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Stronger measures required to halt arms influx

The Punch logo The Punch 03/01/2022 The Punch
Published 3 January 2022

NIGERIA is awash with illicit arms. From the daily assault of amply armed terrorists and criminals around the country to frequent arms seizures by security personnel, the reality of a society buckling under the threat of guns is palpable. The recent seizure of a container with arms hidden among used clothes at the Tin Can Island Port in Lagos reinforces this. Urgently, the Federal Government needs to devise and implement stronger, effective policies to halt the importation, fabrication, trade, and possession of illegal arms.

The foiled attempt to smuggle illicit weapons into the country demonstrates that the deluge is still on and thriving and that the security agencies and the Nigeria Customs Service especially, have yet to formulate measures to stop the influx through the ports and illegal entry points into the country.

Although the interception netted a relatively small cache – one Smith & Wesson pistol; 100 pieces of 9mm ammunition; 200 pieces of 70mm ammunition, and two empty magazines – the capacity of smugglers to beat almost all the rail guards is scary. The dangerous contraband was concealed among used clothes, and the container included cars, television sets and other goods. It is embarrassing that after many past seizures confirming the Tin Can Port as a major entry point for illicit arms import, the arms smuggling rings and their barons have not been smashed or exposed. The President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should appreciate the enormity of the problem, and devise a strategy and task force to rid the country of illicit arms.

The volume of illicit weapons in Nigeria is frightening, a vivid image of Nigeria’s weak security system, fuelled by corruption, laxity, hollow institutions, and absence of adequate punishment for the traffickers. The 2016 United Nations’ report saying that Nigeria accounted for 350 million out of the 500 million illegal arms in West Africa is out of date. A revelation by the police that 1,887 weapons were recovered between January and December 2021 is undoubtedly a mere drop in the ocean.

The availability of arms in the hands of non-state actors has helped to tip the country to the edge of state failure. Generously armed, criminals and terrorists sometimes overwhelm police and military units with superior firepower. In July, bandits/terrorists brought down a Nigeria Air Force Alpha jet in Zamfara State. In Borno State, Boko Haram/ISWAP Islamic terrorists have fired rockets into the fortified state capital, Maiduguri. Fulani herdsmen have reportedly added machine guns to their arsenal.

The influx of arms from crisis-ridden West, Central and North African nations and through the seaports, and the country’s porous borders, said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is fuelling the terrorism, kidnapping and wanton killings across Nigeria. The US National Security Council observed that developing countries like Nigeria with weak rule of law are particularly susceptible to such penetration of transnational crime. Stopping the deluge should be a top priority, backed with effective implementation of existing and new measures.

In January 2017, 661 pump-action rifles already cleared at the Lagos port were later intercepted. Another 440 assorted firearms were seized at the same port in May of that year, and 470 pump-action rifles were also seized just four months after. Figures of the quantum of arms smuggled through the porous land borders daily are not known. Evidence of the magnitude is however seen in the humongous quantity recovered from criminals and traffickers by security agents across the country. No doubt, the NCS has demonstrated laxity, while the intelligence agencies devote more energy to suppressing self-determination activism and regime critics than stopping arms trafficking.

The UNODC says, “The availability of weapons interacts with illegal oil bunkering, endemic corruption, high youth unemployment and social disintegration to produce a highly dangerous mix.” Global Initiative’s Global Organised Crime Index 2021 ranks Nigeria as the second in Africa, and fifth globally among countries with the highest pervasive criminality scores.

To be fair, the government has fashioned several responses to the illicit weapons threat. In September, Buhari transmitted two additional executive bills to the National Assembly to control the proliferation and regulate the importation of explosives. Earlier in July, both chambers of the parliament had separately voted amendments to the Firearms Act, imposing three to 10 years imprisonment and stiff fines for illegal possession and trafficking in arms offences. Also in May, Buhari approved the replacement of the Presidential Committee on Small Arms and Light Weapons with the National Centre for Small Arms and Light Weapons. Domiciled in the Office of the National Security Adviser, it will coordinate, “provide guidance, research and monitoring of all aspects of SALW in Nigeria.”

But the required vigour and bite are missing. With full presidential backing, the NSA should take effective charge of the measures to stop the influx. There should be full cooperation among the various agencies, the NCS, the Police, National Intelligence Agency, State Security Service, Defence Intelligence Agency, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, the state and regional security outfits, and the Nigerian Immigration Service. Buhari should demonstrate zero tolerance for inter-agency rivalry and obstruction. Like elsewhere, agencies should deepen collaboration and seek greater assistance from foreign intelligence agencies. In March, the Canada Border Services Agency moved to create a joint Canada-US cross-border task force to combat gun smuggling and trafficking.

The police should have a task force to complement other initiatives. There should be established protocols for destroying seized illicit weapons to stop them from returning to the wrong hands.

Nigeria must urgently secure its borders by deploying modern technology, drones, helicopters, and light surveillance aeroplanes. Incompetent and corrupt officials should be held responsible for any laxity and flushed out.

Meanwhile, there is no better time to devolve the policing system than now. Nigeria needs to decentralise the structure for effective policing. In the US, the police at all levels, including college campus police departments, are involved in tackling illicit arms. The deadly illicit influx should be stopped.

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