Global Policy Forum

‘Craft Guns’ Fuel West Africa Crime Epidemic


By Cahal Milmo

July 8, 2008

Joseph Kwaku interrupted his work hawking bootleg DVDs at a teeming road junction just long enough to ensure no police officer was within earshot. He said: "Yes, it's easy to get a gun here if you want one. They're not expensive – 10 dollars. Not pretty but very deadly."

The type of gun in question bears little resemblance to factory-made weaponry such as the ubiquitous AK47 that has been used to prosecute ruinous conflicts across Africa. Nor indeed does it have much in common with the illegal handguns that account for more than 3,000 armed offences in Britain every month. Instead, the firearms that Joseph was talking about look more like the sort of flintlock pistol once wielded by Dick Turpin.

Measuring a little more than 15cm from stock to barrel but weighing almost a kilogram, these lethal weapons costing as little as £5 each are rudimentary. Made from heavy cast-iron barrels, aluminium firing mechanisms and with rough wooden handles, they are the latest pride and joy of hundreds of blacksmiths and illicit co-operatives of craftsmen across Ghana, widely regarded as West Africa's most stable and prosperous democracy.

But when loaded with widely-available imported ammunition, these "craft guns" are no less deadly than the more sophisticated arms produced in Europe, China and America. As Joseph – one of hundreds of loquacious wheeler-dealers in Accra for whom no request is too great or illegal – put it: "You point and bang, your problem is gone. The bad guys are wild for these things."

According to weapons experts working for the United Nations in Ghana, these artisanal firearms are being made in such profusion that they constitute a major problem across West Africa and are fuelling an epidemic of gun crime.

An internal United Nations Development Programme report seen by The Independent estimates that there are 75,000 illegal craft guns now circulating in Ghana, making up the vast majority of the 125,000 unregistered weapons in the country. Around 80 per cent of the weapons seized by police and the Ghanaian security services are these locally-manufactured weapons.

Armed robbery offences tripled between 2000 and 2005 to 1,284 a year, according to the latest figures available Ghana Police Service figures. Experts say the true number is likely to be far higher. It is also estimated that up to a third of the 400 murders in Ghana every year are committed with a craft gun. Last month a chieftaincy dispute in the Bawku region of northern Ghana exploded into violence, leading to the seizure of a large number of locally-manufactured weapons by security forces.

Daniel Andoh, governance campaigner for the UNDP, which is working with the Ghanaian government to try to staunch the flow of the craft guns, said:"Industrial weapons are getting harder and harder to get in Ghana because of restrictions on the international arms trade and the local guns are filling the gap. They may look heavy and crude but they are no less dangerous. "Our research shows that 80 per cent of the crime committed using guns involves locally-made weapons. We see them used increasingly in the cities for everything from bag snatching to armed robberies.

"For the blacksmiths, it is a bread and butter issue. They can make a living from making the guns and they cannot make a living from producing other items. It takes as little as three hours to make one gun and because they are being made illegally they just disappear into the black market."

While a small pistol costs about 10 Ghanaian Cedis (about £5), there is higher profit margin for blacksmiths – who organise themselves into loose collectives providing different components of each gun – from making longer-barrelled weapons, which sell for up to 800 Cedis (£400).

The long tradition of metal working in Ghana and other parts of West Africa means there is a large pool of talent capable of producing the weapons. For centuries the region has been famed for its intricate metal work and the making of gold jewellery.

But now the equally longstanding tradition of gun making has found new vigour. According to local legend in the Volta region in eastern Ghana, the first guns were produced in the 18th century when a craftsman who had studied in India returned with knowledge on how to make guns, thus predating the arrival of European colonists. It is estimated there are now at least 400 blacksmiths in southern Ghana servicing the industry, each capable of making up to 80 guns a year.

The UN-funded study by independent Ghanaian experts said: "Local blacksmiths produce a substantial proportion of the illicit guns circulating in the country. Guns ‘made in Ghana' are now known for their competitive prices, reliability and accessibility. Indeed, guns produced elsewhere rarely challenge Ghanaian gunsmiths when it comes to their own market."

Disarmament experts say an entrenched gun culture in Ghana, which has a population of 23 million people, many of them living in rural farming communities, means there is little political will to contemplate an outright ban on small arms. The weapons were traditionally produced for hunting and for farmers to protect livestock but criminal gangs and tribal conflicts have revolutionised demand.

The picture is similar in other parts of West Africa. Craft guns were widely used in the civil wars which killed hundreds of thousands in Sierra Leone and Liberia and countries including Mali have been pinpointed as major manufacturing centres for the weapons. Dr Kwesi Aning, director of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeper Training Centre in Accra, which is drawing up a strategy for reducing the number of small arms in Ghana and across West Africa, said: "There is a disconnect between the modern African state, which accepts the case against small arms, and the traditional state, which does not.

"There is no senior west African political figure who will go to a hunting festival and not be seen waving a local gun. They are a symbol of strength and power. But small arms are also our weapon of mass destruction. After HIV/Aids and malaria, they are the biggest cause of death and injury. "A gun costs the same as a bunch of fresh flowers. Yet they have a devastating effect. When a population has a sense that guns are widely in circulation, a sense of insecurity spreads everywhere."

Attempts to crack down on the Ghanaian gunsmiths have succeeded only in driving the trade further underground. A subsequent attempt to legalise the trade by providing gun-making licences has been met with a complete dearth of applications. Instead the Ghanaian authorities and aid agencies are attempting to stem the flow by providing alternative work for the gun manufacturers. Rather than spending £500,000 year on importing special pruners from Germany for the country's lucrative cocoa crop, the money has been diverted to local blacksmiths to make the tools.

But on the streets of Accra there was little evidence that the hefty craft guns are going to disappear any time soon. Before heading off to sell his stock of pirated Hollywood movies, including a complete set of the Lethal Weapon films, Joseph said: "The guns are here to stay. If you think the man around the corner has got one then you need one too. Only a fool would not want one."

More Information on the UN Security Council
More General Analysis on Small Arms and Light Weapons
More Information on Small Arms and Light Weapons


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