Mogadishu, Somalia – The car barely came to a stop when a hand softly knocked at the tinted passenger seat window. The window rolled down, revealing a tall, skinny figure wearing a half-buttoned, baggy polyester shirt, a red sarong, and pink sandals – and holding a rusty AK-47 in his left hand.
“Seven-hundred fifty dollars,” he said in a firm voice, barely making eye contact, before dropping the fully loaded gun onto this reporter’s lap. Another 10 men came rushing from nearby shops and sheds, each screaming out the price of the weapon they were trying to sell.
To the untrained eye, the scene may have looked like a kidnap-in-progress.
In fact, this is the traffic-congested, heavily potholed Zobe area of Mogadishu, a new arms market just a short walking distance from the offices of Somalia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Before the al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab retreated from Mogadishu, weapons were sold in the open at Bakara Market, the city’s main business hub that was then under their control.
But a lot has changed since those days. The government, soon after taking control of Bakara Market, ordered weapon traders to cease selling their wares.
A lucrative business
“In Bakara Market there were hundreds of us. Less sellers mean less competition and higher prices.“
– Ahmed Ilka’ase
Although the traders closed their shops, they haven’t disappeared completely. Instead, they have resurfaced in areas like Zobe. Despite having no shops to sell their wares from, business isn’t bad. In fact, it’s better now than before for those still selling guns to make a living.
Ahmed Ilka’ase – the man behind the car’s tinted window – has been an arms trader for the past 15 years. For him, the business has never been more lucrative. “There are only about 30 of us selling guns here. But in Bakara Market there were hundreds of us. Less sellers mean less competition and higher prices.”
The price of guns has more than doubled. Two years ago, a second-hand AK-47 used to cost $350. Now it costs $750. The price of bullets has also shot up. A single AK-47 bullet used to retail at $0.50, but now costs $1.
Ilka’ase said he makes at least $50 profit for each Ak-47 he sells – more than many earn in a month in Mogadishu. “I sell at least two guns a day, so on a quiet day I take home $100.”
Somalia’s more than 20 years of civil war has left the country awash in small arms. The exact number of firearms in the hands of civilians is unknown, although it is estimated that the figure is about 550,000 to 750,000, and only about 14,000 of them are registered.
Between 2004 and 2011, the United Nations Monitoring Group reported almost 50,000 instances involving the transfer of small arms and light weapons in Somalia. To protect civilians and curb the flow of weapons to those involved in the Somali civil war, the UN imposed an arms embargo in 1992.
With support from its international partners, Somalia’s new internationally recognised government – in office since September 2012 – is tirelessly campaigning to have the embargo lifted.
But human rights groups are concerned that lifting the ban will exacerbate the conflict in the Horn of Africa nation.
“To lift the arms embargo would allow even more unregulated weapons into Somalia with no safeguards and no controls,” said Gemma Davies, Somalia researcher at Amnesty International. “We believe that the government still lacks the capacity to prevent the diversion of substantial quantities of its own weaponry and military equipment to other armed groups and to Somalia’s domestic arms market.”
The Somali government says they need weapons for their poorly equipped army, which continues to fight al-Shabab. They claim no government weapons will fall into to the hands of the wrong group: “After the ban is lifted and before we buy any weapons, we will put in place checks to prevent weapons going to anyone other than our soldiers. That’s number-one priority for our government, and we are already working on that,” said deputy defence minister Abdirahman Kulmiye Hirsi.
‘I pray God gets rid of them’
Not everyone in Zobe neighbourhood welcomes an illegal arms market in this busy commercial centre, but no one dares to say so in public. Most don’t want to speak about the new traders here, and those who do lower their voices to almost a whisper. Fartun Mohamed owns a popular ice cream shop a few metres away from where Ilka’ase and his business friends are standing. “They stand here all day selling bullets like it’s biscuits,” she said. “Sometimes shots go off, scaring our customers away. I pray God gets rid of them,” she added, while selling extra-sweet vanilla-flavoured ice cream to children in school uniforms.
“Our biggest priority is to get those arms in civilian hands in government hands.“
– Abdirahman Kulmiye Hirsi, deputy defence minister
In the course of 30 minutes three cars pull up. Two buy brand-new AK-47s and the remaining one buys a used Belgium-made pistol.
“I bought this pistol because I just came back from the Netherlands and don’t feel safe in Mogadishu. I also can’t afford having personal security guards,” said the bulky, bald man who bought the pistol, refusing to give his name.
The weapons traders want to see their trade licensed, not banned. “We will like our trade to be licensed, like they do in Yemen and America. We don’t think banning the sale of guns will make guns disappear from Somalia,” said Ahmed Noor, an older gun trader in Zobe.
But that’s not a view shared or entertained by the government. “No, that won’t happen. Our government policy is for arms not to be in civilian hands, and those selling guns to civilians are lawbreakers and will be dealt with. We won’t offer licenses to those breaking the law,” asserted Hirsi.
“Our biggest priority is to get those arms in civilian hands in government hands, and we have already started doing that in Hiiraan province with help from AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia].”
Ilka’ase says he is in this trade purely for profit. “If I’m given another job that guarantees me at least $100 a day, I will consider it. But until then I will buy and sell guns.”