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The story of guns



MASERU – “A gun in the eyes of a Mosotho, being the most valuable article he possesses, and the possession of which he considers it his duty to retain at any sacrifice”.

These words were said by Charles Bell who was a magistrate in the Berea area in the 1870s. The platform from which Bell spoke those words is not clear but it is known that they were directed to the Cape Government which was about to launch a campaign to disarm Basotho.

Bell’s words were prophetic because Basotho would vigorously resist an attempt to disarm them, leading to the Gun War of 1880.

The Disarmament Act of 1879 even divided Basotho between those who wanted to comply and those who wanted to keep their guns. Those not willing to hold on to their guns were seen as traitors conspiring with the Cape Government and the Boers.

Basotho had used their earnings from working in the diamond and gold mines in South Africa to buy guns which they used to defend themselves. The enemy were the Boers who were expropriating land from Basotho.

But beyond that Basotho wanted to defend themselves against fellow Basotho and protect their livestock which were being raided.

The necessity of owning a gun was clear for this was a dangerous time.

But out of that necessity came a gun culture that has endured for more than 150 years. Fifty years after independence and a period of relative peace, Basotho still seek guns. Now they are using them on each other.

Army Commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli put it aptly last September when he said “owning a gun in Lesotho is like owning a blanket”.

The rampant gun culture however does not feature prominently in the discussions to end gun-related murders that have increased in recent years. The favourite scapegoat thus far has been the famo gangs that have had a decade-long war which has claimed nearly 100 lives.

There is ample evidence to support this perception although it is somewhat narrow. Not a month passes without a famo gang member being shot dead.

Last month in Qeme a man walked into a bar, opened fire and killed four people in what was labelled a famo gang related shooting. This month a famo musician was killed in cold blood.

Newspaper headlines said “Another famo musician killed”, perhaps to illustrate that he is just one in a series of murders.

“Until people lose their wives and children or have whole families wiped off from the face of the earth, they will continue to mercilessly gun down innocent bystanders like these two young boys who were killed in Maseru yesterday.”

Those were the words of famo musician Mosotho Chakela. He was speaking in October last year after the killing of five people, including two teenagers, in Sea-Point.

The carnage continues, even as politicians condemn the murders and police are doing their best to deal with the problem. A parliamentary committee was recently formed to help end the violence.

Yet the narrative that blames famo feuds negates the fact that the proliferation of guns is what makes the war more lethal. If guns were not easy to get there would sure be fewer murders.

Without guns the gangs would have to resort to less lethal weapons like knives. It is easier to kill three people with a gun than a knife.

The focus for the police should be on confiscating illegal guns. That is easier said than done. The police’s strategy so far has been to conduct routine raids in villages and impromptu searches on roadblocks.

Hundreds of illegal firearms have been impounded during the campaigns but it doesn’t seem like the number of illegal guns is reducing. That’s perhaps because the police are dealing with the symptom rather than the disease.

At core are two issues: how the guns are coming into Lesotho and how easy it is to get them.

Historically, illegal guns are bought from South Africa. The porous borders make the trade in firearms almost risk-free.

Guns are exchanged with marijuana, cattle and diamonds. You can also easily cross the official borders with a gun.

With as little as M300 you can buy a gun. You can also simply inherit a gun from a relative. So while the police are raiding and searching people for illegal guns more are flowing into the country.

The gun-related famo murders only illustrate a much broader problem of gun culture in Lesotho. It’s not only famo gang members who have been killed by guns.

Recently Liqhobong Diamond Mining Company boss Puling Puling was shot dead in Qoaling following what police suspect to have been a dispute over a site. Police say Puling was shot dead by a man while they were at a site.

There have been numerous disputes that have ended with someone being shot. The magistrates’ court and High Court are dealing with numerous cases of gun-related murders and most of them have nothing to do with the famo gang wars.

The majority of suspects in the famo related murders are still at large.

The problem remains that of too many guns in bad hands, the famo murders are a sign of that reality. To deal with the gun related murders the police should start with tackling the gun culture.

The problem however is that the police don’t seem to understand how deep-rooted the gun culture is in Lesotho.

A 2003-study done for the Transformation Resource Centre by Katleho Pefole shows that many Basotho still desire to own guns. Respondents to the survey were willing to talk about ownership of private firearms in their communities.

Responses to the question “Do you know of people who have firearms in this village?” ranged from “Nearly everybody has a firearm here” to “Many people here have firearms.”

One respondent seems to have concisely captured Basotho’s attitude towards guns when he said: “You are nothing if you don’t have a firearm”.

