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Kenya Acknowledges Proliferation of Light Weapons

Kenya's attorney general acknowledged Thursday that his country has seen what he called an astronomical proliferation of light weapons such as assault rifles and pistols. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, the trend in Kenya underscores the difficulty that African nations have had stemming the flow of small arms, which are used in conflicts across the continent.

Attorney General Amos Wako made the remarks during a workshop in Nairobi aimed at harmonizing laws across East Africa and the Great Lakes region so that governments can better fight the spread of small arms and light weapons.

Those efforts have largely failed in the seven years since twelve nations in the region set up the Regional Center on Small Arms, known as RECSA, in 2000. An estimate from 2004 estimates that some 30 million small arms are now circulating in sub-Saharan Africa.

Wako told the workshop that he will soon make public new proposals to Kenya's Firearms Act aimed at better controlling the weapons. Yet he admitted that much of what the government does now amounts to little more than damage control.

"Kenya which is an oasis of peace in the region has suffered greatly from an astronomical proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons even with enhanced surveillance along our borders with our neighboring countries which are bedeviled with civil war and strife," Wako said.

Gun control advocates and human rights groups have found it nearly impossible to make a dent in the global trade in small arms, which is worth about $4 billion a year. Small arms cause 60 percent to 90 percent of all deaths in conflicts every year, and African nations have been hardest hit.

The Kenyan capital Nairobi has itself earned the nickname "Nairobbery" for all the crime that occurs here. Wako also acknowledged that the government was struggling to control the problem.

"Both presently and in the recent past, there has been a notable increase of criminal incidences where firearms and ammunition are used as principal tools to execute heinous crimes such as murder, robbery with violence and car-jacking against members of the public by criminals and organized gangsters," Wako said.

The Kenyan government has come under criticism from human rights groups over an ammunition factory it operates in the city of Eldoret. The plant produces some 20 million bullets each year, far more than the two million bullets needed by government forces, and some groups allege that poor oversight has made it ripe for corruption and theft.

Wider African efforts to stop the trade in small arms have failed for many reasons. The area is so vast, and infrastructure is so poor, that it's proven extremely difficult to monitor the flow of light weapons or carry out awareness campaigns.

Many places including much of Congo and Somalia are essentially lawless. That means that fighters across the region have had little trouble getting their hands on the weapons they need.