Peacekeeping: The Invisible War


September 11, 2012: In early September, on the island Madagascar off the east coast of Africa, over a hundred cattle thieves were surprised by a large group of armed (with spears, machetes and shovels) villagers. The rustlers had carefully planned a simultaneous raid on herds next to three villages. But they had been spotted and were surprised themselves, with 67 of the rustlers killed. Where were the police when all this was going on? They were elsewhere in southern Madagascar, battling with other groups of rustlers. Those clashes left three policemen and eight rustlers dead. Most of the stolen cattle were recovered. That's unusual, for the cattle rustlers are no longer mainly young tribesmen out for a little adventure but men who have formed into bandit gangs and are armed with cheap AK-47s.

Stealing cattle has gone from a minor form of entertainment to a major source of violence and criminal activity in sub-Saharan Africa. This sort of looting kills more people than wars and rebellions but gets little attention.

This new source of mayhem is largely the result of tribesmen, over the last two decades, getting access to cheap AK-47s. As a result the cattle raids, which are an ancient tradition, have gotten a lot bloodier. The AK-47 has become as much of a curse for Africa as many major diseases. Not just in the places you hear about, like Somalia, Angola, Congo, and Sudan but in many others as well. Easy availability of firearms has produced a murder rate in South Africa that is, per capita, ten times what it is in the United States.

In many parts of East Africa rural tribes got access to cheap AK-47s. This has resulted in traditional crimes, like stealing cattle or land, turning into bloody battles. In western Kenya alone there have been over a thousand deaths from tribal clashes in the last few years. The violence has caused thousands of people to flee their homes and wrecked local government in many areas. Sending in additional police and soldiers quieted things down somewhat. But the local guys with the guns know where to hide and the government reinforcements don't. So, eventually, the police will leave and the AK-47s will still be there. Angola does not have a lot of tribal animosity and is paying cash for weapons, especially assault rifles and machine-guns of all types to get them away from trigger happy teenagers.

Foreign aid organizations have adapted by hiring some of the local gunmen, to protect the relief operations from all the other gunmen. That just takes money away from more socially acceptable work. But the guns cannot be ignored. Local bad guys can steal a lot more armed with an AK-47 than in the old days when all he had was a spear or an axe.

The disruptive effect of all these guns has halted, or reversed, decades of progress in treating endemic diseases. Death rates from disease and malnutrition are going up. All because of several million Cold War surplus AK-47s getting dumped in Africa in the 1990s. The world market for such weapons was gutted by the late 1990s. All that was left was Africa but only if you were willing to sell cheap.

The cheap AK-47 also made it possible to use 10-14 year old children as soldiers. This was a new development because the old weapons (spears, swords, bows) required muscle. But now, if you could lift a 4.5 kg (ten pound) AK-47 and pull the trigger, you were a killer. Child soldiers changed everything because warlords could just kidnap kids and quickly brainwash them. These armies of young killers made insurrection and anarchy more common. Tens of millions of Africans fled their homes to avoid these tiny terrors, and many of those refugees died of starvation or disease. These victims were just as dead, even if the bullets didn't get them. In fact, few AK-47 victims died from bullets. It was the massive fear, and breakdown of society and the economy, that killed most people confronted by all these cheap AK-47s. The kids weren't very good shots but if they got close enough to you, they were capable of unimaginable horrors.

This influx of cheap AK-47s also created something of a gun culture. That has led to an increase in locally made weapons. In Nigeria, for example, there are the "Awka Guns," named after the southern city of Awka, which developed a tradition of handmade firearms in the 1960s, when it was part of the breakaway Republic of Biafra. The Biafran rebels needed weapons and Awka, which had been a center of metal working for over a thousand years, mobilized thousands of metal workers to build crude firearms. The weapons manufacturing continued after the war, mainly to supply hunters, gangsters, and anyone needing an illegal firearm for any reason. The cheapest of these weapons is basically a single shot pistol firing a .410 (10.4mm) or 20 gauge (15.6mm) shotgun shell. This is for a young thug, or a homeowner desiring protection and accurate enough for something within 2-4 meters (6-12 feet). Not much good for hunting. These cost $25-$40 each. The Awka gunsmiths also make full size (or sawed off) shotguns (single or double barrel) that sell for $80-$250. These could be used for hunting. There are also handmade 9mm revolvers for about $100. These weapons are found all over the country but mostly in the south and mostly among those who can't afford to pay a thousand dollars or more for a factory made weapon. On the down side, these weapons are more dangerous to use, often lacking a safety switch and prone to exploding rather than firing when the trigger is pulled.

Ironically, people out in the countryside, where there are still dangerous animals that a gun can protect a village from, have fewer firearms. That's because there's more money, more to steal, and more demand for weapons in the cities. But throughout Africa there is a lot more fatal violence. This mayhem only gets noticed when there are politically savvy groups at the center of it. That's what will eventually bring in peacekeepers. But there's not much effort to pacify all those places now terrified by kids with AK-47s.


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