Here is the sort of story with a short shelf life on the public imagination. In its issue of November 15, 2020, Daily Trust (Sunday) published a piece of investigative reporting on the involvement of serving and retired soldiers and policemen in armed robberies, kidnapping, arms dealing, smuggling, rape and other crimes. It reported that 69 soldiers and policemen were arrested for these crimes in two years. But according to the newspaper, actually “no fewer than 169 security operatives were arrested for alleged involvement in various crimes in different parts of the country between 2019 and August this year.” The operatives of the Nigerian Security and Defence were also fingered in these crimes. In other words, our security forces thus have a convergence of interests in crimes.
An unshockable nation most probably shrugged it all off, not finding it particularly strange that the operatives of these security outfits parlayed the privileges of their uniforms to reap from and possibly become wealthy from crimes. None of us can pretend to be ignorant of the involvement of our security men in various crimes. The #EndSARS protest that sadly ended in tragedy only last month, was an attempt by our youths to force the federal government and police authorities to end police brutality and extortion particularly by officers and men in the police outfit specifically set up in 1984 to fight armed robbers. We know that the scrapping of SARS would not end the unacceptable misuse of their uniform by our policemen but scrapping it represented some victory for the harried citizens of the giant of Africa.
It is a tough challenge for a country whose security men, serving and retired, turn themselves into criminals. To whom do we turn if, confronted by armed robbers, we cannot turn to the police to save us? To whom do we turn when our uniformed men cannot protect our women from rape but rape them too? What do we do when our security men not only aid and abet smugglers but are themselves smugglers?
These are not idle questions. Our country is in a period that might be called the reign of the gun. From the January 1966 coup when the gun was used by our soldiers to achieve political power, the gun has cast a looming shadow on our national security. From the investigation done by the newspaper, it is clear that we are back at the point we were after the civil war in January 1970. This was the period that the gun became the major instrument of violent crimes in the country with the first on the list being armed robbery. With the end of the war, guns were readily available. The demobilised soldiers or those of them who deserted their units put their training into criminal use against unarmed civilians. Soon, they recruited civilians into their fold and the frontiers of armed robbery began its rapid expansion. This is what is happening right now.
There have been reports of mass desertion and resignation by soldiers particularly in the theatres of the Boko Haram insurgents. Daily Trust found that in 2019, some 49 policemen were dismissed; another 21 have so far been dismissed this year. These men, trained on the use of arms would naturally find ways and means of putting their knowledge to use in a manner that benefits them. This development portends a worsening security situation by these men and non-state actors.
There is a harrowing free flow of small arms into and within the country today. Of the ten million small arms said to be in circulation in the West African sub-region, 70 per cent of them are in Nigeria. In real terms, 6,145,000 of these illegal arms are in the hands of former soldiers and policemen as well as civilians and non-state actors in our country. In contrast the armed forces, the police and other law enforcement agencies are said by experts to only boast of some 586,000 firearms. Our security forces are thus out-gunned. It should cause no small worry for us and our leaders. Most of the imported small arms and weapons come from at least 21 countries, including Israel, Poland, Brazil, USA, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Those who cannot afford the imported arms can make do with those manufactured locally. They have the same deadly effect.
Ample evidence of the proliferation of these arms leading to the chilling reign of the gun is that the various communities in our country today resort to the gun to settle even niggling quarrels that in the times before now, such quarrels would be fully settled with nothing more lethal than fisticuffs. A recent report on “Small Arms, Mass Atrocities and Migration in Nigeria,” by SBM, noted that “arms proliferation has enabled the rise of armed groups and also led to the displacement of (thousands of) Nigerians.”
According to the report, “..the proliferation of arms in Southern Nigeria has driven the increasing rate of violence in the region, including, but not limited to communal clashes, cultism, kidnappings, ethnic and religious clashes and militancy in the Niger Delta.” This is now replicated in virtually all the geo-political zones in the country. Guns, guns everywhere. Local arms manufacturers in Enugu, Awka, Calabar and other parts of the south, are doing a roaring business too augmenting the arms flow and thus making it difficult for the authorities to have fairly accurate figures of the extent of the arms proliferation in the country. A survey by the National Small Arms and Light Weapons also found that “In Benue and Plateau states,…locally made weapons are estimated to be used in over 50% of crimes committed – 62% for Benue and 69% for Plateau” (and) 32% in Adamawa.” The report says that the North-Central geo-political zone which has witnessed many bloody clashes between farmers and Fulani herdsmen, “is rife with ethnic militias, making it a hotbed for violent ethnic and religious clashes facilitated using small arms.”
The worry is that the arms proliferation is more or less without borders. The entire West African region is in the throes of the reign of the gun. ECOWAS has moved to bring home to member nations the serious security challenges it poses to them. On October 30, 1998, the leaders of the member countries agreed to place “Moratorium on the importation, exportation and manufacture of small arms and light weapons in West Africa.” In line with this, President Buhari approved the setting up of a national centre for the control of small arms and light weapons in August this year. The centre is yet to take off.
In the course of its investigation, the Daily Trust spoke to some of the soldiers turned criminals. They spoke without qualms with one of them giving details of how they kidnapped and extorted ransom from their victims. One of them told the newspaper, “we went into armed robbery after deserting the army.” Indeed, robbery and kidnapping are regarded as the most lucrative of the violent crimes in our country. Each requires a limited investment in small arms and huge returns from victims. Serving and former soldiers and policemen as well as a civilians find this attractive and cannot resist the temptation to put their legal training into illegal use.
It is facile to put all this down to greed as some people have done, as if it would end when the greed affliction in individuals is cured. I think the problem is deeper and more critical than that. Our ambivalent attitude towards crimes and the proceeds of crimes is a major factor fuelling crimes and criminality. The society celebrates the sudden emergence of multi-millionaires whose sources of sudden wealth the society finds inconvenient to question. So long as this is the norm, so long would we live under the darkening shadow of the gun. It is not a prediction; it is common sense.