- Federal Government must halt the stockpiling of illegal arms
President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to meet with governors of the nine oil-producing states over the build-up of arms in the area is a worrying reminder of Nigeria’s failure to deal with the virtual weaponisation of the country.
The meeting was a consequence of the staggering amount and variety of arms recovered from armed groups in Ajapa, Ese Odo Local Government Area of Ondo State. The weapons were brought in response to the Ondo State government’s 21-day ultimatum to armed youths to surrender all arms in their possession.
Apart from the usual assortment of AK-47 assault rifles, there were Daewoo K3 light machine guns, Heckler & Koch MG4 light machine guns, in addition to General Purpose Machine Guns, pump-action shotguns and pistols, as well as ammunition. There were also grenades, dynamite, military uniforms and bullet-proof vests.
The fact that these were the arms caches of youth groups, as opposed to militants or professional criminals, is what makes the discovery so disturbing. Ajapa has garnered a growing notoriety as the operational base of these groups; the kidnappers of six students of Igbonla Model College, Epe, came from this area.
Bad as it is, however, the wide-ranging nature of the arms haul in Ondo State is only symptomatic of a larger problem. It is not the only place where weapons can be found in great quantities and put to anti-social use. The Niger Delta is awash with weapons, as is the South-East, the Middle Belt and the North-East.
The profusion of arms has facilitated sharp spikes in the number and intensity of inter-communal clashes, such as those between herdsmen and sedentary communities. It has turned kidnapping into a ubiquitous crime from which no Nigerian is safe. It has made armed robberies, assassinations and other assaults much more brazen than they used to be.
In other words, the proliferation of arms has become a nationwide problem which must be tackled on a national level, as opposed to the sub-regional consultations implied in the president’s meeting with governors of the oil-producing states.
One of the first places to start is the issue of how these weapons get into the country. The recent past has seen the interdiction of several consignments of arms at the nation’s ports. Greater effort must be utilised in ensuring that the importers, agents and customs officials involved in this crime are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If illegal arms are merely seized without prosecuting those involved, little will change.
Then there is the question of the arms-amnesty process itself. Governments encourage armed groups to turn their weapons in without prosecution, often in return for promises of cash and empowerment. Experience has shown that not all weapons are brought out, and that the cash, training and jobs promised are not sustained.
It is time to develop a formal structure for this process, incorporating the amounts to be paid, the range of training and employment opportunities to be provided, and the duration to which they will be on offer. What obtains at present is an arbitrary system that is too dependent on the whims of individual governments.
A formalised arms-amnesty arrangement will convince armed groups that governments are serious and offer them a viable way out of lives of crime. It will also reduce the temptation to go back to criminal activity as a result of frustration with broken promises.
A nationally-convened meeting on the illegal arms crisis is the most effective way to confront the issues and debate their likely solutions. Stakeholders will bring their peculiar issues to the table and have them evaluated in a national context. Ethnic and religious groups will be assured that their specific problems are not being ignored. Ultimately, the country will finally begin to get a grip on a phenomenon that threatens its continued peaceful existence.