On Tuesday last week, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State signed the state’s amended Community Volunteer Guards Law. At the signing ceremony, Ortom reportedly said the amended law “will enable the Community Volunteer Guards to be equipped with legal weapons, recognised by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to assist the conventional security agents fight crime and terrorist activities.”
The original law passed 21 years ago by the Benue State House of Assembly and assented to by the then Governor of the state, George Akume, had no provision for bearing arms by the volunteer guards. Ortom claimed that arming the guards arose because his previous calls to the Federal Government to declare “armed herdsmen as terrorists had fallen on deaf ears”.
In implementing the amended law, Ortom says traditional rulers are to head the recruitment of members to check politicization of the process, and that the recruits will be strong, able bodied men and women “within the age bracket of 18 and 50”, who will be selected from each household and across the 276 political wards in the state. Instructively, Ortom emphasized that the Volunteer Guards can now carry weapons permissible by the Fire Arms Act.
This latest act by Governor Ortom is deeply alarming, and amounts, in effect, to an attempt to build a state sponsored militia. Ortom claims that the arms to be carried by the guards are “recognized by the Constitution of the Federal Government of Nigeria’. There is no evidence of this, so far, and indeed, there cannot be.
Nigeria’s Firearms Act (1990), states clearly that “No person shall have in his possession or under his control any firearm of one of the categories specified in Part II of the Schedule to this Act (hereinafter referred to as a personal firearm) except in accordance with a licence granted in respect thereof by the Inspector-General of Police, which licences shall be granted or refused in accordance with principles decided upon by the National Council of Ministers.”
The governor has a responsibility to show evidence that the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) has granted such licence to the Benue Volunteer Guards. Moreover, while we recognize that state policing of some kind is inevitable in today’s Nigeria, the responsibility for the monopoly and use of firearms, as well as for keeping security, remains firmly in the Exclusive Legislative List. So, Governor Ortom must make clear how he intends to implement a Benue State law in direct contravention to the Firearms Act and the 1999 Constitution.
Besides, it is not clear how the amended law will work out practically in Benue State. If the new law seeks to enable the Benue Guards to bear arms in order to “assist the conventional security agents fight crime and terrorist activities” as Ortom claims, to what extent were the Nigeria Police and other security agencies involved in the processes by which the amended law came into being? What will be the role of the Nigeria Police in the day-to-day operations of the guards? Who will have ultimate responsibility to train or deploy the guards, or authorize the use of force, and on whom? Governor Ortom needs to answer these questions clearly.
But more worrisomely, Ortom has said that the amended law has become necessary because his call on the federal government to declare “armed herdsmen as terrorists had fallen on deaf ears”. It is sad and regrettable that herdsmen and communities in Benue State have not found a way to live together in peace, and we urge them to do so. We are also not interested in Ortom’s numerous political spats with the federal government, or President Buhari. We are concerned, however, by Governor Ortom’s conflation of communal conflict between two Nigerian groups with terrorism.
As a Governor, Ortom has a responsibility to foster peace and harmony among the various groups of Nigerians living in his state, and even beyond, not to seek to arm one side of the conflict, or make inflammatory and unguarded comments. Governors must fully grasp the implications of their statements before they make them. We call on the Governor to reconsider this new law. Arming a section of a communal conflict could trigger an ‘arms race’ among the various communities in the state, and thus potentially worsen the already fragile security situation in the State.
We call on the federal government to intervene on the side of the law and the Nigerian constitution. We also call on the Northern Governors Forum to take this matter seriously and intervene on the side of peace. We urge all current and retired military and security chiefs from Benue State to speak up as the configuration of the State means that any breakdown of peace there could easily spiral into neighbouring States.
More importantly, the federal government must step up to its responsibility of keeping Nigerians secure wherever they live or do business. The federal government cannot continue to abdicate its responsibility of security of life, limb and property to its citizens. The dysfunction in the police and the other security agencies in terms of collecting intelligence, detecting early warning signals and acting quickly to prevent communal conflicts, banditry and terrorism is without doubt what has created the vacuum which all sorts of actors, whether legal or illegitimate, have sought to fill. In addition, the inability of the federal government to apprehend, prosecute and convict perpetrators of violence in the land is also one reason people feel the need to take the laws into their own hands and act in contravention of the Nigerian constitution.
It is perhaps time for the federal government to engage actively with the states to evolve new and workable models of policing and security, as the current system of a single police service for the whole country has all but broken down. But until such constitutional changes are collectively agreed and come to effect, we say no to arming Volunteer Guards in Benue or anywhere else in Nigeria.