Increasingly, arms and ammunition are entering our shores, underscoring the fact that the country is a powder keg waiting to explode. The display on the premises of an Onitsha High Court in Anambra State of AK 47 rifles, General Purpose Machine Guns, rockets, rocket propellers/launchers, 5,830 pieces of AK 47 ammunition and 1,135 rounds of ammunition for GPMG rifles as exhibits, recently, in the trial of three suspected kidnappers, proves this. The size and sophistication of the arsenal were enough to sack the sprawling commercial town of Onitsha.
In the same state, the police had in February mopped up a mind-boggling quantity of arms, which prompted the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, to direct all state police commands to do the same. From some criminal hideouts in Anambra, Edo and Rivers states, more than 8,741 arms and 7,014 pieces of ammunition and 164 loaded magazines in AK 47 rifles were seized.
Despite the state of emergency declared in the North-East states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa by the Federal Government last year, the terror war there is now more ferocious because of the sophistication of the weaponry available to the terrorists. The assault on the Maiduguri Air Force Base and the 18 attacks in the first quarter of the year, which left behind over 1,500 deaths, are further evidence.
Regrettably, illegal weapons stream into the country through the seaports, air and land borders, manned by agents of the state. In an earlier editorial, we had drawn public attention to the dangers of such a development ahead of next year’s elections. The two major insurgent groups, Niger Delta militants and Boko Haram mass murderers in the North-East, are sustained by the arms flow.
It is only in Nigeria that as many ships as are often reported, illegally enter the territorial waters of a sovereign nation. These vessels, which are involved in the perennial crude oil theft in the Niger Delta, are also established vehicles for bringing in illegal weapons. Russia, Iran, China and Ukraine are among countries whose nationals have been involved in this subversive activity. We find it strange that such vessels and their crew are invariably released after some diplomatic pressure from the countries so affected.
In March, the Nigerian Navy arrested 22 Chinese and impounded four ships at Onne, Rivers State. The Commander of Nigerian Navy Ship, NNS Pathfinder, Godwin Ochai, said, “When our troops went on board the alien ships, they discovered that the four vessels had no immigration documents, neither did the 22 crew members have passports.” Fish, the official content of the ships, may not be the only items; illegal arms in the hands of Niger Delta militants enter the country through such channels.
This violation of Nigeria’s territorial waters, with all its security implications, will persist until Abuja learns not to bow to diplomatic pressure when national security is at stake. Since our security agencies have not acquitted themselves creditably in checkmating arms trafficking through our borders, the government should seek greater cooperation from its neighbours. The spokesman for the military, Chris Olukolade, a major-general, said last week that Cameroon had seized a large consignment of arms and ammunition at its north-eastern border with Nigeria, meant for Boko Haram. He said, “Over 288 rifles, 35 rocket-propelled guns as well as 35 locally made IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were recovered after a fierce encounter at Abugasse, Cameroon, close to the Chadian border.”
Uncontrolled inflow of arms into Nigeria from its borders with Chad, Niger Republic and Cameroon has turned the whole North into a killing field. Almost on a daily basis, gunmen invade villages and sack or kill the natives. It happened on April 6 in Yar’galadima village in Dansadau, Maru local council in Zamfara State, resulting in 112 deaths. And repeated attacks on some Nasarawa and Benue states’ villages by Fulani herdsmen armed with AK 47 rifles, forced the Federal Government early this month to deploy soldiers there to keep the peace. Accounts of the consequences have been blood-curdling.
In 2012, the then Chief of Army Standards and Evaluation, Shehu Abdulkadir, a major-general, raised the alarm that 70 per cent of the 10 million illegal weapons in circulation in West Africa were in Nigeria. This has undoubtedly increased with arms from defeated insurgents in Somalia, Mali, Libya and other states in the Islamic Maghreb finding their way into Nigeria.
There are 1,497 identified illegal routes into the country, according to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Abba Moro. If 13 containers laden with illegal arms could be intercepted at Lagos port by Customs officials in 2013 – similar seizures occur often – and others at Port Harcourt port, then the security challenges posed by these illegal routes are better imagined.
A United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya that studied the illicit transfer of weapons stressed that arms left “Libya to 12 countries” in the North African region and West Africa, even before Muammar Gaddaffi was ousted. As normalcy returned, arms unaccounted for are now sold via online sites. Syria, Iran and Lebanon are also sources to be wary of, as they serve as rendezvous for Nigerian terrorists and as illegal arms channels.
The implication of all this is that nobody is immune from the dangers inherent in arms proliferation in the land. Concerted efforts by all, retraining and equipping our security personnel adequately and improved intelligence gathering have, therefore, become urgent.
Above all, the state must display the courage to punish every felon. By so doing, willing recruits to crime will be deterred.