The widespread adoption of the global arms trade treaty (ATT) is widely considered a great success for international civil society and the human rights community. The intention of the treaty will make it more difficult for states to channel weapons into the hands of insurgent groups and other non-state actors through a multilateral commitment to uphold certain export/important standards and to avoid the diversion of conventional arms from legitimate actors to illegitimate ones (contrary to the fears of the US National Rifle Association and such groups, it does not constitute a global gun licensing regime or something of that sort).

The merits of this approach are considerable and the activisits who worked tirelessly for over a decade to usher in this treaty deserve credit. That said, from the vantage point of the capacity and practice of African state, one wonders if the intended measures are more aspirational than realistic and reflect an overestimatet appreciation of the institutional and social capacities of African states.

This entry will address this point based on an ongoing research in the Gambia. I build upon a recent Small Arms Survey (2013) report on this issue. This report identifies obstacles linked to 1) political will, 2) capacity building and training, and 3) funding. The purpose of this entry is to this add a fourth obstacle, that of social legitimacy. It needs also be noted that because the research on which this post is based is ongoing, the discussion herein is necessarily tentative and preliminary. In addition, because the political climate is tense in the Gambia, I am at this time only discussing the findings in very general terms.

The three obstacles identified by Small Arms Survey are present in the Gambia to a significant degree. The process of establishing a NATCOM (or a national commission for small arms) has slowed down if not stalled outright because of lack of funding. It is doubtful that the Gambia’s law enforcement, security, and border agencies have the resources to carefully monitor the flow (in or out) of the Gambia. In terms of political will, there are rumors–that cannot be substantiated–that the government is secretly importing weapons either for its own use or to divert to the rebels in the Casamançe (a charge the government of the Gambia has denied). More broadly, as I have discussed elsewhere (Hultin forthcoming), there is a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity about the law in the Gambia due to a combination of institutional factors so that it is not clear what particular legal provisions actually entail. One banal but telling example is that hunters who I have interviewed about gun ownership have contradicted each other on the point of whether it is the gun or the gun owner that is licensed (or both).

To these obstacles, that may or may not be significant hindrances to the implementation of a robust small arms control program, I want to add the quesiton of social legitimacy. Briefly put, the concept of small arms control implied by the arms control treaty and other documents (such as the ECOWAS Convention) leans heavily on a fundamentally Weberian conception of the state as the institution with the sole legitimate authority to regulate the means of violence (Stavrianakis 2011). As is widely discussed in the African studies literature, the accuracy of this premise should not be taken for granted.

Previous research in the Gambia (see Davidheiser and Hultin 2012) suggests that, especially in the rural area, the state police are not the preferred venue to address crime and disputes (instead, religious and traditional leaders and kinship ties are mobilised to address such situations). My current research thus far suggests that, despite the apparent disconnect between the police force and local preferences, government attempts to control small arms are widely respected and approved. One hunter, for example, noted that the requirement to have a gun license (and a hunter’s license) felt like a token of recognition from the government, an indication of the esteem with which the government held his profession (keeping in mind that obtaining a gun license is quite difficult in the Gambia). A different hunter did complain that it was a bit of a nuisance to have to go to Banjul (the capital) to get licensed but quickly added that he knows–as somebody who handles firearms professionally–that guns are very dangerous and agrees that they need to be carefully controlled by the government. Both of these hunters also pointed to the regional situation, noting that the Gambia is comparatively stable and peaceful and gave full credit to the government’s policies in this regard. To them, small arms control was simply part and parcel of the government’s efforts to keep the Gambia peaceful.

In contrast, urban young men who I spoke with have been much more skeptical (it needs to be noted that the vast majority of urban young men also expressed support for gun control but all the individuals who expressed skepticism were urban young men). Following typical Gambian usage where “youth” ends in the late 20s or early 30s, I take urban young men here to refer to men in their late teens through mid–30s who are not employed in a white collar profession (e.g. banks, or one of the prominent NGOs). Many of these men are under- or unemployed or make a living in some way connected to the tourism industry (e.g. as taxi driver) or in other low-ranking professions (such as being a security guard). Their economic circumstances are thus relatively precarious and prone to fluctuations. Many of them are also critical of the politics of the current government of Yahya Jammeh.

One young man, for example, worked in Banjul as an occasional taxi driver. When discussing this issue with him, he commented that “there are a lot of security people in the Gambia” and that the country is unsafe (the two were linked, in his mind). He said that there was no way he could get a gun, because the government would not see him as having a legitimate reason for owning one. This strict control was a new development under the current government and a ploy to keep the population subservient. As a matter of legal history, this statement is wholly inaccurate; the Gambia’s gun laws have actually changed very little since the colonial era and private ownership of guns have always been carefully controlled. What is important is that this man attributed the control to government desires to have an unarmed population for control (rather than peace or crime prevention) purposes.

Another young man who worked as a security guard lamented that he was not authorized to carry a gun (private security guards are by law not allowed to be armed in the Gambia). This interview, which took place several years ago, came against the backdrop of a rash of rumored acts of violence against guards and he was worried. He could not defend himself, he said, if somebody tried to break into the location he guarded.

These two young men’s views of gun control are thus quite different from that of the hunters above. This difference suggests the essential point that the extent to which a population “buys into” small arms control is an empirical question that will have different answers for different sub-set of populations. It is important to note that this is not an argument about the existence of a gun rights or hunter’s rights lobby as exists in countries like the United States (and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom). Neither of the two men framed their discussion of gun control in terms of rights. But both showed that they reluctantly accept the premise of the state as the sole legitimate regulator of the means of lethality (they do differ in the degree to which they turned this into an explicit critique of the government). While it is doubtful that either of the two men would break the law and obtain illegal arms, it suggests that the normative “taken-for-grantedness” of the central premise of small arms control is not quite as widely shared as the humanitarian rhetoric would suggest.

Niklas Hultin is a Research Associate in the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University and Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. The research discussed herein is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (Cultural Anthropology program) and the Isaac Newton Trust.

References Cited:

Davidheiser, Mark and Niklas Hultin 2012. Policing the Postcolony: Legal Pluralism, Security and Social Control in the Gambia. In Policing in Africa (D. Francis, ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hultin, Niklas. Forthcoming. Law, Opacity, and Information in Urban Gambia. Social Analysis 57(3).

Small Arms Survey. 2013. Efficacy of Small Arms Control Measures and National Reporting: Learing from Africa. Research Note 33. Geneva, Switzerland: Small Arms Survey.

Stavrianakis, Anna. 2011. Small Arms Control and the Reproduction of Imperial Relations. Contemporary Security Policy 32(1):193–214.