UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
ANGOLA: Easy access to guns concern as election nears
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
LUANDA, 13 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - Gunfire regularly reverberates these days around Angola's capital, Luanda, something that rarely happened during almost three decades of vicious civil war.
Despite four years of peace, volleys of bullets are interrupting life in the capital and alarming its residents. As the prospect of the country's first peacetime elections draws nearer - either this year or in 2007 - so do the fears about the number of small arms held by Angolans.
No-one knows for sure exactly how many guns are either in active use or stashed under the beds of ordinary citizens. Estimates range from 1.5 million up to as many as four million - or almost one weapon for every three people.
"It is difficult to determine how many weapons there are in the population, but for sure there are plenty - too many," Matias Capapelo, head of the disarmament NGO, Angola 2000, told IRIN.
His organisation, which aims to promote peace and security, carried out a survey to establish the prevalence of weapons, but perhaps understandably, many interviewees were reluctant to open up.
"If you ask people if they personally have a weapon, they will say 'no'; ask them if they know someone who has a weapon and they will almost all say 'yes' - and they will almost all say that they could get a weapon quite easily if they wanted to," he remarked.
"There is a proliferation of small arms and it is easy to get access to them. All the studies that have been carried out indicated to me that guns are all over," he added.
Of those who hold firearms, most have AK-47 assault rifles - the weapon of choice during Angola's civil war. But why they insist on keeping them, despite the end of the conflict and an almost unanimous belief in sustainable peace, is an issue that must be addressed.
Ana Leao, a senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, conducted fieldwork in 2004 into the problems associated with small arms in Angola. While the survey only looked at Luanda, Kuito and Huambo and cannot be extrapolated across the entire nation, it nevertheless illustrated the depth and complexity of the problem.
In Kuito and Huambo, provincial capitals in the centre of Angola, residents said they felt safer since the end of the war, yet many still clung to their guns.
"In the provinces the perception is that people keep firearms because it is still a time to settle scores. People keep them to protect themselves against vendettas for perceived atrocities in the war, or to take revenge against those who committed atrocities against them," Leao noted.
In Luanda, where crime rates have soared, it is a different story. Here, people say they keep guns for protection.
"I have a Kalashnikov at home," said Antonio, a former soldier who now works as a driver. "I don't have a permit for it, but I don't intend to use it. I only keep it to protect my family and to scare off robbers," he said.
Antonio contends that most Angolans store their weapons safely and are unlikely to use them. But even the mere thought of guns on the streets is a frightening prospect, particularly in Luanda, where frustration at the lack of a peace dividend is deepening and reports of violent crime are on the rise.
A United Nations security briefing issued in January pointed to the proliferation of small arms in Luanda as a danger to its staff, and warned them about the increasing incidence of armed robbery, carjacking and ambushes.
A meteoric rise in gun crime is a concern, but it is even more worrying given Angola's upcoming elections. The country's first ballot since 1992 was due to be held sometime this year, but many observers now say 2007 is more likely because of delays in preparations.
"The elections make us very worried," said Capapelo. "The nature of elections means tension everywhere; add to that the availability of guns and it will be worse."
The main opposition party, UNITA, has also declared disarmament its "number one priority", according the party's secretary for public administration, Alcides Sakala.
"Disarmament is an issue we intend to raise again in the national assembly," he said, noting that UNITA's particular gripe was the government's armed civil defence force, which it believes is unnecessary now that Angola is at peace.
With elections just around the corner, it is vital that disarmament procedures start soon, he said. "In the electoral process we need tranquillity, because any electoral process is highly emotional," he observed.
Some say that Angolans still have a deep-rooted fear of elections after the 1992 poll saw UNITA, then a rebel group, return to war against government forces, sparking one of the bloodiest periods in Angola's long conflict.
Others say this fear is no longer as widespread, but argue that the war years created a culture of violence and fear that will be difficult to dispel.
"Almost three decades of civil war have left this very negative legacy in the Angolan community, a legacy which is still visible in our culture of violence, our lack of trust and our lack of respect for life," Capapelo said.
Leoa agreed that the situation was complicated. "Angola wants peaceful elections - it doesn't want any violence, therefore it needs to disarm, but people are hanging on to weapons just in case, without realising they may be endangering the whole process," she said.
The police have been disarming the population on an ad hoc basis, but many Angolans have little faith in the process, fearing that the weapons will reappear on the streets and in the hands of criminals.
To combat this concern the police intend to implement a bigger programme, involving awareness organisations to allay fears, with an independent third party - de-mining organisation Halo Trust - to carry out weapon destruction.
Approval for this national plan, however, appears to have stalled and is awaiting the green light from the Interior Ministry or perhaps even the President.
This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but May not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006
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