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Shock as number of guns in private hands hits 750,000

George Natembeya
Narok county commissioner George Natembeya displays firearms seized in a security operation in Trans-Mara. PHOTO | GEORGE SAYAGIE | NMG 

Kenyan civilians have acquired 70,000 guns for personal use in the past two years even as private firearm ownership dropped among their counterparts in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, a new global report has revealed.

Geneva-based Small Arms Survey says Kenyan civilians own 750,000 firearms up from 680,000 in 2016. Most of the guns are illegal having not been registered by the licensing authorities.

This makes Kenya’s cache of private guns the largest in East Africa amid rising gun attacks. Tanzania, whose population is eight million more, comes in a distant second with 427,000 guns in private hands, nearly half what Kenyan civilians have stacked up. The sharp rise in mostly illegal firearms acquisition and circulation in Kenya has defied efforts by authorities to mop up small arms that drive the wave of violent crimes, including banditry.

“Legal and illegal firearms in civilian hands range from improvised craft weapons like self-loading pistols to factory-made handguns, rifles and shotguns,” the agency says, adding that the growing wave of break-ins, muggings and hijackings have pushed a number of Kenyans, especially the rich, to seek guns for personal security. Others have armoured their cars and installed burglary-proof features in their homes.

The study found that on average, slightly over one gun is in the hands of every 100 civilians in Kenya. Out of the 750,000 private firearms, only 8,136 are registered, representing a paltry one per cent, the report says. This means that a majority of private guns (99 per cent) are held illegally.

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Unchecked possession and circulation of small arms has become a national security threat in Kenya and a drag on the economy. Rising insecurity and the locals’ reaction to it has, for instance, seen British oil explorer Tullow suspend works on bandit-prone Turkana fields, along with oil trucking, dealing a blow to Kenya’s early oil exports drive.

The report says Tanzania cut its stockpile of civilian guns by 123,000 in the past two years while Uganda reduced hers by 69,000 to 331,000. Ethiopia’s privately owned guns stand at 377,000 while Rwanda’s stack is 66,000 guns. At 750,000, Kenya’s stack of private arms towers far above the 45,790 guns held by the military and 51,527 in the hands of the police. Skewed distribution of firearms between Kenya’s security agencies and civilians is now being seen as the biggest security challenge facing East Africa’s largest economy.

The situation is different in neighbouring Uganda where the army has a bigger firepower of 114,000 guns, or more than double Kenya’s while the police have 54,000 guns. In Kenya, civilian gun holders are licensed by the Firearms Licensing Board – which also registers local dealers and manufacturers. Applicants are vetted before they are issued a firearm to reduce chances of misuse.

Owning a gun without a firearm certificate is illegal in Kenya and attracts a jail term of not less than seven years, according to the Firearms Act. Kenya’s Firearms Act bars civilians from possessing automatic and semi-automatic self-loading military assault rifles of 7.62mm or 5.56mm caliber.

Private gun ownership is limited to handguns (pistols and revolvers), which can be held and fired with one hand, along with specific shotguns.

The list of restricted firearms, includes those with sound silencers, AK-47, G3 and MP5. Civilians are also barred from carrying a firearm in public places. In Africa, Nigeria tops the list of private gun ownership with 6.1 million guns, followed by South Africa (5.3 million), the report says. The US, which has the highest civilian gun attacks and deaths, tops private gun ownership with about 393.3 million guns in civilian hands, accounting for 45 per cent of the world’s total.

The report estimates that of the one billion firearms in global circulation as of 2017, 857 million (85 per cent) are in civilian hands, 133 million (13 per cent) are with the military, and 23 million (2 per cent) by law enforcement agencies. Kenya’s military expenditure on salaries and operations remains higher than its counterparts in the region despite having the smallest headcount. The Kenya Defence Forces’ (KDF) spending hit Sh97.2 billion ($963.5 million) last year having risen from $933 million a year earlier. Kenya has 24,150 military personnel.

At $963.5 million, Nairobi’s military spending is more than the combined army budgets for neighbouring Ethiopia ($488 million or Sh49 billion) and Uganda ($445 million).

Despite their lower staff costs, Ethiopia commands a bigger force of 185,500 personnel or seven times more than Kenya’s while Uganda’s army size is nearly twice the size (45,000 personnel).

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