The wide-open desert of Kenya's Northeastern Province has for years been written off as a lawless land of banditry and clan warfare. Light weapons are commonplace and easy to obtain.
The province's 430-mile border with anarchic Somalia is a virtual sieve, making arms smuggling easy, and admits a plethora of light weapons. Vehicles travel dirt roads only in armed convoys. Each year dozens of people are murdered or robbed.
"We believe that in Northeastern Province, every family has a gun in good working condition," says provincial commissioner Maurice Makhanu. "We also believe that most major clans have clan militia. We believe that each elder, each religious leader, and each political leader knows where the guns are."
Most people here are ethnic Somalis, divided from their brethren by a colonial border. They fought a war of secession after Kenya gained independence in the 1960s, and the resulting state of emergency was not lifted until 1992. Resentment between the government and locals remains strong.
So it's hardly surprising that government efforts to persuade people to turn in their guns - including an amnesty - have proved ineffective.
The police commander in Garissa, the provincial capital, recently displayed his measly haul from the past two years: 30 weapons confiscated or surrendered, most of them ancient-looking. A couple are held together with twine and tape.
"What we are finding is that if a weapon is surrendered voluntarily, that person has already acquired a better one," says Mr. Makhanu.
From Kenya to Cambodia to Colombia, violence-wracked communities are trying to reduce the availability of small arms - mainly semiautomatic assault rifles like the AK-47.
Here in Garissa, a local development group is about to embark on a scheme they think will work. "We're saying to them: 'If you hand in 100 guns, we will build for you a school, or a health clinic, or a borehole [a kind of shallow well]," says Ali Ibrahim Farah of the Pastoralist Peace and Development Initiative (PPDI). "We're showing them they don't need guns, they need development."
PPDI has struck a deal with the British aid agency, Oxfam, to concentrate development work in the province on communities that give up arms.
A symptom, not a cause
Rather than treating guns as the cause of violence, PPDI sees them as a symptom of deeper problems in the community.
"The cause of conflict is resource-based, mostly over water," Mr. Farah says. "If you give people boreholes, they don't need guns."
"People talk about banditry all the time, but poverty is the real problem," adds Zeinab Mohamoud, a county councilor.
The light weapons, however, are part of the vicious circle that keeps poverty festering. The collapse of the cold war threw millions of durable, deadly, and cheap small arms onto the market, and researchers say most of them ended up in developing countries.
It's estimated there are some 100 million AK-47s, M-16s, Uzis, and other similar semiautomatic rifles in circulation worldwide.
Legacy of conflict
Even in countries where wars are officially over, guns remain a costly legacy. "Donor nations are realizing that development programs are failing because of the presence of the weapons," says David Jackman of the Quaker United Nations Office in New York.
The light-weapons problem is so great that the UN has decided to hold its first-ever international conference on the illicit trade in small arms next July.
But researchers studying the issue say more attention must be paid to the reasons behind the demand for such firearms.
"The weapons are already out there; they will circulate," says Kiflemariam Gebrewold of the Bonn International Center for Conversion, a disarmament-research center based in Germany. "If we don't understand the dynamics of the demand side, we will not be able to reduce the amount of small arms in use."
Like many nomadic pastoralist areas in Africa, Kenya's Northeastern Province has been neglected by both the government and aid agencies.
Infrastructure is poor, and little economic activity takes place beyond livestock trade. By all measures - literacy, income, child mortality - people in this region are worse off than the average in Kenya, itself one of the world's poorest countries. For instance, adult literacy is estimated at below 40 percent, compared with 70 percent nationally.
All this has been compounded by a three-year drought, which killed off many families' animals and boosted the motivation for cattle rustling.
Osman Ibrahim, an elder of the local Aulihan clan, says given adequate resources, the community could solve the small-arms problem. He recently persuaded 41 clan members to give up their weapons. But he notes, "A lot will go back to [arming themselves] if there's no way to maintain their families."
Community safety concerns
Poverty is not the only issue at the root of gun ownership, however. Many people feel they aren't adequately protected by police.
Abdi Jama moved to the outskirts of Garissa to escape cattle raiders, but now endures nighttime attacks from bandits. "The police don't come here at night, and we can't defend ourselves," he complains. "This is one of the issues that forces communities to arm themselves."
"From the word 'Go,' we were not protected," says Gabow Abdi Barre, a local elder. "I don't think it is very surprising to have a militia to protect your interests and your security."
For its part, the government says it has poured resources into policing, such as arming reservists and launching raids to recover firearms. But critics say this contributes to the cycle of violence and poverty: More spending on security has meant more weapons in the area, and less money for development.
Joseph Makokha, a University of Nairobi professor, asks: "If the government is spending so much on security, why do people feel they have to have weapons for their own protection?"
Time will tell whether PPDI's disarmament-for-development program works. In recent months, the group was successful in mediating an end to violence between the two main clans in Garissa, the Abdwak and Aulihan.
But even PPDI staff say the peace is fragile and could break down at any time - especially if weapons remain in people's hands.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society