Affluent Kenyans are increasingly choosing their options when it comes to protecting themselves in the midst of high crime levels in the country. From heavily fortified compounds and armoured vehicles to firearms, those who can afford it are investing huge sums of money in securing their lives and property.
During the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September last year, the first people to arrive on the scene and to engage the attackers in a shoot out were not the police, but armed private citizens. It is no coincidence that there was a significant number of armed civilians in and around the opulent mall, as it was known as a favourite shopping and recreational haunt for Nairobi’s wealthy and the expatriate community.
A member of a local gun club who was in a bank at the mall as the attack started, sent out a text message to alert members of the shooting club in his neighbourhood of the situation.
These armed groups exist in affluent areas of Nairobi and function as a neighbourhood watch because residents there feel they cannot rely for their protection and safety on poorly equipped and often inefficient police. One of the heroes of the Westgate siege was a civilian. Abdul Haji, the son of a former defence minister, who had a licensed handgun, drove frantically across town in time to rescue several hostages from the Mall, long before the Police and eventually the Army got their act together.
Police are naturally not forthcoming about the number of gun licence applications they handle but a spokesman acknowledged that the demand for firearms in recent years was, in his words, “sky high.”
Research from independent sources shows that out of 178 countries, Kenya is ranked at No. 61 in the world in terms of the number of privately owned guns, while the number of registered owners gun owners is recorded as 5,000, holding 6,481guns. [Note: that figure is for licensed gun ownership only. The total number of privately held guns is estimated at somewhere between 530,000 and 680,000, 1.23 to 1.58 guns per 100 people.]
How much is that gun in the window?
It is the middle and upper class that have the wherewithal to afford firearms and other sophisticated forms of protection. Handguns sell at between 100,000 and 300,000 Kenyan shillings ($1,100 to $3,300 USD), while shotguns cost 160,000 to 350,000 shillings ($1,800 to $3,900 USD). On paper, acquiring a Civilian Firearms Certificate is a bureaucratic process involving background checks with the police, the local Security Committee and the firearms licensing authorities, and could take up to a year.
However, today the vetting procedures are apparently not enforced as rigidly as they were in the past, to the extent that many gun owners are able to bypass the lengthy process. With the right connections and money, obtaining a licensed gun is not a major issue anymore. For instance, it has been revealed that brokers cut deals between the authorities in Nairobi and rich people based on the Coast, some barely out of their teens, to enable them bypass the vetting process.
If the state can no longer protect its citizens…
In a sign that all has not been well with the process, the Chief Firearms Licensing office was temporarily shut down earlier this year with the licensing officers put on leave.
However, more people, including some from unlikely quarters, such as religious leaders, appear to be in support of licensing firearms to civilians as an effective way of reducing crime.
In the wake of the Westgate attack, even the country’s top most police officer added his voice to those advocating a rethink of the country’s gun laws so that more civilians could assist his Force in fighting crime. There was shock when religious leaders on the Coast, alarmed by attacks on places of worship and executions of some Islamic preachers during the latter half of last year, demanded guns for self-defence.
At the end of 2013, the Senate passed a motion to allow more Kenyans above the age of 30 who apply for licensed guns to be allowed to have guns for “personal and national safety”.
Information about manufacturers, dealers and brokers of firearms is still shrouded in secrecy. The firearms business in Kenya is said to be in the hands of 10 dealers with the largest dealer, Kenya Bunduki (in operation since 1921), licensed to hold up to 1,600 firearms and 500,000 rounds of assorted ammunition.
The easier access to licensed guns by the rich and influential means that the misuse of guns among Kenyans who own firearms is now frequent. It is not uncommon to read stories of drunken politicians or celebrities who draw their guns in public at the slightest provocation. Some of these licensed gun owners are not shy about using their firearms – or at least threatening to use them – on those who get in their way.
Just a few weeks ago, one of the Kenya’s best known rappers, Nazizi, was caught up in what newspapers here like to call a “gun drama” when the girlfriend of a man she was having drinks with stormed that Nairobi club. The man was forced to brandish a gun to scare off the woman.
Last year, former Big Brother contestant Jackson Makini (Prezzo) was reportedly involved in an altercation with a Swiss military officer at the parking lot of a Nairobi club. Prezzo, who is also recording artist, allegedly hit the soldier on the head with his gun and threatened to shoot him.
It was not clear at the time if the gun Prezzo had was a licensed firearm, and the Police did not proffer any charges against him after the widely reported incident.