FULL DOCUMENTARY: Cheap and Dangerous: The unregulated taser market in Ghana

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There is a growing public security risk on the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra as tasers are being sold in the streets and shops by unauthorised people to ordinary citizens who are not licensed or trained to handle and use these devices.

A taser is a device which can be used as a weapon to incapacitate people with about 50,000 volts of electric shock. They are usually used by trained and authorised security personnel to subdue people they deem to be behaving aggressively.

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Tasers displayed in an electrical appliances shop at Makola Market 

But on the streets of Accra, they are being sold to people who want to use them as weapons of defense against armed robbers and would-be rapists, for example.

Kofi Worlasi (not his real name), a senior medical officer in a public health facility in Accra, told The Fourth Estate that he bought a taser at the Dzorwulu traffic light on the N1 Highway and was quite surprised at the ease of the transaction.

He had initially wanted to buy a gun but found the process too cumbersome and costly. That was when he asked about tasers from friends who are police officers.

“Some policemen I spoke to about owning taser couldn’t give me any information so I was like even the police who are supposed to be in charge of this thing don’t even know whether there is any law or not,” Kofi said.

And then he heard he could get one in traffic. “I was shocked! Traffic? Taser? How?” he wondered.

At the Dzorwulu traffic light on the N1 Highway one evening, he asked a hawker who quickly called a friend over. Within a few minutes he had a taser in his hand and the transaction was complete.

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A hawker who sells taser and pepper spray at Dzorwulu

“The box of the taser is somewhere, the taser itself is somewhere, the charger is somewhere, the wallet is somewhere,” Kofi said, adding that: “He gives you the price, you are ready to buy, he quickly assembles it and gives it to you on your lap and tells you how to use it. The light is green, you are done, you pay, you leave.”

He says he will only use the taser to defend himself but experts worry that many other people might procure tasers and use them as weapons of offense – use them to attack people and commit crimes.

The booming market at Dzorwulu

At the Dzorwulu Junction on the N1 Highway in Accra where Kofi Worlasi bought his taser, vendors, disguised as sachet water and snack hawkers, discreetly move through the crowd with their illegal arms tucked away in hidden compartments.

The hawkers ply their trade with a detached and businesslike demeanour. One of them, who gave his name as Bismark, sells cigarette lighters but almost everyone of his fellow street hawkers knows that he also deals in tasers and pepper sprays.

On the day The Fourth Estate team met him, Bismark had no tasers available to sell. He only had pepper spray which he sold at GHS 180.00 with assurances that he would get the team a taser later.

Accra Central Market cartel

The Dzorwulu Junction traffic light on the N1 Highway is just one of many places where tasers are being sold in Accra. In shops in the bustling Makola market, one can buy a taser like any of the many electronic appliances sold in the area.

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A trader sells tasers in an electrical appliances shop at Makola Market 

A trader, a middle-aged woman at an electrical appliances shop, was initially dismissive and appeared too busy to be of assistance when The Fourth Estate’s investigative journalists approached her. She initially denied anything about tasers or selling them only to later ask the team to wait for the main dealer. When he eventually showed up, the dealer appeared nervous and reluctant to sell to people he didn’t know.

But after conversing with him for a while, he let his guard down and decided that he could do business with the investigative team. That was when the middle-aged woman the team first met in the shop went inside and brought two tasers. She then proceeded to eagerly provide instructions to the journalists on how tasers work.

The team bought one taser for 200 cedis.

Online cartel

The Fourth Estate investigations also revealed that like almost everything else in the world today, there is an active market online for the sale of tasers in Ghana.

For example, the investigative journalist saw a post on X, formerly Twitter, advertising tasers and pepper spray. In a seamless and stress-free transaction, an order was placed for a taser, choosing the pickup option, over the seller’s home delivery offer.

At 11:00 am the next day, the reporter was in front of a popular shop at Accra Central, waiting for Emmanuel, the dealer, as agreed. But Emmanuel had other ideas. He did not show up but his assistant, Daniel, delivered the package wrapped in a black polythene bag. And the journalist paid 180 cedis for it.

Daniel, later in a conversation, told The Fourth Estate that he knows the sale of the “the product [taser] is illegal”, but he continues to sell it because there is a market for it.

“We get issues with police,” he said, “but the same [police officers] do buy from us. I don’t know why at times we get problems with them.”

Daniel said his mother imports the tasers from China, claiming that his clients include police, prison and military officers.

Investigations also revealed that the taser vendors sell to anyone willing to pay, including minors.

