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Stemming gun violence

By Haggai Matsiko

Will a pact to check the illicit gun trade have an impact on Uganda?

United Nations diplomats from over 190 countries, including Uganda, are at the organisation’s headquarters in New York discussing a pact to regulate the global arms trade.

The Global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) would especially check the illicit trade in arms in a global arms industry that, while amounting to US$60 billion, remains unregulated. Advocates for the treaty say this lack of regulation of the arms industry is catastrophic, as it fuels conflicts that claim millions of lives.

One person dies every minute due to gun violence around the world, according to Amnesty International. In monetary terms, Africa loses US$18bn a year due to the impacts of the arms trade.

On July 3, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described this as a disgrace, saying he common standards “has made it easier for conventional weapons to fuel armed conflict and crime, to commit acts of terror and to perpetrate political repression and grave human rights violations.”

He pleaded for “a robust and legally binding Arms Trade Treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence.”

Fuelling conflicts

Although many experts point to the troubled Middle Eastern country of Syria, where between 14,000 and 18,000 people have died in recent months, to justify such a treaty, it would mean a lot to Uganda and her East African counterparts, as well.

Uganda is at the centre of a conflict-prone region where the illegal supply of arms is rife, fuelling armed rebellion, terrorism and crime.

On 6 July, 600 DR Congo soldiers abandoned their weapons and supplies and poured into Uganda following an attack by the M23 rebel group under Bosco Ntaganda, which captured the eastern DR Congo border town of Bunagana. Over 30,000 refugees have reportedly fled into Uganda and Rwanda as a result.

Uganda also maintains a force in DRC and Central African Republic (CAR), hunting rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lords Resistance Army (LRA) that has in the past two decades killed and displaced millions across the region.

Apart from the DRC, Southern Sudan, Northern Uganda and Somalia, where many people have been killed, women raped and children conscripted into the army, the Al Shabaab have claimed responsibility of several bomb attacks across East Africa.

The most fatal was on July 11, 2010, when twin bomb attacks tore through two Kampala hang-outs killing about 100 people. Since then the group has made several other attacks, the most recent being in the northern Kenyan region of Gassari, where over 17 people died in an attack on a church during service. A combined force of over 17000 from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya are in Somalia to contain the Al Shabaab.

Experts say the lifeline of rebel and terrorist groups like this is the steady supply of illicit arms.  The East Africa Action Network on Small Arms (EAANSA) reported last month that more than 300,000 guns were smuggled into East Africa over the last ten years.

UN arms embargoes on the three countries—DRC, South Sudan and Somalia – are violated globally. In its report, The Devil is in the Detail, Oxfam notes that since 2000,  more than US$2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition have been imported by countries, even with 26 UN, regional, or multilateral arms embargoes in force.

“Africa is a dumping ground for China and Eastern Europe and these arms end up in the wrong hands. That is why we are experiencing unending conflict,” Richard Mugisha, the executive secretary EAANSA told The Independent recently. “We think that if we can ensure that arms are regulated and come straight to government and not in the wrong hands of rebels, terrorists or criminals, we would have achieved something.”

Violating human rights

Amnesty International argues that 60 percent of human rights violations involve use of small arms and light weapons, including by governments.

A draft of the treaty has proposed that governments must not approve sale of arms to states where there is substantial risk of violation of human rights.

With Uganda having been put on spot by the UN and other international players, over liolations committed during the walk-to-work protests when security operatives shot dead nine people, it is possible that arms sales to the government would be contested with such a treaty in place. But the government like many elsewhere has to ratify the treaty internally for it to apply, experts say.

However, there is still a glitch on this matter. Countries like the US want the treaty to state that governments need only to consider issues like human rights while authorising the sale of weapons.


In June, EAANSA was part of a global campaign dubbed Global Week of Action Against Gun Violence, with several events in Kampala.

Hon. Hilary Onek, the minister in charge of Internal Affairs, said the menace has “transcended the renowned usage of small arms to include terrorism activities that cause mass destruction of lives and property”.

Ahmed Wafuba, coordinator of the National Focal Point (NFP), established by the government in 2001 to eradicate proliferation of illicit arms, said Uganda was tightening its gun control mechanisms and over the last three years government had destroyed 97,000 pieces of assault weapons and firearms.

One of the measures has been gun labeling that started in 2008. Today 80 percent of the guns held by the army and police are labeled.

A 2006 survey by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics showed that there were more arms in civilian hands than the armed forces. Between them, the army and police owned 133,000 and 28,000 firearms respectively, while civilians held about 400,000 guns. In 2007, reports indicated that at 200,000, Uganda had the highest number of illicit arms, and has been a source of illicit guns to neighbouring countries, especially Kenya.

Proliferating crime

In 2008, four men including a police officer allegedly murdered a Belgian tourist in Mount Elgon National Park in Kapchorwa district. Police claims they were involved in illegal arms trade in Uganda and Kenya.

This trade makes it easy for criminals to access guns, the reason homicide involving the use of guns is reported to be increasing. On March 20, Sheikh Abdukarim Sentamu, was gunned down on William Street.

Hardly four days later, unknown assailants shot dead Margaret Bilavu, a vendor at Arua Park, as she tried to alert the public to a scuffle during which Martin Oja, a Forex dealer, was shot and robbed of Shs 300m.

Two months earlier, assailants had shot dead Nile Breweries Ltd’s Eng. Charles Eturuket at his home in Njeru Town Council. Most recently, businessman Hajji Abu-Bakr Kiweewa was shot dead in Kyanja, a Kampala suburb, on June 22.

Statistics show that of the 2,000 murders that occur in Uganda annually, 350 are by guns.

“The government must put in place strict controls on guns. The licencing system needs to be strengthened,” Mugisha told The Independent, “The 1970 Fire arms act [to control the use, manufacture and distribution of firearms in the country] is too old and only sets criminals free.”

Section 20 of the act provides a Shs 2,000 penalty or six months in prison for anyone who accepts a firearm or ammunition as security for a loan.

Even for deliberately causing alarm to a member of the public, a person can walk away after paying a mere Shs 20,000. The law also fails to regulate possession of arms by private security agencies that have mushroomed, since it was established long before their existence.

However, the government has a gun policy and is working on the Firearms, Ammunition and Related Materials Bill to limit the use of firearms by security agencies and civilians.

Critics say that laws aside, government needs to do much more, especially given evidence that security operatives illegally sell arms and ammunition locally. A local newspaper reported it had bought nine pieces of ammunition at a paltry Shs 200,000.

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