How illicit weapons fuel Nigeria’s insecurity

  • Gunrunners ferry arms on donkeys, camels via illegal routes


Nigeria is facing a gun pandemic as millions of small arms and light weapons (SALW) have found their way into the country and are being used by different criminal groups.

The landmass of the country, hundreds of unmanned borders coupled with shortage of manpower by various security agencies make it easy for gunrunners to bring in the different calibre of weapons which they sell at giveaway prices, leaving the country at the receiving end.

The crises in Libya, South Sudan and other countries in the Sahel further aggravate inflow of illicit weapons that easily get into the hands of terrorists, bandits, kidnappers and other sundry criminals.

Arms impounded by Customs officials in Lagos
Arms impounded by Customs officials in Lagos

Security experts believe that the high number of illegally acquired weapons in the country contribute to widespread insecurity.

“The manner in which criminals bring in weapons into Nigeria has a direct correlation with the various security breaches we are battling to contain at home,” said Salihu Bakhari, a retired military officer.

“The lawlessness in Libya, Sudan and Central Africa bring down the cost of weapons…You can buy an AK47 for as cheap as N100,000 or less along the borders.

“Criminals use camels and donkey to ferry in these guns through illegal routes. And we have ready buyers all over, such as the Boko Haram fighters, the bandits, the kidnappers and ethnic jingoists,” the officer said.

Kolo Mala, a resident of Ngala in the northern part of Borno State said gunrunners disguise as local merchants, conceal arms and ammunition in goods being transported on animals and use narrow routes to ferry them into Nigeria for ready buyers.

“It is very difficult to track the arms merchants because of the way they do their things,” Mala said. “And when you look at the weapons being used by Boko Haram and other bandits, of course, they got some after raiding security formations but they also buy some imported into the country through the porous borders; you will see Arabic or French inscriptions on some of those recovered by our troops,” he said.


‘More weapons in private hands than security outfits’

In the National Security Strategy released by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) published in December 2019, and launched by President Muhammadu Buhari, the federal government estimated that there are around one million small arms and light weapons in Nigeria.

However, experts have dismissed the ONSA’s estimates as very low, with some quoting figures of hundreds of millions of illicit weapons in circulation.

A security strategist even claimed that there are far more weapons in the hands of private citizens than there are in the possession of the entire armed forces of the country.

In an interview with Daily Trust, retired Captain Sadeeq Garba Shehu, who specialises in small and light arms, dismissed the one million figure mentioned in the national security strategy document.

He expressed doubt as to whether the office of the NSA carried out or commissioned any SALW survey to arrive at the one million figures.

He said according to the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC), the same source the NSA document claimed to have drawn its figures from, 70 per cent of the 500 million illegal arms in West Africa are in Nigeria, meaning there is an estimated 350 million of these weapons in Nigeria.

Though his figures of small arms on the continent were different, the Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Ibrahim Musa Rafsanjani also agreed that 70 per cent of illegal arms in West Africa are in Nigeria.

He said available data on SALW showed that out of the 640 million circulating globally, it is estimated that 100 million are found in Africa, about 30 million in sub-Saharan Africa and eight million in West Africa.

“Seventy per cent of the eight million find their way into Nigeria. The majority of these SALW, about 59 per cent, are in the hands of civilians, 38 per cent are owned by government armed forces, 2.8 per cent by police and 0.2 per cent by armed groups,” he said.

CISLAC based its figures on a document captioned ‘Proliferation of Arms and Security Challenges in Nigeria: International Journal of History and Cultural Studies published by’.


How arms find their way to Nigeria

Nigeria has a total land area of 923,768 km2, making it the world’s 32nd-largest country.

The country shares a borderline of 4,047 kilometres  (2,515 mi) with its neighbours – Benin (773 km), Niger (1497 km), Chad (87 km), and Cameroon (1,690 km). It also has a coastline of approximately 853 km.

As at 2017, there were over 1,400 illegal routes into Nigeria which are 1,316 more than the approved number of border control posts.

Ogun and Adamawa states, for example, have 83 and 80 illegal posts respectively.

The 84 approved border controls cover 4,047km, the total length of Nigeria’s land border.

To take care of the borders, the Nigeria Customs Services (NCS) has four zones divided into 25 area commands.

The NCS has about 17,000 personnel and the comptroller general of the service, retired Col. Hameed Ali, recently said the officials were not enough to police the borders.

On the other hand, Immigrations has 25,303 personnel in eight zonal commands, as well as commands in all the 36 states of the federation.