The majority said they owned a gun for personal security.

So as long as people feel that their lives are in danger they will continue to seek guns. That makes the police’s campaigns to confiscate guns almost futile. A confiscated gun is immediately replaced with relative easy.

One respondent in the survey said illegal firearms were the only recourse for poor people because the licencing rules favour the well off.

“Another sentiment expressed by many respondents was that if the police were able to control the proliferation of firearms and associated crimes, then people would have no need to protect themselves,” report said.

Others interviewed said the police were involved in the illicit trade of firearms.

The report used three historical incidents to explain why people feel the need to own guns and why there are so many guns among civilians.

The first is that people started arming themselves after the police failed to control the situation during the Manthabiseng Riots in 1991.

Fearing that there will be a repeat of the riots and police would fail to stop people from looting their businesses many business people started acquiring guns.

The second is the police mutiny of 1997 that led people to lose faith in the police’s ability to protect them. The third is the 1998 political instability in which nearly 50 people were killed.

The report says “Lesotho’s recent conflict-ridden political history has contributed to a decline in internal security, and consequently an increase in the perceptions of personal insecurity, which has motivated a significant number of civilians to acquire firearms, both legally and illegally (depending on their personal circumstances).”

“Many cattle owners, in an effort to protect their livestock from rampant cattle-rustling, have also sought to secure firearms. In addition, tensions and divisions within the armed forces have resulted in the proliferation of firearms.”

The raids by the police to curb illegal firearms seem to be event-driven. For instance, the recent campaign could have been triggered by the shooting in Qeme and other famo murders.

It’s as if the police are using occasional solutions to solve a permanent problem. The police seem to be having a torrid time controlling even the licensed guns.

A report on an audit of firearms control legislation in the SADC region in 2003 said the number of registered firearms in Lesotho “is unknown as the records are kept manually and these have not been audited recently”.

The audit done by SafeAfrica, an NGO, and Safeworld, a think tank, said the police’s   Central Firearms Registry (CFR) was not well equipped to control and manage legal guns. SafeAfrica assists governments and civil society to implement agreed policy on peace and security.

Safeworld is a United Kingdom-based independent foreign affairs think tank working to identify, develop and publicise effective approaches to tackling and preventing armed conflicts.

“For instance, an annual review process is stipulated in the legislation, yet there are only two members of staff detailed to ensure the database is kept up to date. It is not possible for only two people to handle all of the renewal applications and this is the most likely reason for the lack of renewals,” the report said.

It said the “absence of an electronic database means that verifying renewals is not possible”.

“For instance, the licensing procedure followed by the Central Firearms Registrar stipulates that a firearm certificate is valid for a period of one year from date of issue, however, in practice no renewal takes place”.

The report portrays a picture of a country whose gun control laws are not only outdated but also at variance with international and regional conventions.

It says the Internal Security (Arms and Ammunition) Act, Act 4 1999, Lesotho’s principal gun law, needs a serious review to be effective and meet regional standards, the report notes.

There are also other damning findings in the audit that should have triggered government action. It says legal firearm owners hire out their guns to people like herd boys.

This, the report said, means that “if such a firearm is then involved in crime the owners are often not held responsible in the courts”.

Licencing regulations are routinely ignored once the initial licence has been granted, the report said.

“For instance, the licensing procedure followed by the Central Firearms Registrar stipulates that a firearm certificate is valid for a period of one year from date of issue, however, in practice no renewal takes place.”

The report also said the police did not have a system to test applicants for firearm licences.

Police spokesperson Clifford Molefe however said the situation has changed dramatically since the report was released.

He said the CFR now has a manual and electronic database for firearm registrations. “We have a working system and we are able to follow up on people who have not renewed their licences,” Molefe said.

As for the pretesting Molefe said the police was already working on a system for applicants to be rigorously tested in the use of guns before they get a licence.

Police Minister Monyane Moleleki told parliament last week that the police are doing their utmost to fight against illegal possession of firearms and their misuse.

Moleleki says in 2015/2016 financial year the police collected 1 002 rounds of ammunition in 302 raids held countrywide.

He says the police have also recovered about 300 illegal guns during the raids. According to OSAC, a US Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, criminals desiring a firearm have little trouble getting one, and their use in conducting criminal acts is on the rise.

“As such, increases in the tactics more commonly seen in South Africa are on the rise in Lesotho,” reads the OSAC report released in March last year.

“Criminals are generally well-armed and are not averse to using violence in order to achieve their objective, especially when they encounter any type of resistance from a would-be victim,” it reads.



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