By Ayodele AKINKUOTU
Last month, in Addis Ababa, the Heads of State and Governments of the Africa Union, AU, held their annual meeting. The theme of this year’s summit was, ‘Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development’.
Even as these leaders were brainstorming on this matter, several parts of the continent were boiling from the dastardly activities of armed insurgents and other criminal gangs.
In fact, hardly has President Muhammadu Buhari settled down for the two-day summit than the Boko Haram insurgency group unleashed a ferocious attack on Auno, a suburb of Maiduguri, capital of Borno State. No less than 30 people lost their lives, some burned beyond recognition. The attack was an example of how the easy access to Small Arms and Light Weapons, SALWs, by all manner of people is wreaking havoc on Nigeria.
The global arms trade is a multi-billion dollar business. Experts estimate that there are more than one billion SALWs in circulation globally; majority of them believed to be in civilian hands.
In 2017, at a conference organised by the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, it was disclosed that between seven and ten million firearms worth about $35 million are illegally trafficked into the sub-region annually, and that Nigeria is their major destination. Aside that, of the about 500 million illegal weapons in West Africa, 70 per cent of them believed to be in Nigeria.
Those who doubt these figures should recall the early days in office of late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who offered amnesty to Niger Delta militants. Part of the deal was that the militants should surrender their weapons. And when those weapons started coming out of the creeks, even many top brass of the military said they were seeing some of the high-grade weapons for the first time.
Unfortunately, because of the Nigerian factor, the mopping up of weapons in the Niger Delta was without any strategy to either sustain it or even extend it to other parts of the country.
Nigerians are now ruing that lack of foresight. At the time, the general assumption was that the number of weapons surrendered was just an insignificant percentage of what is in the private arsenals of the militants.
What are the factors driving the proliferation of firearms in Nigeria? Some of them are the crude nature of the nation’s politics, failure of governance, insecurity, corruption and globalisation. Talking of politics, for many politicians, it is a do-or-die affair.
Thus, many politicians maintain a private army, fully equipped with firearms, either to settle scores with their opponents or to intimidate voters. These thugs are the ones who for a fee readily invade polling stations to snatch ballot boxes, at times in the full glare of security personnel. And when the opposition is aware of such impending invasion, they equally mobilise to offer resistance.
This kind of anarchy speaks volume of how government has failed in not only ensuring the sanctity of the ballot but in ensuring security for the people. Sadly, when the perpetrators of these crimes get into power, they leave many of their foot soldiers in the lurch. The latter who are not only fully armed but educated and jobless use their arms to find a living.
Two years ago, a former President of the Senate and a state government were implicated in the daylight robbery of a bank, in which a former foot-soldier of the top politician was the ringleader.
Several people including policemen were killed in that robbery.
The international community and experts agree that the illicit trafficking of SALWs constitute a serious threat to global peace and security. In Nigeria, it has become a grave source of instability, not only generating mindless violence and insecurity but undermining development efforts.
For more than a decade, because of Boko Haram, no serious development has been pursued in Nigeria’s North-east. In fact close to a million refugees from this area are in several internally displaced camps, while many have fled abroad into neighbouring countries.
These firearms equally fuel violent conflicts in the Niger Delta, kidnapping in the Southeast, robbery in the Southwest, ethnic/religious violence in North-central, cattle rustling in the Northwest, herders/farmers clashes, cultism and terrorism.
Considering the carnage these weapons have wreaked, the United Nations Assembly likens them to “weapons of mass destruction“. According to the Assembly, “The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems, and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.
On tackling the menace of small arms and light weapons, the Buhari administration has been largely tardy. For a retired General whose main agenda when he assumed power five years ago was providing security, he should have seen the link between SALWs and insurgency and other violent activities raging all over the country. Lately, however, he has taken steps to rein in the illicit trafficking of firearms. Last April, he attended a One-day Extra-Ordinary Session of the Conference of Heads of State and Government of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States held in N’Djamena, Chad.
A release from Garba Shehu, presidential spokesman, stated that, under Buhari, the nation has been working “closely with immediate neighbours in the last few years to stem widespread availability of small arms and light weapons making their way into Nigeria”. That relationship seemed not to have yielded the desired effects, and perhaps that was one of the reasons that necessitated the Chad meeting.