This is in addition to the FCT Command in Gwagwalada, Seaport State Command in Apapa, Seme State Command in Badagry, Onne Marine Command in Onne Port, Rivers State and Lagos Border Patrol in Seme.

In August 2019, Customs in collaboration with the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) and other security agencies began an exercise codenamed ‘Swift Response’ that resulted in the partial closure of the land borders.


‘No one can verify actual scale of illegal weapons in Nigeria’

A retired Brigadier General of the Nigerian Army and president of White Ink Institute for Strategy Education and Research (WISER), Saleh Bala, said the number of weapons being “bandied about” cannot be verified for several reasons but agreed that the number of SALW in Nigeria has reached “pandemic level.”

“When you say illicit weapons, it means they are unmarked and unregistered and cannot be traced, so you can only estimate,” he said.

“We should ask those who make the estimate on what basis they make them. Several of them have been in the hands of individuals and groups since the pre-independence period because the experience with small arms is not a recent one.

“The crisis in the Niger Delta and the war in Libya have also been blamed for the rising number of illegally acquired weapons in Nigeria.

“You have illegal guns that are contesting with the legal ones and are definitely more than the legal ones you have in this country.

“The total number of the military is not more than 400,000; you have 400, 000 police operatives and then the paramilitary forces and the intelligence agencies, which can be rounded up to around 350,000.

“Now, even on the assumption that every single member of the armed force is armed, you can sum up the total to around 1.2 million. If you relate this with the figures being bandied about, even if you estimate the number of Boko Haram, which is about 2-300,000 (based on intelligence reports), it is a very serious problem.

“Not everybody in the armed forces carries an arm, so by these calculations, you can estimate the numbers and realise that the number of legal weapons you have is not as significant as the illegal ones; including those in storage, including the locally made, illicit ones which are also undocumented,” the retired general said.


‘Nigeria not doing enough to tackle gunrunning’

Nigeria’s approach to tackling the crisis is the establishment of a Presidential Committee on Small Arms and Light Weapons, also known as PresCom, with a stated mission to “reduce the proliferation of Small Arms And Light Weapons, the threat they pose and the damage they cause,” as stated on its website.

The same website echoes the one million SALW estimate in the country but added that: “This is, however, considered a conservative estimate as the onslaught by the Boko Haram terrorist gang particularly since 2009 may have substantially increased the number of illegal SALW flow into the country.”


What are small and light weapons?

Small arms as explained by the ECOWAS Convention in 2006 are arms used by an individual, and which include firearms and other destructive arms or devices such as exploding bombs, incendiary bombs or gas bombs, grenades, rocket launchers, missiles, missile systems or landmines, revolvers and pistols with automatic loading, rifles and carbines, machine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns.

Light weapons, on the other hand, are portable arms designed to be used by several persons working together in a team, and which include notable heavy machine guns, portable grenade launchers, mobile or mounted portable anti-aircraft cannons, portable anti-tank cannons, non-recoil guns, portable anti-tank missile launchers, and mortars with a calibre of less than 100 millimetres.


Other sources of weapons proliferation in Nigeria

According to retired Group Captain Shehu, sabotage by those in charge of keeping Nigeria’s weapons could have added to the escalation of illegal arms movement in the country.

“A very important source (of weapons) are those taken/stolen or bought from the Nigerian military and police stockpiles due to lax management,” he said.

When contacted by Daily Trust on the figures and how they plan to address the problem, national coordinator of PresCom, Dr Dixon Orji, promised to get back with comments as he was travelling at the time. He was yet to respond to the email sent to him at press time.

However, security analysts spoken to by our reporter insisted that a committee cannot address a problem that has been responsible for thousands of deaths in the country over the years with, for instance, the Jos crisis featuring heavy use of SALW that claimed about 7,000 lives since 2011.

“You cannot have a serious thing like this and have only an advisory committee made up of ad hoc appointees,” Gen. Bala said.

“For crisis like AIDS, you have NACA, you have NAPTIP for trafficking but for a critical national security issue like this you have only an advisory committee? We either task a specific agency to take care of that problem or we create an agency that deals with illegal guns,” he said.

For Shehu, the composition of the committee is worrying. “Even PresCom has no SALW experts and SALW is not necessarily a military field of expertise, unless a particular military man undergoes the SALW training, he may know very little about SALW and the relevant international guidelines and instruments.”

He said going by convention and to gain international support, countries are expected to have a standing body in charge of SALW, not an ad hoc body like the PresCom. He lamented that Nigeria is one of the few ECOWAS countries without a standing body to address the menace.

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