area is classified as semi-arid. The baked sand is not favourable for crop cultivation and so the residents depend on their livestock for livelihood.

In 2009, Gambella village was attacked by gunmen from a neighbouring village. Seven men were shot and killed, and over 1,000 animals were stolen. Like much of the Horn of Africa region, drought in this particular area breeds resource-based violence.

Some community members in the area told the Star people who own weapons are important when insecurity rears its ugly head again. One old woman said, "It is a deep secret thing for us to own guns but it works. They are our soldiers." They may be soldiers but not accredited to carry guns in the eyes of the Kenyan law. Boru's illegal firearm is among the hundreds of thousands of arms in the wrong hands in Kenya.

The single most serious security challenge facing Kenya and the region as a whole is the proliferation and circulation of illicit small arms and light weapons. They have become weapons of choice to all categories of criminals. These weapons have become easier to obtain from gunrunners and are easier to conceal and smuggle across borders. Arms experts say these weapons are also easier to use and maintain. Ruthless warriors and killers take advantage and in their world, the barrel holds sway.

The hotspots for armed pastoral raids in the region are divided into two main clusters: The Karamoja cluster composed of areas like Turkana, Wesk Pokot, South Eastern Sudan, South Western Ethiopia and the Somalia cluster comprising Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia borders.

The regional arms smugglers

Arms are not made in these areas but are smuggled in by individuals with connections across borders and are benefitting from this proliferation.

Over several months, the Star identified the main suppliers of arms and found a Somali man who goes by the name Mohamed Said Atom. He is a key importer of arms into Somalia and then supplies the cargo to his clients in the region who buy in bulk and in turn sale the weapons for profit.

We got the link from three people who have in the past had business dealings with Atom. The three of them said in September a boat from Yemen supplied Atom with weapons.

In order to get his side of the story, we made several attempts to meet him. An insider who we were in touch with promised to arrange a meeting. He told us to meet him in Lascanood in the Sol region of Somalia and then changed his mind a couple of days later and told us to meet him at Laas Qoray, another town in the Sanaag region. A week later, our contact person called and said there was a change of plan and we should go to the Gollis Mountains, in Puntland, North East Somalia.

Our hopes of meeting Atom were dashed when the contact person called off the meeting as we planned the journey to Gollis Mountains. He cited a 'security breach' as an excuse before pulling out, but mentioned there was an arms consignment that Atom was expecting in October at Caluula in the Bari region of Puntland.

Mohamed Atom has been a thorn in the flesh of security agencies in Somalia. He is the head of Golis Mountain Militia fighters, also known as the Galgala militia, that emerged in 2006.

Puntland security forces have been battling Atom and his militia since 2010, and have pushed the group out of Galgala, a town that was previously considered a stronghold. Atom and his battalion have since moved into and found refuge in the Gollis Mountains.

On February 25 last year, Yasin Khalid Osman, known as Yasin Kilwe, a spokesperson for the militia, confirmed their allegiance to al Shabaab and al Qaeda in an audio message broadcast by an al Shabaab-affiliated radio station. Some members have however distanced themselves from Kilwe's remarks.

The United Nations identified Atom as a principle supplier of arms to al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliated group in Somalia. The Security Council has put him on the list of individuals and entities subject to travel ban, assets freeze and targeted arms embargo.

In early 2008, Atom is said to have made six shipments during a four-week period, each sufficient to fill two pickup trucks with small arms, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades. There have been a couple of other shipments over the following years. Atom imports these arms from Yemen, a country just across the Gulf of Aden from his hideouts in the Gollis Mountains.

The Yemen factor

On October 17, 2012, Puntland security forces seized 37 sacks containing sophisticated explosive materials and ammunitions along a natural bay in Qandala district, known locally as 'Butiyalo', along the northern Somali coastline. This was a tip-off from local residents of Qandalla who saw four foreign men offload a huge consignment of explosives from a fiberglass dhow that they thought originated from Yemen.

The Puntland authorities found the consignment that included detonators, rockets of RPG-7, boosters for rockets, two sacks of ammonium nitrate among other weapons.

An investigation into this seizure by the Puntland authorities has revealed that the shipment was destined for al Shabaab.

Security agents claimed this consignment was shipped by al Qaeda groups based in Yemen to Somalia. However, we couldn't verify whether this was the same consignment our source indicated was to be delivered in Caluula, another port city in the same region.

The Yemeni businessman with political clout

Yemen may be known as the gateway to the Middle East and Asia but it has also become a hub for some notorious illegal arms traffickers who ship weapons across the Gulf of Aden to the horn of Africa. The long coast has made the work of these arms smugglers easier. It acts as asset for them. They ship their concealed arms using dhows and sometimes by boats.

