Monday, December 23, 2013

AK 47, Africa and the curse of a weapon

Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau

The man who invented AK-47, Michail Kalashnikov is dead.  He died Monday, according to Russia Today.  Kalashnikov died peacefully at the age of 94.  He spent much of his life in the Ural Mountains, the region in his home country of Russia where his popular rifle is produced.

One of the terrorists in Kenya's Westgate attack
Kalashnikov's invention is a Russian invention that has found huge market in Africa.  It’s the most common weapon of destruction in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and the northeast where Islamic terrorists and militants continue to engage government in the struggle for power.  
For Africa, the name Kalashnikov is a sad reminder of all that's wrong with the continent; its violent struggles of the part, and present. 
Nigeria’s chief of army standards and evaluation, Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir, recently noted 70 per cent of the 10 million illegal weapons in circulation in West Africa are in Nigeria.  Most of these weapons are AK-47s.  In many corners of Africa, these weapons are favored by political thugs, militants, religious terrorists, drug gangs, kidnappers, autocrats, guerrillas, child soldiers and armed robbers.  
Last December, a British policeman Gary Hyde, 42, was jailed for seven years for overseeing an £800,000 consignment of rifles, among which were 40,000 AK47 assault rifles, from China to Nigeria in 2007. Hyde was jailed for shipping weapons without a licence and hiding more than £620,000 in commission payments.  Security experts say, many such dealers exist helping to facilitate the flow of weapons into Africa.

The Automatic Kalashnikov -- Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK-47, (1947 is the year the rifle's design was finalized) went from an unknown weapon after the second world war to becoming the most prized possession of rebels, terrorists and despots. This is largely because of its ease of use, resistance to corrosion, light weight and relatively cheap price.

From its earliest days, the AK-47 has been judged a superior weapon because of its simplicity and reliability. In a compact, 10-pound package, a single fighter holds the fully automatic firepower of a machine gun. It has only eight moving parts, can be broken down and reassembled in 30 seconds and will fire when very dirty.

Experts say there are at least 100 million AKs in the world today and at least 1 million new ones are manufactured each year.   There are probably more Kalashnikovs in South Sudan now, with its many years of conflict, than there are books for primary school children.  According to The Independent, there is thought to at least one AK-47 per family in South Sudan, a country which ranks among the poorest in the world.

The gruesome attack in Kenya's Westgate Mall last September that resulted in the death of over 60 persons was executed by young AK-47 wielding terrorists.  Similar attacks in Nigeria by the Boko Haram group are regularly carried out with the same rifle and Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the group, just like Osama bin Laden shows off his AK-47 in all his youtube messages.

AK-47 is now a global brand produced in different countries across the world with China producing even more than Russia.  The assault rifle is the world's most popular weapon.  Praising the inventor during his 90th birthday, the  then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev said "what you've done has made Russian weapons one of our best national brands...Kalashnikov is one of the most famous Russian words."

Inventor Kalashnikov is not one of Russia's billionaires and is not even ranked rich at all.  He is reported as never having a patent for his invention and so never earning much other than popularity from it.  His compatriot Viktor Bout, the poster boy of illegal gun sale in Africa, otherwise known as 'merchant of death' made more from Kalashnikov's invention than the inventor himself.  

Bout - perhaps the gunrunning world's Pablo Escobar - was notorious for arming rebels in Liberia, Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria.  He was the biggest and most brazen gunrunner in Africa and the Middle East using his fleet of aging Russian cargo planes to hop between warzones, often selling his Soviet-era weaponry to both sides.

The then Soviet Union granted licenses to 18 countries including China and Egypt to produce AK rifle during the Cold War, but these countries continue to produce the weapon illegally years after those licenses expired.  There are at least 30 countries where the weapon is produced today.

For Africa, the name Kalashnikov is a sad reminder of all that's wrong with the continent; its violent struggles of the part, and present. For the many victims of war and gun violence on the continent, Kalashnikov evokes bitter memories.  AK-47 is the instrument with which many of their husbands, father children, wives, mothers, sons, and daughters were killed.  For them, it would, perhaps, have been better that Michail Kalashnikov never invented AK.  Even with the fragile state of security in most parts of the continent, AK-47 remains a big nightmare.

When asked whether he feared that he may one day fall to his own invention, Kalashnikov said "I sleep well."  And on how he feels when he sees terrorists and criminals with it, he said: "Whenever I look at TV and I see the weapon I invented to defend my motherland in the hands of these bin Ladens, I ask myself the same question: 'How did it get into their hands?' ” Kalashnikov said.

"It is painful for me to see when criminal elements of all kinds fire from my weapon," he explained on his 90th birthday in 2009.  “I didn't put it in the hands of bandits and terrorists, and it's not my fault that it has mushroomed uncontrollably across the globe. Can I be blamed that they consider it the most reliable weapon? ...It's the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence," he said.

Armed conflict costs Africa about $18 billion yearly and about $300 billion between 1990 and 2005, according to Oxfam.  The proliferation of arms in parts of Africa is a tickling time bomb. It's a major threat to security and development.  80 percent of all arms held in Nigeria are illegal and in private hands, according a study titled 'The Violent Road' by the National Working Group on Armed Violence (NWGAV) in conjunction with the United Kingdom based Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), Action on Armed Violence (AOAV).

Some admirers say criticizing Kalashnikov for his invention is like criticizing Henry Ford for making the Model T.  It is, perhaps, the failure of leadership, on one hand, and followership, on the other, that AK-47 seems more abused in Africa than anywhere else in the world.  Originally designed for soldiers who have to endure terrible conditions on the battlefield, it is now more popular among the continent's terrorists, child soldiers and political thugs.

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