The gun dealer in the green T shirt leans forward and rubs his eyes. "Ahhh, this crackdown. It's bad," he mutters. He had slept only a few hours the night before. After finishing a job, he had tried to bring a load of guns to his home in Kibera, one of Nairobi's largest and most dangerous slums. But police blocked all the roads around the shantytown as part of an operation to seize illicit weapons, and the man had been forced to hide his bag containing an assortment of pistols and AK-47s elsewhere. That morning the police had raided his aunt's house in an unsuccessful search for illegal weapons. And now a white visitor was asking too many questions about his business. The dealer sighs. "Things are tough."
But maybe not too tough. Sitting in the dark, windowless room across from his young cousin breastfeeding her crying baby, the man opens a 32-page school exercise book and asks his visitor whether he wants to buy or rent. "Most people rent," he says. "It's cheaper." Three-day rental charges range from around $20 for a .38 caliber police-issue handgun to $130 for a submachine gun. An AK-47, the most popular light weapon in the world and so common in East Africa that at the end of Uganda's civil war in the 1980s you could get one in exchange for a chicken, costs $30. Bullets are extra and surprisingly expensive: $2.60 for what the man calls "sharp-edged bullets" and $1.90 for "ordinary bullets." The exercise book has six orders from the last few days. Two have already been completed.
His operation is only a small part of a deadly worldwide trade in small arms. The problem is so great that delegates at a United Nations conference in New York have spent the past fortnight discussing ways of dealing with the scourge. The U.N. estimates that there are some 500 million light weapons in the world and that around half of those are held illicitly by individuals, guerrilla forces, thieves or bandits. The trade in small arms and light weapons fuels insurgencies like the one that has devastated Sierra Leone, inflames civil breakdown as in Somalia, and fortifies other illegal activities such as the drug trade in Colombia.
But even in relatively stable countries like Russia, South Africa or Kenya, the proliferation of illegal firearms poses serious security problems. In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, carjackings and kidnappings involving illicit weapons are now commonplace. The U.S. State Department recently said that the flood of weapons into Nairobi has reached "crisis proportions." The police are hitting back a new strategy that offers up to $650 for tips leading to the recovery of weapons helped them seize 38 guns last month but even they admit that the problem may be more than they can handle. "The situation is bad," says police spokesman Peter Kimanthi. "Our men are doing the best they can."
So are the gun dealers. Most of the arms in Nairobi come from troubled neighboring countries like Somalia or Sudan. Many of them end up in northern Kenya where age-old rivalries once settled with spears and arrows have now become low-level wars. But some guns make it all the way to Nairobi in livestock trucks, oil tankers and even, according to one dealer in Kibera, aid vehicles carrying vital supplies to drought-stricken areas in Sudan and northern Kenya.
The man in the green T shirt sighs again and tells his visitor that the guns are close by. "Let's go," he says. As he wends his way through Kibera's back alleys he explains how he ended up with such a job. "Poverty," he says. "If I have no other work then I'll just continue with this."
He dives down a lane and into the house of a colleague. A haggling session follows. Finally it's agreed: a submachine gun, two AK-47s and 20 bullets for just over $200. The young man inside is suspicious and asks his visitors to return for the weapons tomorrow. "The police harassment is very hot at the moment," he says. Then he says labor is available for help with "any jobs." Four men for an afternoon will cost $130. The man in the green T shirt also has an idea: "Your friends, I can also supply them if they need anything. I need to expand my market."
Two days later, the guns are ready and packed in a white sugar sack. But the renter explains that he settled his problem through words. "So you won't need to resort to such measures?" The man asks. No. The dealer keeps the deposit, but the guns won't be needed. "Next time," says the man. "Whatever you want."