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Saving Nigeria from influx of illegal weapons

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Nigeria is immersed in a massive tide of illegal weapons. Rock-solid proof is found in the 661 pump-action rifles, which Nigeria Customs Service officers seized in the Lagos metropolis on January 22. Due to institutional laxity, the weapons had escaped security checks at the ports. Fortunately, roving Federal Operations Unit customs officers intercepted the contraband. The seizure draws attention to the loose inspection regime at Nigerian ports. To liberate the country from gun terror, the Federal Government has to conduct a root-and-branch operation that will flush out corrupt customs officers abetting illegal importation at the ports.

In a country convulsed by crime, the seizure heightens the sense of insecurity. The lethal items were concealed in a truck, declared to be carrying “steel doors” and other merchandise originating from China, said NCS Comptroller-General, Hameed Ali. Deceptively, the importer labelled the goods as emanating from Turkey. The ruse was meant to cause confusion and aid clearing of the prohibited goods.

Some suspects, including customs personnel, have been arrested over the seizure. “Such deadly contravention of the law is even more unacceptable, considering the fragile security situation in some parts of the country,” Ali noted. He is right. Security experts explain that the guns could take up to 10 cartridges each and could wreak a lot of havoc. The cache is enough to start a private army, levy war against a state government or launch an insurrection. But who are the real brains behind such importation?

Nigeria’s failure to put its house in order has returned to haunt it. Most of the scanners – the preferred technology for detecting weapons and hard drugs at ports all over the world – are faulty or inadequate at the Lagos ports, Ali added. The NCS has no excuse for this.

The safety frameworks recommended by the International Maritime Organisation are being observed in the breach at Nigerian ports, security experts say. Cargo inspection is random. Undesirable elements exploit this lacuna to import weapons. In contrast, the United States, after the September 11 terror attacks, has assigned American customs officers to supervise US-bound cargoes from the point of manufacture to the point of destination. This is a good structure.

Yet, the seizure is not a bolt from the blue. With its notoriously slack inspection regime, there is genuine concern that similar weapons had escaped scrutiny at the ports in the past. It has made Nigeria a fertile destination for illegal arms and ammunition. In his confession, a suspect, who is a member of the gang that recently kidnapped the pupils and staff members of the Nigerian Turkish International College, Ogun State, told the police that his gang alone had 38 AK-47 rifles in its armoury. This is terrifying. Last week, kidnappers shot dead three guards in the Isheri North Estate, Lagos, and abducted Dayo Olukoya, the secretary of the residents’ association.

Criminals have amassed considerable ordnance and the security agencies appear impotent. Politicians, who want to win elections by all means foul, arm hoodlums. The hoodlums then turn the weapons on innocent citizens after every election cycle. In 2010, Department of State Services officers intercepted 13 containers of weapons from Iran. Embedded in the consignment were rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives labelled as “building materials.” On Friday, gunmen burnt down a police station in Eika, Okehi Local Government Area, Kogi State. They killed two policemen, a detainee and the chairman of the residents’ association. Armed Fulani herdsmen have been killing in Plateau, Benue, Kaduna, Taraba, Nasarawa, Enugu and Delta states for years.

In 2013, Joint Task Force officers uncovered a trove of weapons linked to a Lebanese Hezbollah terror cell in Kano State. The bunker contained 17 AK-47 rifles, 44 magazines, four land mines, 12 RPG bombs, 11 66mm anti-tank weapons, one SMG, one pistol and magazine, 76 hand grenades, rocket propelled guns, 122 calibre artillery and 433 rounds of 7.26mm special. This find was terrifying.

But this medley is extensively available to Niger Delta militants, Boko Haram terrorists and other non-state actors. The United Nations Regional Centre for Peace said there were 350 million Small and Light Weapons in Nigeria or 70 per cent of the 500 million SALWs in West Africa as of 2016. This explains the spectre of violence hanging over the country. A former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said, “The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems – and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

The influx of weapons promotes crime, but security experts strongly recommend a tight control on firearms to deter such. Since guns cannot be owned without a licence in Nigeria, there must be a national architecture to mop up the weapons in the hands of criminals and politicians. All guns mopped up should be destroyed to prevent criminals from gaining access to them again.

Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Australia have the lowest gun crime rates in the world, according to a 2014 report by the World Health Organisation. In 2013, Germany opened a national gun register and officers can conduct on-the-spot check on gun owners to determine their use of firearms. Japan has a tight regulation on gun ownership. There are only 271,000 gun-owners in a population of 127 million. After the Dunblane shooting in Scotland in 1996, in which 16 primary school pupils and a teacher died, the UK enforced a strict gun policy. Since then, Dunblane has been the only school gun shooting there.

Therefore, Nigeria has to get tough with gun control. The suspects in the 661-gun outrage must be prosecuted and their backers unearthed. The NCS should provide scanners and other cutting-edge technologies at the ports. Purging of crooked personnel at the ports is expedient, while constant rotation of officers should be institutionalised. The guns were intercepted through intelligence gathering. The NCS should, therefore, strengthen its whistle-blower scheme to encourage the inflow of vital information on illegal imports.

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