Blacksmith Sarpong, 35, operates a small shop in Ghana’s second largest city, Kumasi. He is trained to produce cooking utensils, but prefers to make guns as he can earn more money that way.
When sales are good his shop brings in US$1,000 a week, he said. Foreigners paying better than Ghanaians. “Most of my buyers are from Nigeria or Sierra Leone.”
“I can make an AK for you if you have the money,” he told IRIN.
Sarpong sells to clients using a gun-runner – most of them are ex-peacekeepers or mercenaries according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – in a growing clandestine small arms industry, according to Ghana’s Deputy Interior Minister, Kwasi Apea-Kubi and confirmed by police officials.
Small arms proliferation destabilizes West African countries and has increased the intensity and human impact of conflicts in the region, according to regional arms experts.
Apea-Kubi recently toured the country to ascertain the state of Ghana’s small arms industry and along the way met with hundreds of gunsmiths who “openly admitted to producing guns”, despite that local small arms manufacturing is illegal.
“We know now that many of the armed robbery cases we are witnessing are being fueled by these small arms,” Apea-Kubi told IRIN.
Eighty percent of firearms Ghanaian police confiscate are homemade, according to Accra-based NGO Africa Security Dialogue and Research.
Police records indicate armed robberies are on the increase across Ghana, currently at hundreds per month. According to UNODC, homemade guns are used in one-quarter to one-third of Ghana’s violent crimes.
In a widely publicized mid-September police raid of a gun-manufacturing base in Central Region, the police seized 30 weapons which they later ascertained blacksmiths had sold to the robbers.
Gun production estimates vary. The National Commission on Small Arms, set up in 2007 to check the manufacture and cross-border movement of small arms, estimates 40,000 Ghana-made guns are in circulation; UNODC estimates 75,000, while Kwesi Aning, head of the conflict resolution department of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in the capital Accra, puts the figure at 200,000.
“Local production has recently gone through the roof,” Aning told IRIN.
Blacksmiths have the knowledge and skills to manufacture single-shot pistols, multi-shot revolvers and shotguns, according to UNODC. When IRIN investigated a locally-made pistol sale in Tudu neighbourhood – Accra’s small arms hub – a dealer known only as Musah would not go lower than $130 for a single-barrel shot gun.
“This is the cheapest price you can get on the market,” Musah told IRIN. “Ask around. My guns are from the best blacksmiths.”
Aning, who researched the clandestine small arms industry for the Economic Community of West African States several years ago, established a link between the growing Ghanaian small arms industry and conflicts across the sub-region.
UNODC’s July 2009 West Africa threat assessments report establishes a direct link between trafficked arms and instability in the region, with the chief clients of clandestine arms groups seeking to overthrow or challenge state authority.
“Instability in Togo, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire has resulted in higher prices of Ghanaian manufactured arms,” Aning said.
Ghanaian gunsmiths have been invited to teach their gun-manufacturing skills to local blacksmiths in the Niger delta, Aning said.
However buyers of Ghanaian guns tend to be individuals while established insurgent groups purchase heavier weapons from outside the region, according to UNODC.
The government is seeking creative solutions to the problem, the Interior Ministry’s Apea-Kubi told IRIN, as past arrests and detention of guilty blacksmiths have only pushed the trade further underground.
“We know we have to do something but we don’t want to use force,” he said.
Interior Ministry officials are consulting gunsmiths across the country to explore how to attract them to alternative – legal – ways of making a living, as well as to examine how to prevent cross-border trafficking.
Apea-Kubi also hopes gunsmiths will allow their names and locations to be logged on a national database so their activities can be monitored. At least that way the industry will be less secretive, he said.
But Sarpong is not convinced. “No alternative can give me enough money like what I get selling the guns. They should not waste their time.”