The Fourth Estate engaged a 17-year-old whose mother gave consent for her son to participate in the investigation. The teenager was able to buy a taser in the open market at Makola with ease. Like The Fourth Estate reporter, Kelvin (not his real name) had to wait in front of a popular electrical shop at Accra Central Market to receive the taser he ordered online.

After about five minutes of waiting, two men approached him with a taser wrapped in a black polythene bag and took GHS180 from him.

Ride-hailing drivers’ group 

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 During investigations, The Fourth Estate heard of a popular group made up of ride-hailing service drivers on WhatsApp. The group named ‘Online Drivers Group’ focused on the security of drivers on ride-hailing services such as Uber and Bolt. As of October 31, 2023, the group had 113 participants.

The group administrator encouraged the drivers to buy pepper sprays and tasers, which were being offered for sale on the page.

“We know the work has become tough for us online drivers but if we are going to be honest with ourselves, this is not something we cannot buy,” the group administrator said in an audio message to members.

“People are buying the tasers and pepper spray so don’t be left out because you will be in the car alone. If [robbers] catch you and squeeze your neck, you will endure it alone. I won’t be there with you but if I can come over and help, I will. Right now, Ghana is not safe,” he claimed.

He further claimed that the supplier of the tasers was a police officer.

“Before we give you a taser, we want to know who you are, we want to speak with you, and we want to know your temperament. And with this, psychology comes in. So, the resource person, who is a policeman, who is a supplier would have to speak with you. He has a way of assessing the kind of person you are,” he said in another audio message.

 Security analyst worried

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Dr Ishmael Norman, security analyst 

A security analyst, Dr Ishmael Norman, told The Fourth Estate that the open sale of tasers should be a concern to all stakeholders, especially as the 2024 general election approaches.

Referencing advanced countries, he recounted how studies show that many people have died because a taser was used on them.

He said the sale of tasers should not be left unregulated, especially as the 2024 general election draws near.

“Our parliament sometimes does not represent the wishes of the people because this should be a concern of the committee on security and safety in this country. As we go into election year, there is going to be a lot of such activities going on,” Dr Norman cautioned.

“The control of tasers should start from the port. There is too much organised criminal activities going on in our ports. Does the Minister of Interior know the quantum of tasers that are being imported into Ghana?”

National Commission for Small Arms and Light Weapons

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The National Commission for Small Arms and Light Weapons exists to prevent and combat the proliferation of small arms and light weapons and related materials in the country.

The Commission is expected to do this through advocacy, public sensitisation, and formulation of appropriate policies in close collaboration with stakeholders.

A deputy director of policy planning, monitoring and evaluation at the Commission, Gyebi Asante, told The Fourth Estate that he is not aware of any law that currently regulates the sale, ownership, and use of tasers in Ghana.

He said as part of The Arms Trade Treaty, which aims at controlling the sale, transfer, and diversion of weapons, Ghana will soon come up with a national control list as a way of monitoring and regulating the system.

 Sale of tasers, pepper spray is illegal

The Fourth Estate reached out to the Ghana Police Service on November 18, 2023, for an interview but received no response.

However, a source, a senior police officer who did not want to be identified, explained to The Fourth Estate that the sale and possession of tasers in the open market is illegal, explaining that tasers are not supposed to be sold by civilians. He bemoaned instances where even some police officers and private security guards purchase and possess tasers and pepper spray from the open market.

“Someone may keep these weapons in the home and use them to attack someone over little disagreements. It is wrong,” he said.

He mentioned instances where police officers were attacked with tasers and pepper spray by members of the public who acquired the weapons from the open market and called for support from the public to regulate the system.

The source said tasers and pepper sprays are issued to personnel in the police service only during special assignments, with details of the weapons and receiving officers recorded.

Physician specialists on taser use

3 Dr. Freda Dodd Glover

Dr Freda Dodd-Glover

A physician specialist and neurologist at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Dr Freda Dodd-Glover, explained that repetitive taser shocks can have a severe impact on the body.

Tasers can affect the heart or brain of the person being tasered. They could also cause mild injuries and trigger long-term neurological effects, depending on the health condition of the individual being tasered.

“If your nerve is continuously stimulated, the nerve that supplies the muscle, the muscle is going to go into tetany,” Dr Dodd-Glover.

Tetany is a condition characterised by intermittent muscular spasms. It could lead to muscle stiffness. “It can actually kill you because the muscle will break down.”

Dr Dodd-Glover wants law enforcement agencies to properly regulate the sale and use of tasers, as they are potentially lethal weapons that require proper knowledge for safe handling.

“I don’t think lay people should have their hands on tasers. It’s quite dangerous as you can tell,” she advised.

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