Shortly after this conference, there was some confusion in the nation’s public space about President Buhari signing an Executive Order revoking all certificates and licences for firearms throughout the Federation. This was said to have been a knee-jerk response to some Niger Delta militants allegedly planning to secede. According to the said Executive Order, those in possession of such licences and certificates were asked to hand their guns over to the nearest police station.
Not a few kicked against the said Order, which many interpreted as insensitive against a backdrop of herdsmen who freely carry arms without police challenging them. The House of Representatives passed a motion calling on Buhari to revert himself as an Executive Order cannot supersede a law. Interestingly, in spite of the fact that this controversy was widely reported in the media, the police said they were not aware of such presidential Order. Till date, mum has been the word on this matter even from the presidency.
While the President moves to tackle the challenges of arms trafficking at the regional and continental levels, sight should not be lost of the fact that arms trafficking has its root in legally produced weapons.
Against that backdrop, the Arms Trade Treaty of 2013 “sets out prohibitions to stop the international transfer between states of weapons, munitions and related items when it is known they will be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes”.
This treaty is observed in the breach by traffickers, who easily remove even the international tracing instruments attached to those arms to obliterate their being identified. These weapons simply get underground and into what has been described as the Dark Web, ably aided by globalisation and its inherent contradictions.
While globalisation is supposed to make doing business easier in the course of international trade, in the hands of illegal arms traffickers, it has become a conduit to perpetrate their nefarious trade with little or no transparency.
Thus traffickers of contrabands like arms and hard drugs operate across borders with fewer restrictions. And the fact that their illicit earnings end up in secret bank accounts in tax havens make the trade more lucrative for them.
And talking about a law to combat illegal trafficking in arms, a bill proposed by Senator Smart Adeyemi has passed its second reading in the Senate.
Adeyemi proposes in the bill for the establishment of a National Commission Against the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons and other Related Matters. When established, the commission will among other things tackle the menace of illegal arms trafficking by not only identifying sources and main routes of these small arms, ammunition and light weapons, but the merchants who feed fat on these deadly goods. Although the mission of the Commission is not going to be an easy one, some of the many routes through which these weapons come into Nigeria are known.
They include trucks involved in cross-border haulage, petroleum tankers inclusive, donkeys, camels, and motorcycles. Equally, arms are believed smuggled into Warri and Bonny towns in the Niger Delta from the Great Lakes region. And smugglers in Mali pack arms in waterproof bags which are attached to the underside of boats which ply countries along the River Niger.
Senator Adeyemi disclosed that even arms trafficking through aircraft is very rife. According to him, “The use of aircraft to transport weapons internationally and regionally is also common in the West African sub-region. Here military planes play active roles in large intercontinental illicit arms transfer by international brokers”.
There are even countries, their back against the wall like Nigeria was a few years ago, which unable to buy needed arms urgently legally resort to the services of these merchants of death.
Many concerned Nigerians think that the government needs to move swiftly to combat illegal arms trafficking if the nation is not to become a Somalia or Libya where rival gangs are battling for supremacy.
All stakeholders in government and civil society must join hands to formulate result-oriented programmes and realistic policies. The fact must be recognised that youth unemployment is at the heart of the many criminalities ravaging the country. If youths are gainfully employed, they will not become handy tools which corrupt politicians can engage as thugs. If youths are gainfully employed, the incidences of cultism and kidnapping for ransom will be greatly reduced.
And without easy access to small arms and light weapons, the frequent ethnic and religious crises that lead to mindless violence will largely be resolved through discussions and negotiations.
If the nation fails to silence the guns, a time will come when the response to a contemptuous look will be the drawing of a gun to settle scores. Those who doubt this kind of scenario should ask Nigerians who reside in places already carved out by street gangs. An imagined slight of a Capone or an innocuous smile at his girlfriend can earn the “fool” a bullet. Is there anything else to tell us that the time to silence the guns is now?
* Ayodele Akinkuotu, a former Editor-in-Chief of TELL Magazine, now writes a weekly column for the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.