Lessons from the frontiers

Civilian disarmament in Kenya and Uganda

East Africa has long confronted the challenge of small arms and light weapons (SALW) proliferation. The history of small arms in the region goes back to pre-colonial times. Today there are estimated to be over 100,000 illicitly owned guns in Kenya’s northern region. By 2007, it was estimated that 400,000 small arms were in circulation in Uganda, including 150,000 believed to have been with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). These arms have fuelled insecurity leading to population displacement, deaths and injuries, low intensity conflict, insurgencies, and urban crime, often affecting the vulnerable groups in society the most.

As a response to the problem, successive governments in Kenya and Uganda have launched civilian disarmament programmes, but with mixed success. This paper provides an overview of civilian disarmament experiences in the two countries over more than a century in an attempt to identify lessons and provide recommendations that should reinforce the two countries’ legislative and policy frameworks for disarmament and SALW control.

It begins by setting out the nature of the problem as it stands: the cost of illicit weapons proliferation in the region, and the factors that drive demand. The historical roots of small arms proliferation are then explored in detail. Alongside this a summary is provided of historical attempts to address the problem by coercive collection programmes, included in some cases as part of counter-insurgency campaigns. Coming to the present day the paper examines moves by the governments of East Africa to introduce binding policy and legal frameworks for small arms control which set important new standards and norms for civilian disarmament programmes. More recent attempts by the governments of Kenya and Uganda to collect weapons are then studied in light of these commitments. Finally, the paper concludes by drawing out lessons and recommendations for governments based on these experiences.