Stamping out the small arms menace – Punch

Seized by inexorable fits of bloodshed, Nigeria is scrambling to untie an intricate web of crime, especially gun running. As a mark of the all-round panic, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has constituted a committee headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, in conjunction with top security chiefs, to chart the way forward on how to curb the proliferation of illicit arms in the country. The panel is essentially to review the submissions of the Presidential Committee on Small Arms and Light Weapons. This is a shrewd move, but the realisation of the ultimate goal is where the real contention lies.

From several accounts, there is a glut of SALW in Nigeria. An oft-quoted United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report stated that, of the 500 million SALW in West Africa, Nigeria is a repository of 70 per cent or 350 million of the guns. This is alarming. That number of arms is enough to drown the country’s population in its own blood.

Indeed, vast swathes of Nigeria are drenched in blood from these weapons. Boko Haram has slaughtered thousands in the past 11 years. Before that manic frenzy, Niger Delta militants laid different parts of the South-South region to waste. They kidnapped and destroyed oil facilities at will, forcing the government to sign an amnesty deal. Then, Fulani herdsmen took control. Unhindered by the law, they deployed sophisticated weapons and watered the land with the blood of farmers. The evil nexus between the Islamists and the herdsmen gained global attention: a Global Terrorism Index report ranked the two groups among the worst perpetrators of terror killings in the world.

In tow, bandits spread their vicious tentacles in the North-West. They specialise in kidnapping for ransom and killings. PRESCOM noted that, as of 2010, 24,794 lives and N13.2 billion were lost to kidnapping, hostage taking and illegal oil bunkering. Kashim Shettima, a former governor of Borno State, the worst hit state, estimated a death toll of 100,000 more than three years ago. These security woes are propelled by the prevalence of SALW in the country.

The weapons enter the country through official and unmanned borders, one of the reasons that made Buhari to shut down the land borders in August 2019. Others are smuggled in via the waterways on the south coast. In the run-up to any general election, desperate politicians acquire caches of arms and ammunition for their thugs. Subsequently, criminal gangs, terrorists and herdsmen buy them cheaply. Randomly, the Islamists attack military formations in numbers, capturing sizeable arms there. Plainly, the security forces are overwhelmed. A former governor lamented that the security forces did not own up to half of the weapons in the custody of the bandits in Zamfara State.

“Small arms do not only make easy the taking and maiming of lives, but also kill economies and the social bonds on which every kind of collective institution and progress rely,” the United Nations, which estimates that one billion SALW are in circulation globally, says. “These are the weapons of the easy kill: the most portable, most easily accessible, most casual instruments of death − even a small child can, with its tiny muscles, vanquish a life.” This is what is playing out in Nigeria.

Inexplicably, the official response in Nigeria is lethargic. At the borders, the operations of the Nigeria Customs Service and the Nigerian Immigration Service are nothing to write home about; through them, arms flow into the country. In the North, weapons are brought in by couriers, using camels, donkeys and smuggled vehicles. In the South, militants bring in SALW through ships and smaller vessels.

Guns kill; so many countries have applied cogent measures to tame the proliferation. In response to mass shootings, the European Union in 2015 imposed tougher gun control laws. Gun owners were made to undergo medical tests, semi-automatic guns were banned and online sales of weapons restricted. Following a mass shooting at a school in 1996, the British government used legislation to prohibit assault rifles, handguns and other types of firearms. As of 2013, 200,000 guns and 700 tons of ammunition were seized from British streets, the Washington Post reported. Thus, in the 12 months to March 2016, there were just 26 fatalities from gun-related crimes in Wales and England. In 2015, police there fired their guns only seven times.

To reduce gun deaths, the UN Disarmament Affairs notes that the tracking of weapons to their country of manufacture and destruction of seized weapons is effective. Kenya does this effectively, but it is lacking here. The UN organ advocates regional efforts by contiguous governments. Through this, Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina, in collaboration with the UNODC and INTERPOL, reduced the arms in circulation in their countries in 2019. Although Nigeria’s borders are closed, it should cooperate with its neighbours on gun running before they are reopened.

To curb the gun malaise, the Buhari regime should tighten the laws on guns. Instead of declaring amnesty for bandits, it should force them to submit their weapons and descend on them with the full weight of the law. Elections ought not to be wars. Politicians who fuel the arms influx should be identified, apprehended, tried and denied the benefits of attaining power through violence.

Government should beef up the capacity of the NCS and NIS to police effectively the country’s borders with the deployment of technology. The police should establish a special department to mop up the illicit SALW. Buhari should give the Inspector-General of Police and the director-general of the State Security Service a realistic ultimatum to remove the guns from wrong hands. In doing so, an efficient follow-up strategy should be implemented to seal permanently the loopholes the traffickers in these weapons exploit to bring them into the country.

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