The proliferation of small arms and ammunition has remained a very tough challenge for governments across West Africa, including Nigeria. A report from SBM Intelligence revealed that “The number of small arms in circulation in Nigeria, in the hands of civilian non-state actors is estimated at 6,145,000, while the armed forces and law enforcement collectively account for 586,600 firearms.” This shows that small arms circulating within the civilian population are about ten times the quantity in the hands of security personnel.
This fact was fresh in the mind of the Chief of Defence Staff, CDS, General Lucky Irabor, last Friday, as he decried the proliferation of illegal arms in the country, saying it was a threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence. Irabor who stated this in Asaba, after a courtesy visit to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, said the Presidential directive to shoot-at-sight anyone illegally bearing an AK-47 rifle was very clear and will be enforced. While saying Nigeria as a country forbade illegal bearing of arms, he warned that anyone found with such weapons was an enemy of the state and would be treated as such.
In Irabor’s words: “The armed forces and other security agencies are the only institutions that are mandated to carry arms in the course of their duties, so anyone who is carrying an AK-47 or any other weapon, for that matter, is considered a threat to the existence of the state.”
The illicit proliferation of arms has had a dramatic impact on peace and security in Nigeria, threatening not only the existence of the country, but also the livelihoods of millions of people across the 36 states of the federation. Even cultists in higher institutions use firearms in their rival conflicts, while political thugs frequently clash with their opposition groups in their quest to upend election results. In recent times, security personnel and facilities have been victims of attacks from armed bandits and gunmen who possess highly sophisticated weapons.
The SBM Intelligence report stated that some states in the Southern region have a local arms manufacturing sector but the most significant portion is from importation/smuggling, mostly from Libya and other North African countries. Arms from failed states like Libya, transported across the Sahel countries provide the highest percentage of small weapons in Nigeria.
For the Northern region, the report said the proliferation of small weapons coupled with “existing state corruption, large tracts of ungoverned spaces, and mass unemployment has largely been responsible for the rising criminality and violence in Northern Nigeria.”
According to preliminary findings from the National Small Arms and Light Weapons Survey, locally manufactured arms illegally contribute to a remarkable percentage of arms in circulation in Northern Nigeria, especially in North Central.
SBM corroborated this as it revealed that “In Benue and Plateau states, both in the North Central region, locally made weapons are estimated to be used in over 50% of crimes committed – 62% for Benue State, and 69% for Plateau State. In Adamawa State in the North East, it is 32%”.
More so, since the shoot-on-sight order by President Muhammadu Buhari to AK-47-wielding herdsmen and bandits, operatives of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) have arrested 50 arms-bearing herdsmen. This was disclosed by the Commandant-General of the NSCDC, Dr Ahmed Audi, while presenting licences to private guard operators.
Similarly, President Muhammadu Buhari in August 2020 had approved the establishment of a national centre for the control of small arms and light weapons. The National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, had said the centre will be domiciled under the office of the NSA, and will “work in compliance with already laid down international standards, and ECOWAS moratorium on the control of small arms and light weapons.”
Arms control essentially has been a difficult task. In Nigeria, several efforts have been made to regulate arms over time. Unfortunately, the efforts have only produced marginal result. Corruption, poor security network, border leakages and politics have played dominant roles in the excessive availability of arms in Nigeria.
The issue of free-flowing arms goes beyond Nigeria. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons in various parts of the globe continues to pose a systemic and pervasive threat to the long-term social and economic development of many nations, particularly in small developing states.
No nation, region, or sub-region is immune from the dangers posed by the illicit trade-in and the proliferation of arms. History has shown that events in one area or region can have far-reaching implications in other areas and throughout the global community. The wide circulation of these weapons is oftentimes the catalyst that transforms local incidents into global events.
The impact of this arms proliferation can be extensive and far-reaching. It can hamper foreign investments and affect economic activities like tourism negatively. For instance, this week, the United States, in its latest travel advisories, has directed its citizens to avoid 14 states in Nigeria, bedevilled with terrorism, banditry and kidnapping.
Although it approved travel to other parts of the country, it, however, urged its citizens to “reconsider travel to Nigeria.” In the updated advisory, the US State Department added at least 116 countries this week to its “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory list.
The State Department now lists 150 countries at Level Four. Nigeria is in Level 3. It then listed areas the American visitor should avoid, while in Nigeria. They include Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, due to both terrorism and kidnapping; as well as Bauchi, Gombe, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, and Zamfara, due to kidnapping solely.
It also banned American citizens from going to Coastal areas of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, and Rivers states (with the exception of Port Harcourt) due to crime, kidnapping, and maritime crime.
In a country summary on Nigeria, the US State Department wrote: “Violent crime — such as armed robbery, assault, carjacking, kidnapping, hostage-taking, banditry, and rape – is common throughout the country:
Developing a strategy to deny permission to illegal weapons and ammunition, and ensuring zero accessibility to dangerous weapons by criminals, armed groups, and extremists should be a policy priority for the Nigeria government if she is serious about destroying this criminal enterprise in the country, and guaranteeing safety and security of her citizen.
One of the ways in which this can be carried out is by strengthening the legal and administrative framework of the country to combat and prevent the illicit flow of these arms across the borders. The proliferation of firearms is often treated with kid gloves. This is why the country must recognise the importance of combating the illicit flow and begin to integrate such efforts into wider national development planning documents.
Exchanging information and sharing best practices at state and regional levels is also germane. This would enable individual sister countries and regions to forestall the repetition of the failures and setbacks already experienced by others.
There is equally United Nation’s International Tracing Instrument designed for member states to combat illicit trade-in and the proliferation of SALW. While many member-states frequently reinforce their political commitment to implementing the provisions of the Instrument, the limited number of states reporting on its implementation is a problematic issue that should be addressed. Effective arms control will promote peace and ensure stability as it will encourage the reduction of the number of arms in illegal hands, while fostering an arms-free society.
Until Nigeria develops a strict roadmap to tackle the issue of illicit weapons which will include addressing the issue of corrupt security officials; strengthening governance issue; updating legislative provisions; and transparency of Nigeria arms deal; efforts at tackling illicit weapons might continue to yield little results.