Source: EastAfrican (EastAfrican)
By SEBASTIEN ONYANGO
Posted Monday, April 5 2010 at 00:00
Why do so many communities in East Africa possess and buy small arms even in "peacetime"?
Why have the numerous disarmament exercises carried out by the Kenyan, Ugandan and Ethiopian authorities failed so signally to reduce the phenomenon?
The answer is that small arms have been integrated into normal daily lives of the East African people as a way of expanding options, rather than as an aspect of abnormal times of war.
Removing weapons from communities is therefore no solution; the aim should be to render the arms unnecessary by changing the community's perception of its identity and security.
Small arms in the region have become tools to ensure that one's rights are not infringed and enable the owner to acquire material goods and political gain by force.
Touring communities in the border regions as a security analyst, I used to baffled by their recurring appeals to be given arms and to be instructed on their use.
Eventually, you learn that individuals, communities and even states believe and act on the notion that wellbeing and security can only be assured through the acquisition of weapons.
Many people throughout the region, especially in the rural areas, see the acquisition of small arms as a means of widening their options for:
• Protection from armed groups, bandits and other clans.
• Advancing or securing their interests, as they define them.
• Personal, communal, clan or larger family defence.
According to many ethnic groups, national law cannot be enforced by the local police or other armed forces in rural and isolated areas.
The promise of protection has thus not been kept.
The communities believe that the best way they can avoid disaster and fend off attack is by arming themselves.
In essence, this will protect them from attacks from other groups living in the same or neighbouring districts and from physical harm, abuse and violence by state or non-state actors.
It is thus the desire to protect one's family and kin group, coupled with the failure of the state to provide such protection, that drives the demand for arms.
Poverty and disparity also drive the demand for arms.
Social, political and economic injustice, massive poverty and marginalisation lead to growing demand for small arms, in a bid to acquire wealth.
Finally, the selective arming of ethnic groups by the state is another root cause of the demand for small arms.
As noted above, many governments do not have the capacity to guarantee the security of their citizens.
Faced with this reality, our states have overtly or covertly opted to arm groups in rural areas so that they can protect themselves.
This policy, practised over the years by African governments, has created a sense of community ownership of security in the marginalised areas.
It has sent an ambiguous signal to the communities that they should take care of their own security and solidified the belief among opinion leaders and heads of ethnic groups that the government itself is unable to take care of this basic need.
This has been tantamount to a declaration of bankruptcy by our governments.
Once their credibility has been destroyed in this way, no community leader can make his or her community hand over small arms for destruction.
As witnessed in the past, people have rejected the idea.
In this situation, only a long term and well-planned approach, which includes the robust participation of the communities concerned, can work.
Short-cut solutions and quick successes like the mopping up of arms will not serve the purpose.