One of the men who has become famous for the supply of firearms in Yemen is Fares Mana'a. The 47- year-old lives in the Northern city of Sa'dah.

Mana'a's underworld activities have been noted by the United Nations Security Council. His name was added to the list of individuals targeted for sanctions. He was said to be violating UN arms embargo that was hanging over Somalia by supplying al Shabaab with arms. He was also accused of spying for the late Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in return for millions of dollars.

In October 2009, the Yemeni government released a blacklist of arms dealers with Mana'a topping the list, as part of an effort to stem the flood of weapons into and out of the country.

The businessman was arrested in late January 2010. Mana'a was arrested by Yemeni authorities but this lead to protests in Sa'dah by tribal chiefs and the resignation of his brother Hassan Mana'a as governor of the city. He was released in June the same year. The one time ally of the then President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh turned foe.

In late March 2011, after a brief battle between pro-government tribesmen and supporters of Ma'ana, the renowned arms dealer was installed as the new governor of Sa'dah.

Though he is not the only businessman who trades in arms in Yemen, his ties to the political class helped flourish his illegal business venture. Sources both in Somalia and Yemen told the Star, Mana'a has been actively involved in the shipment of arms to Somalia through business acquaintances over the years.

A Yemeni journalist who is familiar with Mana'a's consignment said the arms come from countries such as Russia and Ukraine. Most of these arms are not marked and this makes it hard to trace their origin. Each weapon is supposed to have a unique marking that provides the name of the manufacturer, the country or place of manufacture and the serial number on the barrel, frame or the side. Most of the illegal arms the Star saw had none.

Dr Francis Sang, who is the executive secretary at the Regional Centre for Small Arms and Light Weapons, says the possibilities of these arms coming from countries in the former Soviet Union make sense.

"The aspect of these arms coming from Russia and Ukraine cannot be overruled but you know, we have to look at this in a broader perspective. Dealing in arms is a trade like any other commodity like tea or even coffee, so they look for a place where they can sell those commodities although it's not a legitimate business. It's run by the gunrunners," Sang said.

The Star tried to get in touch with Mana'a. After a long search for his phone number, we got it. We have tried calling him in vain. The phone rings but there is no answer. We called several times in the course of a couple of weeks.

Yemen's longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years, formally stepped down last year after months of protests. This Arabian Peninsula country still remains volatile. Militants linked to al Qaeda continue to battle the Yemeni military in the south and the government is also fighting another rebel group in the North.

The influx of arms into Yemen and the subsequent supply by arms dealers into Somalia has not spared countries like Kenya. The arms circulate. This dates back to decades. The missiles used on November 28, 2002 on the attempted shooting of an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, experts say, originated from Yemen.

The two surface-to-air missiles missed the plane but this incident raised concerns about the accessibility of such dangerous weapons. According to research done by the Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons, man-portable air defence systems, commonly known as Manpads, are obtainable in black markets in Somalia and range from $3,000 (Sh255,000) to $ 5,000 (Sh425,000) and the prices can go up depending on the serviceability of the weapon.

Weak local law and the expected changes

In Kenya, the current Firearm Act (cap 114 of 1954) is not sufficient and lacks the necessary legal backing to make any difference. According to Engineer John Patrick Ochieng, deputy director at Kenya National Focal Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons, the act doesn not address the dynamics of arms trafficking.

"The act in itself was made a long time ago and since then issues of firearms as we know are very dynamic. The numbers have increased, of late you have heard things like piracy, terrorism and terrorist acts and those were not incorporated in our act and we want to include those. For example, we didn't have things like A47 which are not meant for civilian use but we have them now in the wrong hands and therefore we think if we can have stringent regulations to deter people then that would be fine."

KNFP and its regional partner, the Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons, are calling for stringent regulations. KNFP is proposing a life sentence for anyone caught with illegal firearms. Ochieng of KNFP says currently one goes to jail for as low as two or three years.

In light of the weakness of the arms law and the trend in which weapons get into the country, the Kenya Focal Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons as the co-ordinating agency, together with the law reform body, the Attorney General's office and other government organs are in the process of coming up with a new bill titled the Small and Light Weapons Control and Management Bill. The State Law office is to fine tune the bill before it is presented in parliament for debate.

Ochieng says the bill was expected to be ready by December last year. They were expecting the bill to be in parliament shortly afterwards but it seems the law will have to be passed by the next parliament. The end of the term of the current parliament is January 15.

The Kenya Focal Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons is urging parliamentarians to pass the bill when it is presented before them to address the weak points in the proliferation of arms into the country. This will see several pieces of legislation on small arms put into one act.

