The authorities could do more to stem the flow of illegal weapons into the country

At a one-day seminar on the control of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the country, the General Officer Commanding (GOC), 82 Division, Nigerian Army, Major General Hassan Dada, last week expressed concern about the high number of these weapons in unauthorised hands. “The number of weapons outside is very alarming,” said Dada. Buttressing the same point, the National Commission for the Coordination and Control of Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (NCCSALW) zonal officer, Major General Okechukwu Ugoh (rtd), said the proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons accounts for much of the untold human sufferings in the country. “It is important to mention that these weapons on their own do not cause conflict, rather, it is the easy access to them and the recklessness of their use makes violence more lethal and conflicts more protracted,” said Ugoh.

While we agree with the summation of the two generals, lamentation alone would not do. 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. Therefore, the task of protecting the people remains that of the state. 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 and unnecessary. It must proceed through a programme of illegal arms decommissioning and recovery plus the reinforcement of existing gun laws to penalise illegal possession of arms. 

The 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. Just recently, the Tin-Can Island Area Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) announced the seizure of large cache of arms, ammunition, and military camouflage. The arms recovered include automatic single barrel rifles and pump action guns, among other weapons. Given the overwhelming level of insecurity in the country, efforts should be made to contain the proliferation of these dangerous weapons.

Nigeria, according to many 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. Meanwhile, 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. 

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. 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. In several communities around the country, the deployment of armed vigilantes and traditional hunters armed with modern weapons has become commonplace.  

The proliferation of arms in civilian hands is perhaps the readiest sign that the Nigerian state has vastly receded in terms of ability to defend the lives and property of citizens. Ordinarily, peace and order are only guaranteed because citizens surrender their right of self-defense 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-defense hence the proliferation of illegal arms across the country.  

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