For generations, in the eyes of many outsiders, the continent and the gun often seemed synonymous: a corner of the globe in turmoil, a danger zone armed to the teeth, roiled by anarchy or imprisoned by police states. And the gun that enabled both afflictions: the AK-47.
What is its story in Africa—this machine gun, the Kalashnikov? It is a crude but effective killing machine consisting of some dozen moving parts. (Depending on the model.) Weight: roughly ten pounds. Easy enough for a child to operate. (Hence the child soldier.) At least 70 million in circulation around the world—millions of which have cluttered the mother continent.
In the desolate Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, where warrior traditions of cattle raiding endure, the Russian-designed rifle is everywhere. It is a brute symbol of power, independence, and control in a very tough neighborhood. Walking through the arid region, I have seen it in the hands of census takers, county administrators, prepubescent goat herders, and milky-eyed old men.
Most recently, near the village of Det Behari, a teenage boy, a child of 15 or 16, stepped in front of our camel caravan. He toted an AK with a fixed bayonet. But he meant no harm. He simply wished to alert us of the presence of rival Issa nomads. “Bad people,” he warned, pointing his gun to the south, across the green thread of the Awash River, where I imagined a young Issa boy standing similarly armed, rendering the same unthinking verdict on the Afar.
Africa is on the ascendant. It is home to six of ten fastest-growing economies in the world. Its people are just beginning to savor the benefits of the digital and green revolutions. Despite its old and shallow stereotype of instability, the continent is more peaceful today than any time since decolonization. And yet . . . its demon gun persists.
East and West funneled countless AKs into the continent during the Cold War. Countries such as China and the Ukraine continue to hawk their stockpiles here even today. (The biggest arms salesman on the globe, by a long shot, is the United States—but not to Africa.) And because the rifle is nearly indestructible, it continues to resurface, to sicken, to enfeeble the rule of law. In Mozambique many of these guns were collected and melted down at extraordinary costs. (Some were shaped by artisans into monuments.) In Sierra Leone, peacekeepers wished to dump them into the sea—but environmentalists objected. So they laboriously blew them up and buried the fragments. Even so, some people dug up AK’s shards and re-used them.
Africa grows stronger. But it can still relapse from the pox of the gun.