Laid low by its collapsed institutions, Nigeria has come under an intense siege of guns and gunmen. Daily, gunmen rampage through the country’s highways and communities wreaking bloody havoc on defenceless citizens. In the North-East, where Islamist terrorism has boomed for 11 years, Boko Haram insurgents launch frequent attacks on communities, farmlands and military formations with formidable firearms. All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the worsening gun violence. For once, the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime should implement an integrated formula to mop up illegal guns and prosecute the non-state actors terrorising Nigerians with their deadly armaments.
Unarguably, a stark indicator of a failing state is when a government cedes the monopoly of force to criminals. At the moment, the Nigerian government seems to have lost control and gangs and insurgents are dictating the pace almost everywhere in the country. The Buhari regime’s efforts are surprisingly weak and shockingly uncoordinated. Despite shutting its borders in the 18 months to December 2020, the influx of illegal weapons has not abated considering the upsurge in banditry, kidnapping, cultism and general insecurity in the past two years.
With their booming guns, bandits have seized control of the North-West, terrorising the states in the region to the point that governments there are negotiating dodgy amnesty and compensation deals with the criminals. In the North-Central, violent crimes define citizens’ daily life. Abruptly, the South-West is being run over by killer herders. Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, Osun and Ekiti states are reeling under a deluge of guns. Cultism and gang violence have spiked in the region.
Despite surrendering a huge cache of weapons under the amnesty programme, militants in the Niger Delta are still armed to the hilt. Audaciously, gangsters invaded the Divisional Police Headquarters in Obowo, Imo State, on February 6, killing two officers and looting the armoury. For many criminal gangs, attacking security agents is a tested way of building their arsenal. The following day in Warri, Delta State, gunmen killed a mobile police officer, fleeing with his rifle. Two police stations, one in Abia State, and the other in Ebonyi State, were recently burnt by gunmen, who also looted their armouries. The Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, said the force lost 100 AK47 rifles in attacks on 37 police stations when hoodlums hijacked the #EndSARS protests in October.
The human cost of the spate of gun violence is gnashing. In Birnin Gwari and Kajuru LGAs of Kaduna State, bandits murdered 19 villagers two Saturdays ago. In January, gunmen operating on motorcycles had slaughtered 12 persons in three Birnin Gwari LGA villages. The Kaduna-Abuja Expressway has been a deadly route for years now. After a November 2020 invasion by bandits of a Sokoto State community claimed 76 lives, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, lamented, “In fact, it (North) is the worst place to be in this country because bandits go around in the villages, households, and markets with their AK47 and nobody is challenging them.” In Katsina State, gunmen abducted over 300 secondary school pupils in December. In a 2020 report, the International Crisis Group said gun violence killed 8,000 people between 2011 and 2020. In the North-East, Boko Haram has killed about 100,000.
Apart from this, weapons flow into Nigeria from Libya, Mali and other war-torn West African countries through the porous borders. In the run-up to elections, politicians arm their supporters with assorted weapons. On two separate occasions in 2017, the Nigeria Customs Service seized 1,100 pump action rifles that had passed through the seaports in Lagos. Residents are currently taking flight from Obiate in Nembe LGA of Bayelsa State after persistent attacks by gunmen. In nearby Rivers State on February 13, rival cultists slaughtered five persons in Obio/Akpor and Oyigbo LGAs.
Most guns used by criminals are either illegally imported or converted weapons. As of 2016, the United Nations estimated that 350 million out of the 500 million small and light weapons circulating in West Africa were domiciled in Nigeria. The figure might be rising. That is a ready-made recipe for anarchy. The caches are enough to arm regional armies for war.
Depressingly, there is as usual, no national consensus on how to tackle the gun menace and manage the brewing ethno-religious overtones.
The President should wake up, and give peace to Nigerians being terrorised by mindless anarchists. The way out of gun proliferation is to tighten the gun laws, trace and clamp down on the sources of supply, fortify the porous borders and prosecute illegal gun owners/runners.
European countries live under this dictum. A 2013 European Union report found that nine out of 10 Europeans never owned a gun. In the aftermath of deadly terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016, the EU tightened its Firearms Directive to ban converted semi-automatic firearms and standard capacity magazines. Twice, New Zealand has tightened its gun laws since the deadly massacre of 51 Muslims in Christchurch mosques in 2019. In the second amended law last June, a registry was opened for licensed gun-owners.
Nigeria’s illegal gun epidemic should be addressed. Buhari’s laidback approach is escalating gun violence. Virtually every firearm used to commit a homicide or other violent crime was first purchased from a licensed dealer by someone deemed to be legally eligible. Tons of armaments unloaded on Africa during the Cold War and civil wars did not evaporate, but continue to be re-circulated on the continent. Of 500 million illegal guns in West Africa, 350 million or 70 per cent are said to be in Nigeria.
Buhari should lead a regional cooperation programme to collect and destroy these illegal weapons. Laws on illegal possession of weapons should be rigorously and vigorously enforced. Research findings by Small Arms Survey say significant numbers of illicit weapons in West Africa are sourced from national stockpiles. The military and other security agencies should be made to account for arms and ammunition in their custody. “Craft production of firearms in illegal workshops also contributes to illicit proliferation, as does the conversion of alarm and blank-firing handguns, the report adds. Through a painstaking intelligence, fire-arms workshops should be identified and destroyed.