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Ghana Struggles to End Local Gun Industry

  • Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

People in the West African nation of Ghana have worked metal for generations, making jewelry, musical instruments and even guns. The government is cracking down on the local weapons industry, but many blacksmiths find it difficult to leave the trade.

Philip Nsiah has been shaping metal in this small workshop in the city of Kumasi for years. He started by making single barrel shotguns in a small, hot furnace.

"If you put metal in this fire, then it makes it red, when the metal is red, then it becomes soft," he said.

All across Ghana, blacksmiths like Nsiah have been making firearms for centuries. Farmers use them to hunt and protect their crops. They prefer the local rifles, pistols and shotguns over imported ones because they're less expensive.

But drug dealers and thieves like handmade guns because they can get them under the table, and don't have to register them with the government. Police Superintendent Aboagye Nyarko says these inexpensive firearms are helping push up crime rates.

"People want to get rich overnight, they don't want to work. At the same time people come out of school there is no job. So they feel that is the easiest way of making money," he said.

At police headquarters in Accra, Nyarko loads a confiscated pistol.

It's a copy of a Russian-made Makarov. The replica is so good that even the police chief had a hard time telling it apart from a real MACK-ah-roff. "And then when you cock, the bullet enters the barrel and then it's ready for action," he said.

But, other handmade pistols are not so nice. Nyarko holds up one that looks like a toy gun. The barrel is made from car parts, like a steering rod. "Yes, parts of the car like steering rod. The steering, the rod, that's what they use when making it," he said.

The police chief estimates there are about 75,000 homemade firearms in Ghana. These two guns will be burned in a bonfire with more than 1,000 others.

The police and the United Nations are also urging the country's blacksmiths to start producing other products instead of guns, like tools to prune cocoa trees and handcuffs.

"The tail end is that, it's money they need. So if they can produce pruners and handcuffs and get ready money, why do they go in for this that they'll be doing it under fear that they will be arrested?"

"If the market is not there, I cannot go in and then produce it," said blacksmith Philip Nsiah, who helps lead the local blacksmiths association, working with the police and the U.N. to stop the handmade gun industry. There has been talk about creating alternative livelihoods for blacksmiths for years, but he says nothing has happened so far to make sure there's a market for the blacksmith's goods.

"We have met people. We have [to] go on conferences and other thing. But still, we don't see anything. The conference will come. They will invite you. You will talk, you will talk a lot. But from the conference, nobody will come to you again until another conference will come again."

Nsiah has been able to make a living without illegal guns. He repairs authorized weapons, used by security personnel. He works on cars. And he has made a tool-shed full of other products - garden shears, hunting traps…

And gong-gongs, or cowbells for making music and calling community meetings. Nsiah says he's lucky to have so much business, but without government backing, it will be impossible for many other blacksmiths to stop making illegal guns.