"We have policies which we have developed upon which the bill is going to be made. If you are found in possession of AK47, you should go in for life without fine. It is a deadly weapon and doesn't even fall within small arms."

To differentiate between illegal and legal arms, KNFP has acquired five marking machines from the European Union through the Regional Centre for Small Arms and Light Weapons. The same machines were also given to all 15 member states of Recsa.

KNFP as a multi-government agency has also trained officers on the ground to mark the firearms but with close supervision and co-ordination of its officials. This entails marking each gun with a unique specification marks and this will make it possible to trace and locate which security agency the firearms belong to. The Kenyan Police and Administration Police have marked half of the firearms they already own. The Department of Defence has marked almost all their firearms.

KNFP has district task forces in almost half of all counties who work with security agencies but this is not enough. Recsa has also come in and developed a customised software to enhance the electronic management for easier access and retrieval.

The software has already been installed in Uganda and Rwanda. In Kenya, there was a workshop on the October 22-24 last year on how the software works. Arms were recorded manually before. This old format, according to experts, was making it easier for some government ammunition to end up in the hands of civilians. Some law enforcement officers have been accused of selling or hiding bullets when they go for operations.

"It's true some of the police officers have actually been supplying ammunition to these people for their own vested interest and that's why we are now developing what we call customised software whereby after marking, we record all the firearms, we record even who is given the firearm, and even the ammunition which is used must be properly checked to an officer who has been given so that he/she may not sale them. Even the gun given to an officer must be returned within the given time," Dr Francis Sang of Recsa said.

Non-existent global arms trade law

More than 1,000 companies from 100 countries produce small arms and light weapons and their ammunition but coming up with a legally binding treaty on the global arms trade has been a headache.

"We really don't have regulations. We don't have any system; it's free for all. If anybody wants to buy arms in Ukraine, Spain or in the UK, they only have to have the money and ship those arms to anywhere in the world," says Amnesty International Kenya country director Justus Nyang'aya.

Nyang'aya says this is a disastrous shortcoming. "Bananas, mineral water... these are things that you consume. The ANTANK - the United Nations Arm that is dealing with trade has established treaty on how to manufacture mineral water but also trade in it. They also have systems in place on how to trade in bananas, how to transfer and how those bananas need to look like. We don't have a similar treaty on trade of guns. Can you imagine the implications of guns landing in the wrong hands? If bananas land in the wrong hands, they are eaten but if guns land in the wrong hands they are used to kill."

There was a diplomatic conference in July last year on an Arms Trade Treaty, commonly known as ATT, that was to pave the way on how arms can be transferred, monitored, authorised and kept only for legitimate use but that has not succeeded. The conference held in New York saw several governments including the United States block the agreement by demanding extra time to agree on a draft text.

"The United States shot it down, Russia shot it down, some of the Arabs states shot it down but I will tell you why. The US was arguing that they make bullets and they make millions of them. How they can take control and charge of that becomes difficult in terms of transfer and so they don't want bullets or ammunitions to be included as part of what is called the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty," Nyang'aya said.

There is hope however; a record 157 UN member countries voted to hold crucial talks in March that could see the adoption of a global agreement to regulate the trade in conventional weapons and ammunition.

Kenya and six co-authors of the ATT resolution tabled a request before the UN General Assembly to hold another conference. Diplomats voted November 7 in favour of holding a final UN Conference on the ATT in March 2013. But there are concerns because the resolution was submitted with the controversial stipulation that the text must be agreed under the "consensus" rule, which is among the reasons widely cited as having caused failure by states to agree on a treaty in July.

Following intense lobbying by civil society organisations, the resolution contains a provision that if all states are not able to agree to a deal in March 2013, the UN will keep the treaty on its current agenda. This would allow the text to be sent for a final vote at the UN General Assembly later in 2013.

"While agreeing on a deal this year is what is needed, we do not want any Arms Trade Treaty. We need a treaty that will set tough rules to control the arms trade, that will save lives and truly make the world a better place," said Jeff Abramson, director of the Control Arms civil society lobby group.

KNFP, Recsa, civil society organisations like Africa Peace Forum and Africa Council of Religious Leaders say defeat is not on their mind but curbing the proliferation of weapons requires concerted effort. They want Kenyans to wake up and reinvigorate community policing.

"If you want to drain a river, you have to close the source so that you drain and there would be no source of that water. Without the ATT being signed at the global level, we might actually be addressing the issue of demand but the supply will still continue giving us problems," says Dr Sang of Recsa.

Guns kill and are not toys. However a gun without a bullet is just a stick and without the regulation of ammunition, the battle may be far from being won; arms smugglers will ply their trade and the death by the bullet may be inevitable.

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