Guns Change Everything

John Siebert Conventional Weapons

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2009 Volume 30 Issue 1

Cyndi Lauper took Tom Gray’s bitter 1980 punk hit, “Money changes everything,” to the top of the pop charts in 1985 with an up-tempo backbeat and girly-inflected singing about love lost.

Today in the Horn of Africa among pastoralists, the introduction of guns has changed everything.

The introduction of guns

Sometime around the late 1960s traditional cattle raiding among pastoralists in the Horn of Africa took a decided turn for the worse when automatic weapons such as AK-47s became available. There were a number of sources for these guns, but regional wars stoked by Cold War superpowers played a significant role in flooding this conflict-ridden subregion with conventional arms. Traditional cattle raiding practices, which had sometimes been violent, were transformed into armed combat, with scores dying and wounded.

In the Spring 2009 issue of The Ploughshares Monitor Canadian author Rudy Wiebe has allowed us to reprint part of the recreated contemplations of the 19th-century Plains Cree Chief, Big Bear. In the 1870s, on what we now call the Canadian prairies, a drama took place that presages the devastation of armed cattle raids that continue today among African pastoralists.

Big Bear led his warriors against their enemies with their “Bay muzzle-loaders and rifles, their bows and arrows, spears, war clubs, and knives.” They were counterattacked: “These Blackfoot were armed with the latest Winchester repeater rifles and Colt revolvers traded from the Americans.” The result was that “after four more hours of ferocious fighting, forty Blackfoot were killed and fifty wounded, while the Cree allies escaped total annihilation only by leaving three hundred of their dead on the cliffs and in the coulees and river valley when they retreated.”

Across the porous borders of shared territory in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia—called the Karamoja Cluster after the Karamojong located in Uganda—thousands of people continue to be killed not only in cattle raids, but in retaliatory actions against other communities’ defenders and among the elderly, women, and children.1 Common criminality is aided and abetted by the same guns used in livestock raids.

In Wiebe’s telling of Big Bear’s story the changes that came with guns reveal the need for new ways of thinking, which result in both armed rebellion against encroaching Whites and the actions and example of the peace chief Maskepetoon.

Escalating violence

The similarities between these two gun-affected times and places only go so far. The trajectory of the experience of Aboriginal communities in western Canada following the 19th-century disappearance of the buffalo, the establishment of Indian Reserves through the numbered treaties, and the colonization of western Canada by Europeans is not paralleled by the experience of the Turkana, Pokot, Karamojong, and other pastoralists in East Africa. Pastoralists remain a sizeable majority in these vast areas of open country that sustains their numbers through a uniquely evolved culture of animal herding.2 Their pride in sustaining their cultures and their resilience should be admired.

But as with Big Bear’s people, the introduction of new and more advanced guns has played a pivotal role in escalating violence. James Bevan (2008, p. 21), writing for Small Arms Survey on the “Crisis in Karamoja,” describes the introduction of automatic guns as one of a number of interrelated factors that have pushed “an already fragile pastoral system out of equilibrium.”

Since the early 1990s Project Ploughshares has worked with others to draw attention to the urgent need for the international community to restrict the movement of small arms and light weapons. These attempts to control the supply of guns are picking up momentum at the United Nations in the negotiations now launched to achieve an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and in regional efforts such as the 2001 Nairobi Declaration that Project Ploughshares was instrumental in launching with our partner, the Africa Peace Forum.3 Such efforts must continue and accelerate, but they aren’t enough.

Reducing demand

Solutions must go beyond interrupting the supply of guns in conflict zones and removing them through disarmament processes. Keith Krause (2007, p. 24) has called these interventions second-generation strategies:

Second-generation attempts to deal with the small arms problem are probably more important and thornier because those of us who come out of an arms control or disarmament background have so much to learn from the development, humanitarian, public health, and crimes control communities. When you start to talk about second-generation measures, you shift your focus to the demand-side of the equation, to what drives people to seek and to hold, use, or misuse weapons—whether for personal or community security or with criminal and violent intent.

The factors influencing the escalation of violence and demand for guns among African pastoralist communities fall into this second-generation category: disease and drought, conflicts with those in nearby settled towns and trading centres along roads, remoteness from central government attention and decision making, climate-influenced shrinkage of grazing lands and water sources, few roads and public services, and increasing crime met by inadequate policing (Bevan 2008, pp. 28-29). Even the traditional motivations of cattle raiding for pride, wealth, and dowry are giving way to stolen cattle ending up on trucks bound for slaughterhouses and meat exporters. The commercialization of cattle rustling could lead to a new song, “Guns and money change everything.”

Gun violence is a harbinger and symptom of vast changes being visited on traditional societies, both in the development of western Canada and in the continuing formation of African societies. The guns have to be controlled and their numbers reduced if devastating violence is to be reined in. Disarmament as well as development, security reform, culturally sensitive adaptations, and new thinking need to be part of the equation in stopping this armed violence.



  1. The Conflict Early Warning & Response Mechanism (CEWARN) of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) of eastern Africa reports 3,674 violent deaths in the Karamoja Cluster in the period July 2003 to August 2008.
  2. Approximately 475,000 Karamojong reside in Uganda (Minority Rights Group International 2008). The Turkana in Kenya number about 284,000 (Minority Rights Group International 2005). There are an estimated 264,000 Pokot in Kenya and another 4,000-6,000 in Uganda (Comboni Missionaries in Kenya 2008).
  3. The complete Nairobi Declaration.


Bevan, James. 2008. Crisis in Karamoja: Armed Violence and the Failure of Disarmament in Uganda’s Most Deprived Region. Small Arms Survey: Geneva.

CEWARN. 2009. Reports.

Comboni Missionaries in Kenya. 2008. MCCJ Macheliba.

Krause, Keith. 2007. Lead paper, Session One: Controlling small arms and light weapons. In Project Ploughshares. Contemporary Threats to International Peace and Security.

Minority Rights Group International. 2005. Kenya: Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity.

———. 2008. World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Uganda: Karamojong and related groups.

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