Words from Kenya

The rise in gun crime in urban areas of Northern Kenya

Kenya Police Reservist's Gun

Illegal small arms have been a common feature of cattle raiding, resource conflict and retaliatory attacks in the wide open spaces of northern Kenya for the last 20 years. However the use of guns for criminal activities in urban areas has not been so common until recently. The dramatic rise in urban gun crime in northern Kenya is a serious concern. The urban areas of northern Kenya are rapidly expanding and gun use in this environment potentially puts a lot more people at risk than traditional conflicts which tend to involve specific groups and occur intermittently.

In the space of just two years robberies in the town of Isiolo have gone from being mostly undertaken without guns to armed robbery becoming the predominant type. In Isiolo this change can be linked to a period of fairly intense local conflict that affected many of the outlying areas of town in the first months of 2012. Over several years prior to that there had been repeated disarmament operations in much of the district. While it is probably true that these operations did tend to targets some communities more than others the overall effect was to reduce the number of illegal firearm in the area.

That many communities in the outskirts of town were unarmed became obvious when the trouble began in late December 2011. Initially only those who had managed to retain weapons for protection while herding livestock were involved in the fighting. In many areas communities were attacked and houses burnt and there was little defence or retaliation. Gradually over the months that the conflict persisted, from late December 2011 to April 2012, this changed with all communities being able to answer an attack with gunfire. The rapid rearmament during the period was entirely understandable. For much of the time the local law enforcement bodies were either unable or unwilling to protect people or to stop the conflict.

Conflicts such as this, between communities who live close to or even amongst each other, do not suddenly end. In hindsight it may be possible to set an end date, a day or time after which there were not more deaths, or no more shots fired, but at the time nothing is that clear. This kind of conflict winds down only gradually, the tension between the groups involved takes months or years to reduce. At first everybody is still on high alert for another attack, only with time, when none occur do the people affected slowly start to relax. Even then the memory of the fighting is still very fresh and the pain of the loss of life still raw. Under these conditions it still feels possible for the conflict to flare up again at any moment. Consequently the weapons people acquired for protection were still felt to be needed and as there has not been a disarmament operation since the conflict the weapons are still in the communities nearly two years later.

Now however people are less afraid that a reawakening of the conflict could happen at any time. The need to have the gun close to hand for protection seems less urgent. Tied with the high rate of unemployment in urban centres such as Isiolo, which leave large numbers of young men with no money and little to do, it is no surprise that many of these guns are now being used in robberies. Now even the theft of a pot of boiled rice or small bag of maize is accompanied by an AK47.

Unlike the conflict of two years ago that pitted different communities against each other the guns are now being used by people largely on members of their own community. The guns are hurting the very people they were purchased to protect.

One consequence of the increase in gun crime in urban areas is the reduction in lynching. It used to be that if attacked or robed people would call for help and neighbours would take up the shout and run to help. You could hear from the cries and shouts the direction the robbers were taking as they were chased down. The end result could often be quite gruesome. Understandably that doesn’t happen often now. If you call out when attacked you get shot. If shots are heard people don’t rush to help their neighbours, they either keep quiet or perhaps let off a few shots themselves to discourage the robbers form visiting them.

It is relatively easy to conduct a disarmament operation in the bush, intimidating villages of mud and thatched huts into handing over their weapons. It’s harder to see how such operations will work in urban areas. It looks, unfortunately, that guns in the fast growing towns of northern Kenya are here to stay.

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