Buying a Gun in Somaliland
For the last twenty years, Somaliland has been enjoying far more stability and peace than southern Somalia, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get your hands on some serious hardware if you are inclined toward mayhem.
Hargeisa’s densely populated and labyrinthine arms market of Irtoogte, which means Sky-Shooter, offers everything from bombs to machine guns. As you enter the market, the competitive brokers scurry and jog alongside, offering good deals on whatever you need. The babble of voices rises everywhere as buyers, sellers and brokers haggle.
Arms seller Mohamed Ahmed sits among a group of men in an iron shack. He is the main dealer of AK-47s, and most of the men working in the market are subordinate to him. Every few minutes his mobile rings with queries about his prices.
Mohamed was a taxi driver seven years ago. Now he is a wealthy man. In front of the other men, his answers are tight and short. It is only when he motions me outside that he begins to open up.
“This place is risky for journalists....if they got to know that you are a journalist you will be in trouble,” he says as we walk through the market before arriving at a tea shop.
He silently opens a room next to the shop, and we enter into a gun nut’s heaven. AK-47s and Russian pistols line the walls.
“The government is aware of this business, but they don’t know how it goes,” he says. “We buy from those who are tired of the gun, and sell to those who want one. It’s a free market.”
“We mostly sell three types of AK-47, and two types of pistol, the Tata and another one locally known Dhabannacas,” he adds.
Somaliland suffered attacks by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab in 2008, which hit the presidential palace, United Nation Development Program offices, and offices for the Ethiopian government. The attack killed twenty eight people and injured forty others, and was carried out by the first known American suicide bomber, Shirwa Ahmed from Minneapolis. Since then, the Somaliland government imposed a law against terrorism and began to register arms. The law also said that anyone who wants to buy a gun must register with the police. However, Mohamed said the government and police don’t get involved.
“We sell arms to anyone, but sometimes we ask the buyer to come with someone we know,” he says. “We are not police ... it is not our job to register the arms.”
“We buy the arms from local owners ... there are no new arms coming to the market,” he says. “We mostly sell old arms. When Somalia’s government collapsed in the 90s, people looted all the military equipment.”
While Mohamed is adamant that guns are not coming in from outside, other dealers say that weapons come in from southern Somalia. There are suspicions that weapons are making their way in from Yemen and Eritrea.
The best-selling items are the four types of Russian-made AK-47. Mohamed said the prices run from $500 to $850 for the newest model, known locally as Daba-laab. Handguns go from $1000 to $1300. The Hargeisa market is more expensive than Mogadishu, where you can buy a brand-new pistol for almost half the price, and the new Kalashnikov comes in at least $50 cheaper.
"Business is good,” says another arms dealer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you buy three pistols, you can sell them again in hours.”
While the arms dealers are pleased with themselves and their business, residents are concerned that the government is doing nothing to curb the deadly trade. According to a newspaper editor, who wished to remain anonymous, the police and intelligence community are involved in the trade.
“Some of the arms in the market are Somaliland army equipment, and they also sell their ammunition,” he says.
None of the arms dealers would name the people they worked with or discuss their customers.
Somalia Report repeatedly attempted to contact the appropriate government ministries and police officials, but we were repeatedly refused comment.
It is common to see armed civilians walking the streets of Hargeisa, Many of them come from rural areas to sell their guns in the market.
Ali Warsame is a herdsman who came to sell his AK-47 to feed his family and livestock.
“A hard drought hit the countryside, and people and animals are dying, so I am came to sell my gun to buy food and water,” he says.
Arms trader Mohamoud Aw Jama said many people were selling their weapons in face of the drought. He says the main clients are business people and companies, which control their own security. One businessman, who didn’t want to be named, said he say no problem in the arms trade.
“The market is not a big deal,” he says. “Not everyone can afford to buy guns as it is expensive, so only business people use the market.”
Asked if al-Shabaab members can get arms from the market – as many analysts have warned - to carry out attacks in the city, he says he believes the group doesn’t shop there for fear of coming under suspicion.