Bringing the pen to a gun fight: Why journalists must take up the war against small arms proliferation

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At 5:30 A.M on 2nd April 2015, armed gunmen stormed Garissa University College in the northern part of Kenya, killing 147 students and injuring 79 others. The Al Shabaab terrorist group operating from Somalia has so far claimed responsibility for the attack. The demise of  147 young and promising university students is a huge loss for the country, and has left many Kenyans badly shaken and in fear over rising insecurity. The incident also led to the indefinite shut down of Garissa University College, the  first and only university college in northern Kenya. In its four years of operation, residents of the heavily marginalized region considered the college a beacon of hope for young people aspiring to further their education.  As it stands, the school which had over 800 students enrolled in different degree programmes may never see a graduating class. Other than bringing tertiary education closer to the people of Northern Kenya, the  university also brought with it economic opportunities. More than 100 locals worked there in low-skill jobs, and the student population provided a good client base for local businesses.

The Garissa attack is only one of numerous violent crimes committed at gunpoint in Kenya and regionally, most of which are carried out using illegally acquired small arms.  The consequences are usually devastating not only in terms of lives lost, but also in undermining development efforts, as demonstrated by the closure of Garissa University College.  It is estimated that 100 million small arms exist in Africa, especially around the horn region, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Southern Sudan, the Central Africa belt, and many areas of West Africa.  In Kenya, the National Focal point on small arms estimates that between 530,000 and 680, 000 arms are in the wrong hands in the country.

The widespread proliferation of small arms and light weapons is one of the biggest security challenges currently facing sub-Saharan Africa.  The trafficking and wide availability of these weapons fuels instability and conflict, and poses a threat to sustainable development on the continent. Small arms affect development in the most basic way. Physical and human resources are destroyed during conflict; transit routes or fertile areas are blocked; and sometimes, national industries are ruined or taken over by armed groups.  All of this undermines and prevents development.

Although it will never be feasible to ban all small arms, it is possible to put in place stricter agreements for their use, regulation and trade that will keep small arms away from their abusers, and prevent illicit transfer. There exist several international and regional regulations aimed at combating the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.  We must all play a part in ensuring that our governments not only sign and ratify the agreements, but also take action to ensure responsible use and trade of arms, as well as instituting programs to reduce the number of weapons in circulation.

The African media has a particularly critical role to play in helping the continent deal with the problems caused by small arms.  The media must provide information with objectivity, on issues, which affect security on the continent. The press must take on the burden of interrogating governments’ knowledge of arms proliferation, as well as their actions and policies aimed at dealing with this widespread problem.  As it stands, there is little pressure on governments in Africa to ratify arms trade agreements. This is largely because  many African populations know little about the contents and requirements of such treaties.  By expanding coverage on the issue of small arms, the media can help bridge the information gap that currently exists, and hopefully spur citizen action in demanding for greater efforts in the war against illegal arms.