Arusha, February 23, 2013 (EANA) - The sound of bullets filled the air at the Ukonga Prison Grounds, sending the gathered crowd scampering for safety.
But there was no fire fight going on; these were explosions caused by burning firearms as they went up in flames. The two huge piles of firearms had been arranged neatly next to each other, the guns pointing heavenward as though waiting to perform a final gun salute. Security personnel kept a keen eye on the piles, lest some daring person decide to help themselves to some of the guns.
All traffic leading to the prison grounds had been stopped to enable the vice president’s convoy to pass. I looked mercifully at the huge traffic snarl-ups that had formed; traffic jams in Dar es Salaam can be long and nasty, so we counted ourselves lucky to be part of the big man’s convoy.
As dignitaries and media representatives arrived, prisons staff stood along the road all the way from the gate, saluting and giving directions. Finally, we got to where the Magereza marching band waited, resplendent in their white ceremonial dress and fully prepared to lead the grand procession.
Their impressive performance as they led the way to the open ground prepared for the occasion some 100 metres from the piles of firearms was enough testimony of the thorough preparation that had obviously gone into this event.
Speaker after another condemned the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, saying they posed a danger to society and required regional efforts to curtail. The weapons that were about to be destroyed – a total of 3,193 firearms - were those that had been used in crime or had entered Tanzania illegally.
But these weapons were only a drop in the ocean when estimates of illegally-held firearms are taken to account. In the words of the chief guest at the ceremony, Tanzanian Vice President Dr Mohammed Gharib Bilal, “In our Community, there have been various conflicts and criminal activities that have been exacerbated by the presence of illicit small arms as well as heavy weapons.
Our intelligence reveals that there are up to 500,000 illegal weapons in East Africa. This situation shows that there is much work to be done in curtailing crime in our societies.”
Indeed, various ceremonies like the present one had been held over the years in Tanzania and other East African countries, yet this problem of proliferation of small arms still persisted.
This has necessitated greater regional collaboration, of which the EAC has been at the forefront in bringing together the five partner states and civil society.
The guns piled up at Ukonga, which ranged from home-made guns to industrial ones, were the result of these efforts to fight the proliferation of small arms. “As of today, they will never do harm to the people of Tanzania or the East African Community.
Weapons increase the intensity and duration of armed conflicts, undermine the sustainability of peace agreements, impede the success of peace building and frustrate efforts aimed at the prevention of armed conflict,” said German ambassador to Tanzania Klaus-Peter Brandes.
Since 2004, the ambassador said, Germany has been supporting the African Peace and Security Architecture, providing substantial support to the African Union’s Department for Peace and Security on Continental level, as well as the departments of the Regional Economic Communities.
But the time was now ripe for African countries to take charge of their own security challenges. “There are issues that have been pending for a lengthy period of time whose conclusion is critical, if the Community develops its own capacities to address threats to its existence devoid of external influence which more often than not prescribes alien solutions not acceptable to the local circumstances,” said EAC Secretary General Dr Richard Sezibera. “In so doing, partner states have to take note that such independence comes at a cost reflected in both financial and political commitment.”
There is little option for regional governments in this matter.
Tourism, a key foreign exchange earner, is already feeling the heat due to poaching of wildlife in national parks. “Once the wildlife is decimated, criminal gangs will turn to other sectors of the economy. Fighting this menace will be easier if we do it as a Community rather than as individual states,” said Dr Bilal.