Anthropologist's NSF Project Tracks Gun Control in West Africa

June 18, 2012 — With al Qaeda and Latin American drug cartels moving into some parts of Africa, small arms control has become a matter of great concern to those involved with security. Anthropologist Niklas Hultin, who taught in the University of Virginia 's Global Development Studies program last year, is researching issues concerning gun control in Gambia on the west coast – a gateway for illegal trafficking.

Hultin, who will be a research professor in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Anthropology, has studied human rights, democracy and African legal institutions. He recently received a National Science Foundation grant to return to Gambia to research small arms use in West Africa, international small arms control and anti-transnational crime initiatives, he said. The Isaac Newton Trust at Cambridge University is also contributing funding for his two-year project.

"Small arms are a bit of a hot topic, given the multiple coups in the region, the current international efforts to negotiate a global arms trade treaty and increasing concerns over al Qaeda reaching into West Africa, for example," said Hultin, who previously held faculty appointments at American University and Swarthmore College. Added to the concerns are relatively porous national borders.

Gambia, formerly a British colony, surrounds the Gambia River on the west coast of Africa and pokes like a finger into Senegal, which was colonized by the French. Active in international affairs, especially in West Africa, Gambia participated in efforts to resolve civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and mediated disputes in nearby countries or areas, he said.

Literature from nongovernmental organizations and political scientists presume that state arms control is the best way to prevent or restrict the spread of small arms, and hence, conflict in the region, Hultin said. Whether the Gambian people will accept that premise, however, is an open question. Across West Africa state institutions are often viewed with distrust.

Meanwhile, current laws are ambiguous and confusing, he said. For instance, when Hultin was in Gambia in 2009, he went to courtroom proceedings in which a farmer was charged with having an illegal firearm – a World War II-vintage rifle his father had given him that he used to shoot wild animals on his farm. The man did not understand why the local government would get involved and would even question his possession of the gun, Hultin said.

Gambia does not have the same history of gun ownership as the U.S., where the right to bear arms is written into the Constitution and is supported by many, yet held in balance with laws to control small arms. But, as in the U.S., guns are social objects in Gambia.

Hultin will interview different social groups for their views on the legitimacy of the state to control small arms. He will explore everyday uses of, and ideas about guns and safety.
The range of people he will talk to includes hunters, urban youth, medical and legal personnel and, curiously, blacksmiths, who wield cultural and social power and significance in West African societies. Blacksmiths often make elaborately designed guns that are ceremonially fired in rituals.

"There are layers of issues to analyze," said Hultin, one of the founding editors and currently multimedia editor of African Conflict and Peace-building Review.

A member of the international board of Alliance for Democracy in Africa, a Gambia-U.S. nongovernmental organization with branches in several African countries, Hultin will share his findings and work with them, among other groups. His research could contribute new ideas and ways to respond to threats of small arms in the region.

– by Anne Bromley