THE recent transmission by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), of two executive bills to the National Assembly to control arms proliferation and regulate the importation of explosives into the country appears in order. But deeper scrutiny exposes the regime’s tactless approach and the helplessness of security forces in curbing arms smuggling into Nigeria. The biggest problem is that in many parts of the country, the Nigerian state has lost its monopoly on the use of force.
Highly organised criminal structures such as Islamist terror groups and killer Fulani herdsmen gangs are well-armed and dangerous. The government, therefore, has a major challenge to disarm these terrorists.
The President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, while explaining the bills, noted that the 2021 bill on importation of explosives sought to repeal the Explosives Act 1964 and enact the Explosives Act, to regulate the manufacture, storage, possession, use, distribution, purchase, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of explosives and for related matters. He added that in the second request, Buhari urged the Senate to consider the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons Bill 2021, to curb the security challenges in the country.
There have been several all-bark-and-no-bite statements from the regime in tackling insecurity. Not long ago, the President also vowed that the criminals bearing arms against the state would be brought to book. He ordered military commanders to ‘shoot on sight’ any civilian bearing AK-47 rifles. The declarations have so far achieved no substantial results. If anything, insecurity has worsened, and profiteers in illegal arms trading and smuggling continue laughing all the way to the bank with the security agents appearing overwhelmed.
This pathetic reality emboldens criminals, terrorists, killer-herders, bandits, and cultists, who are having a field day. They are killing, raping, abducting, and destroying on a colossal scale. Earlier in the year, the President approved the establishment of a national centre for the control of small arms and light weapons. A single feat of the centre has yet to be seen in the light of the smuggling of destructive arms into the country, especially from countries in the Sahel region such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad due to their long history of political instability.
The supply of illegal arms in the country is disquieting. Ex-military Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, put the number of small arms in the hands of non-state actors at over six million. The Armed Forces and law enforcement agents have only 586,600 firearms. Earlier, a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime survey indicated that illicit small and light weapons in Nigeria were 70 per cent or 350 million of the 500 million in the West African sub-region.
Pathetically, the institutionally and operationally deficient centralised police force appears helpless. The inert state of the security agencies reflects hugely in the failure to contain the smuggling of small arms and light weapons into the country by criminals who are hell-bent on turning Nigeria into a hellhole. The bravado of the then Inspector-General of Police in 2018 to state commissioners of police across the country and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, to engage in disarmament and recovery of prohibited firearms, ammunition and weapons yielded no tangible result.
Currently, criminals who have access to guns have made life “brutish, nasty, and short” in Nigeria. More worrisome, survivors of Fulani militia attacks and rescued/released kidnap victims report that the criminals also have grenade launchers and machine guns. So-called ‘bandits’ recently shot down a Nigerian Air Force jet. This is ominous.
To halt this ugly trend, the regime should move decisively and order security agents to initiate new strategies on how to mop up the epidemic of SALW across the country. Buhari needs to marshal the political will to back up whatever law is made on how to stem the smuggling of arms into the country. If this is missing, at best, the law will be a paper tiger amid a growing proliferation of weapons, aiding the worsening of insurgency, mass destruction, cult wars, abductions, frequent communal ethno-religious and pastoralists/farmers’ conflicts.
The market for illegal arms thrives in West Africa as the sub-region cannot produce weapons. As the UN noted, most of the guns in circulation originated from outside the sub-region and 69 Warsaw Pact weaponry dominates its market. It observed that for reasons of training, parts, ammunition, and habit, these weapons continue to be preferred two decades after the end of the Cold War.
Efforts must be made to infiltrate the illegal weapons trade in Nigeria to unmask the patrons and dealers to save the country from looming massive destruction currently being rehearsed with bloodletting across many states in Nigeria. Those apprehended should be prosecuted to send a strong warning to aspiring arms smugglers that the regime would no longer fold its arms and watch murderers turn the country into a battlefield.
There have been reports that some security agents aid and abet the illegal arms dealers, those found culpable should be made to face the music to serve as a deterrent to other would-be collaborators. There is a need for the country to collaborate with neighbouring countries, including the African Union Commission’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council to combat arms proliferation.
The country’s ports and waterways are also easy routes to smuggle in arms. They must be well manned and made impenetrable for the influential cartels. Nigeria should reject the attempt to make it a destination country for SALW. The signs are ominous and proactive strategies and intelligence-led operations by able security agents backed by biting legal framework can wholly halt them.
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