Against the backdrop of mounting security challenges in Nigeria arising from the Boko Haram insurgency and ethno-religious crisis in the north as well as armed robbery and kidnapping in the south, it has been estimated that there are about one million illegally held guns in the country in civilian hands. The market price for most popular of them all, the AK-47 pattern of assault weapon, goes for $180 (about N27,000). While the total number of guns in the hands of civilians is put at two million, only half is said to be registered. The remainder are reportedly held by criminals and people who need to protect themselves from violent crimes, but could not go through the whole hog of arms registration. The two million guns in civilian hands put Nigeria at number 34 position in a comparison of privately owned guns in 178 countries, according to findings by an international gun control advocacy group. Only recently, President Goodluck Jonathan expressed worries over the proliferation of small arms in the hands of non-state actors in Nigeria which he added poses security challenges and threatens the peace of the country. He partly blamed technological globalisation for making the acquisition of such small but potent, cheap and easy to come-by arms. He has gone a step further by setting up a 17-member Presidential Committee on Small and Light Weapons headed by Ambassador Emmanuel Imohe to address the problem.
The committee certainly has a lot to do going by the data provided by GunPolicy.org, which also put the number of firearms in possession of the Defence forces at 179,550 and that of the police at 360,000. GunPolicy.org is hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, Australian. Through it, the school provides internationally recognized information on global and regional armed violence and gun control mechanism. Firearms ownership is regulated in Nigeria under the Firearms Act. An applicant for a firearm licence must pass background checks which consider criminal, mental and addiction records, while illicit possession of firearms carries a maximum of five years imprisonment. The Spokesperson of the State Security Service (SSS) Ms. Merrylin Ogah, was not available to respond to Daily Newswatch’s inquiry on what the department was doing about the challenges of illegal arms in the country. When contacted on phone, she said she was travelling on official engagement and would only be available for comments when she returned to Abuja. The Nigeria Police Force, however, said it was already engaged in mopping up illicit guns in circulation in the country. The Force Public Relations Officer, Mr Frank Mba, who stated this, noted that illegal guns is a major source of concern to the police and other security agencies in the country. “The truth is that the proliferation of small and light weapons is a concern to not only the Nigeria Police, but also other stakeholders in security community,” he told Daily Newswatch in his office at Force Headquarters, Louis Edet House, Abuja.
Giving a background to the proliferation of illicit guns in the country, the Chief Superintendent of Police said “this is a challenge that has become global and it is not just a challenge of Nigeria. The situation in West Africa sub region stems from the fact that the sub region has actually witnessed so many conflicts within the past one decade or thereabout. “There was a civil war in Liberia, Sierra Lone and Ivory Coast. So, the whole of the Mano River Region comprising of Liberia, Sierra lone, Ivory Coast and Guinea at a time was under serious threat of destabilization by internal conflict and civil wars. We also have challenges in the Sahel region where the activities of Al Qaeda in the Magreb also weakened some of the national governments in those areas.
“There are challenges in Mali, Libya, and civil war in Central African Republic as well as challenges in Chad. These countries appear far at a time, but are not anymore. Globalization has made it very easy for communication between and among citizens of the world to take place in little or no time. These are challenges that have actually complicated the issue bordering on the proliferation of light weapons for us as a people, as a country and as a security agent.” As to what was being done by the police to tackle the problem, Mba disclosed that, “First of all, we have tried to take a very strong and deep look at our borders. What the current Inspector General of Police (IGP), M.D. Abubakar, did within his first two months in power was to strengthen police border patrol department. He brought in a very experienced and operationally competent Assistant Inspector General of Police to head the border patrol unit. He procured more equipment for the operatives in the police border patrol unit, more specialized vehicles and some of the vehicles are equipped with satellite communication gadgets, because we discovered that in some of our borders, particularly in the North, communication is the major problem.
This is because the GSM service providers do not seem to operate very well in these areas. So, we needed to come up with a total communication structure that will be able to operate regardless of the availability of GSM services.” The police spokesman also said, “Then, he (IGP) also provided specialized kinds of vehicles capable of dealing with the challenges and other kinds of difficult terrain. Then, we also did training and retraining for our border patrol units, particularly to keep them properly prepared for contemporary challenges that have to do with border monitoring and policing. “As soon as we finished doing that, we got back to the waterways, because we also know that there are parts of Nigeria that are littoral; meaning that those places are practically covered by water; just as we have international land border, we also have international water borders. We have strengthened the marine police unit; in fact the police have just carried out a major reorganization of the marine police unit by creating what is called the Marine Police Command headed by an AIG. This has brought the marine police components, the inland-sea land waterways police and the Ports Authority police under a central command.
This makes it easier for the different components of the police units that are policing our waterways and territorial waters to be on our palms to be able to communicate effectively and ensure information sharing, dissemination; therefore central control becomes very easy. All these changes took place between December last year and now. We have intercepted about 15 vehicles that attempted to bring in illegal weapons into this country. Our marine police unit patrolling these axes have also made a large cache of discovery.” Mba revealed also that the police were in synergy with other security outfits in the country and the Interpol on the security challenge, stressing that, “We have tried to deepen our partnership with the Nigeria Customs, bearing in mind that the Customs are actually known to give critical inspection of imported goods into the country. In the last one year, there have been so many instances of the Customs intercepting arms and handing same over to the police without qualms. We have also been able to establish a system whereby the police and the Customs share intelligence particularly when Interpol intercept information concerning the destination point of illicit weapons.”