The continuing conflict in Mozambique coupled with a porous, feebly patrolled border and weak policing are the likely reasons why illegal gun possession and gun violence keep rocking the neighbourhoods of Malawi.
Apart from the 10,000 plus civilians who are legal carriers of guns in Malawi, ‘military-type’ guns from Mozambique have proven to be the real danger.
“Our statistics show that AK47 and pistols are popularly used in gun crime. Malawi does not license the possession and use of AK47 assault rifles both by government or its agencies and the private sector or individuals.
“There is consistent pattern of confessions from suspects that most of these firearms were smuggled into Malawi through Mozambique,” said Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police Noel Kayira who is also Deputy Commandant at Zomba Police College and chair of the National Focal Point on Small Arms.
The statistics are chilling; pistols and AK47s were the weapons of choice in the 151 gun crimes recorded from 2009 to 2014.
But Kayira says Malawi does not have many criminal gangs that use firearms and that it is usually the same criminal gangs that commit various armed violence across the country over a period of time and once they get arrested, the crime stops as was the case in mid-2005.
Zambia with just 14 million people recorded 3,168 reported cases of armed robberies in the five years between 1998 and 2002 and has 87,000 legal gun owners.
Some also fear that the now-disbanded Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) and the United Democratic Front’s Young Democrats (YD) might be the source of illegal guns.
The disarmament of the MYP after the fall of Dr Hastings Banda’s regime in 1994 is described as chaotic and incomplete, while the YDs were not disarmed and it is not publicly known what has happened to their weapons.
But Police have argued against these sources saying neither MYP nor YD used AK-47s or Makarov pistols, leaving Mozambique as the sole supplier of Malawi’s illegal guns.
With a yawning 1,500 kilometre border between Malawi and Mozambique and one unhindered by geographic barriers, any gun in Mozambique can easily be in Blantyre in a matter of days.
This could be the supplier that supplied the pistol which a young Rwandan fired at a disco in Lilongwe, or the one found on a Korean in Lilongwe or the one found in the house of the Zingwangwa man who murdered his son and wife before committing suicide or even the one an MRA official in Blantyre used to kill himself. All this in the last 60 days or so.
Andrew Charman, one of the few researchers on Malawi’s gun issues, linked Malawi’s firearms demand in the country to organised crime including poaching, self-defence and political intimidation.
The fine for having an illegal weapon is a measly $50, and the fee you pay for owning a gun is only a K100. No deterrent.
With weak background check, some of which involves letters for the corruptible chiefs and pastors, some people are driven to buy guns from South Africa, smuggle them into Malawi and register them as an afterthought or not register them at all.
For Charman, organised criminal activities are closely associated with military weapons such as the AK-47, whereas demand for self-defence is largely fulfilled with South African commercial weapons.
Another source of the ‘military-type’ firearms used in gun crime is those arms belonging to the MPS and other state armed forces.
The police are on record to largely deny this, saying incidents of firearms stolen or rented from state personnel for crime purposes are ‘extremely rare’.
But evidence is available. Mangochi police arrested one of their own this month after he was named as aiding violent robbers terrorising the area.
At the start of the 2016, police recovered almost 300 rounds of ammunition and guns in Blantyre, the scary thing about the bust was that the ammunition is only used in police training pointing to the rented gun theory.
Malawi can partially thank Operation Rachel, a campaign to destroy Mozambican arms caches conducted jointly by the Mozambican and the South African governments, coupled with a civil society disarmament project called Transformação das Armas em Enxadas (Turning Arms into Ploughshares) that saw many firearms taken off people, pushing prices of illegal guns in the region up.
This was seen as true in a 2003 opinion survey in Malawi that saw most respondents considering illicit firearms expensive.
Guns might thus be simply too expensive for most Malawians, some even add that criminal elements have no lucrative targets in Malawi owing to the bad shape of the economy.
Scholarship says Malawi’s lack of gun culture has also been listed as one reason the country avoids gun violence thanks to the fact that Malawi avoided a civil war in the post-independence period unlike other countries.
But this might not be for long, those that did studies on effect of Operation Rachel warned that the success of the efforts lies in the Mozambican government curbing corruption in the security sector which might not be easy especially when coupled with the fact that conflict levels in Mozambique are currently back to high levels.
Most of the guns from Mozambique are said to come in through Dedza and Ntcheu, for example, since 2000, police in Dedza have recovered at least 4 firearms per year for six years running. Of the recovered guns, there is always an AK-47 in the fray.
Gregory Mthembu-Salter in a 2009 working paper titled ‘Trading Life, Trading Death: The Flow of Small Arms from Mozambique to Malawi warned Malawi to not only strengthen its vigilance against Mozambican guns, but to also watch the internal environment too.’
“Malawians should remain vigilant about the inflow of illegal firearms from Mozambique and, indeed, all Malawi’s neighbours.
“But they should not blind themselves to domestic firearms proliferation issues regarding either the disbanded political militia or the police and armed forces’ own weapons. Violent crime, like charity, usually begins at home,” warned Mthembu-Salter.
Kayira said Malawi’s Firearms Act of 1967 is outdated and not in line with regional and international obligations. He called for a review of the Act to make it auger well with the Sadc Firearms Protocol.
He added that the 2012 Firearms policy and the 2013 National Action Plan on control and management of firearms and ammunition need serious implementation to curb gun trouble.
“…there is need for improved co-operation with neighbouring countries in order to address insecurity along the border areas … government should also decentralize and institutionalise the use of the Interpol I- 24/7 communication system at border entry points.”
Kayira also said extradition treaties with neighbouring countries, marking of legal guns, computerised record keeping, beefing up security of arms repositories are also important channels to explore.
“…government should where necessary and appropriate provide amnesty to encourage voluntary surrender of illegally held firearms. National wide public awareness campaigns should be held to encourage voluntary surrender.
“Police need to intensify border patrols to intercept criminals who smuggle guns into Malawi. The government needs to constantly provide scanning equipment at borders to detect the movement of firearms in the country,” said Kayira.
Timothy Mtambo, who heads Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation and whose organisation was actively part of the NFP said the need to check arms goes without saying.
“If ownership of arms are not controlled and regulated, crime increases which leads to threatening investors and the violation of the right to personal security and of property let alone the right to life. That is why it is crucial for governments to regulate fire arms,” said Mtambo.
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