The number of illicit guns in the street says much about why crime is soaring

Given the overwhelming level of insecurity in the country, proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) should compel serious action from relevant authorities, especially as we move towards the 2023 general election. With these illegal firearms, violent crime is no longer just social deviance but a thriving enterprise by many unscrupulous Nigerians with dire consequences for peace and national security. Even more frightening is the calibre and quantum of lethal weapons in the hands of non-state actors and contestants of state authority and territorial control. In parts of the Northeast, Northwest, the Niger Delta and Southeast, the arsenal of these groups of terrorists, bandits, militants and separatist groups range from AK-47 to machine guns, rocket propelled grenades to rocket launchers. 

 To the extent that these groups are not members of any recognised armed forces and are therefore civilians, the arms in their possession are as illegal as their very existence and activities. Their military grade weaponry is therefore part of the illegal arms in circulation. Meanwhile, sources of these dangerous weapons range from trafficking across porous land borders to leakages in our lax import procedures that have encouraged black market arms traffickers. Since transactional kidnapping has emerged in recent times as an unofficial sub-sector of the economy, families and friends of victims are being tasked to come up with ransoms in hundreds of millions of Naira. 

 Nigeria, according to most reports, accounts for at least 70 per cent of the illegal SALWs circulating within the West African sub-region, most of them in the hands of sundry criminal cartels and lone wolves. It stands to reason that with access to abundant illegal weapons the rogue elements in our midst have become more fortified and hence less amenable to entreaties to make peace. Yet, it was such easy access to SALWs by some unscrupulous elements that resulted in total breakdown of law and order in some of the failed states in Africa of which Somalia is a prime example.

To counterbalance the threat to life and property by these armed criminals, individual citizens have resorted to the acquisition of arms for personal security and protection. The sight of clergymen with AK-47 assault rifles on display at the altar has become familiar. Similarly, the incidence of urban elite women with loaded pistols in their designer handbags is symbolic of the dangerous times in which we now live. Also, in several communities around the country, the deployment of armed vigilantes and traditional hunters armed with modern weapons has become commonplace. 

 These and more are the varied faces of a nation literally under an unprecedented siege of insecurity. Given the number of arms in the country in the hands of private individuals, it is no surprise that very simple disputes that could be amicably resolved often get out of hand and become serious conflagration. If anything, the proliferation of arms in private civilian hands is perhaps the readiest sign that the Nigerian state has vastly receded in terms of ability to defend its territory as well as the lives and property of citizens. Ordinarily, peace and order are only guaranteed because citizens surrender their right of self-defence to the overarching force of the state. Once this shield of collective sovereign protection and security begins to cave in, individual citizens resort to self-defence hence the abundance of illegal arms across the country. 

 Since Nigeria has no constitutional provision on the right to bear arms, all such weapons in the hands of civilians remain illegal except by license for hunting and other sport. The state still officially remains the ultimate protector of the citizenry who are legally presumed unarmed. But it is a task that can only be performed in tandem with strengthening the security of citizens to make illegal possession of firearms unattractive. It has to proceed through a programme of illegal arms decommissioning and recovery and the reinforcement of existing gun laws.

 The time to act is now.    

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