Arms proliferation worsens insecurity as firearms bills suffer delay

ADELANI ADEPEGBA, LEKE BAIYEWU and AFEEZ HANAFI

There are concerns over increased proliferation and illegal possession of firearms across Nigeria amid delay in the passage of the bills seeking to address the problem and the attendant violent crimes.

The National Assembly is currently considering over five bills, some of which came from the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), seeking to address illegal arms proliferation.

There have been deep concerns over the influx of firearms across the country attributed to the country’s porous borders and corruption by the agencies manning them. Worried by the trend, the President recently said only God could “effectively supervise” Nigeria’s 1,400km border with Niger Republic.

In mid-December 2020, the Nigeria Customs Service intercepted a container loaded with firearms and ammunition at the Tin Can port in Lagos without any immediate reasonable explanation from those conveying them.

Barely one week later, the police said at least 1,889 weapons and 52,577 rounds of live ammunition were recovered between January and December 2021. The spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force, CP Frank Mba, told The PUNCH that the recovered weapons include General Purpose Machine Guns, Rocket-Propelled Grenade, variants of Avtomat Kalashnikov, with the popular ones being AK-47 and AK-49, and some locally-fabricated weapons.

He noted that some of the arms in circulation were produced in illegal arms manufacturing factories operating in the country, noting however that the police would continue to bring the perpetrators to book.

Beyond the recent seizures, in January 2017, 661 pump-action rifles already cleared at the Lagos port were later intercepted by the NCS. Another 440 assorted firearms were seized at the same port in May of that year, and 470 pump-action rifles were also seized just four months after. Meanwhile, a 2016 United Nations’ report said Nigeria accounted for 350 million out of the 500 million illegal arms in West Africa.

The arms proliferation is said to be fuelling the raging insecurity, including the banditry in the North-West, Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East and kidnapping and killings in other parts of the country.

Among several other deadly incidents, reported on December 18 that no fewer than 849 persons were killed by bandits within the past five months in Zamfara, Kaduna, Sokoto and Katsina states.

Despite the increasing level of insecurity across the country, the lawmakers have failed to accelerate work on the firearms bills aimed at tackling the proliferation and crimes.

Available records showed that none of the bills had been passed by the National Assembly and transmitted to the President for assent before the lawmakers embarked on Christmas and New Year break.

For instance, the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons Bill, 2021 (SB 794), an executive bill, passed the second reading at the Senate on November 9, 2021, and it was referred to the Committee on National Security and Intelligence.

At the Senate is the National Commission for the Prohibition of Small Arms and Light Weapons (Est. etc.) Bill, 2019, which was sponsored by Senator Smart Adeyemi, passed the second reading on February 19, 2020, and was referred to the Committee on National Security and Intelligence.

There is also the National Commission Against the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (Est) Bill, 2020, sponsored by the Majority Leader, Abdullahi Yahaya, which passed the second reading on November 25, 2020, and was referred to the Committee on National Security and Intelligence.

At the House is the National Commission Against the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons Bill, 2019, sponsored by the Majority Whip, Mohammed Monguno, which passed the second reading on July 10, 2019, and was referred to the Committee on National Security and Intelligence.

There is also the National Commission on Small Arms and Light Weapons (Prohibition) Bill, 2019, sponsored by former Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, which has remained at first reading.

Also at the House is the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons Bill, 2021, which the Majority Leader and Deputy Majority Whip, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa and Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, respectively, jointly sponsored, which passed second reading on July 14, 2021, and was referred to the Committee on Treaties, Protocols and Agreements.

The pressing need for proper regulations on small arms and light weapons was informed by the proliferation and illegal possession of firearms in the country.

The Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation recently said that by the end of 2019, the Force Headquarters could not account for 178,459 firearms, out of which 88,078 are AK-47 rifles, according to one of the eight queries issued against the Nigeria Police Force by the office.

The queries are contained in the ‘Auditor-General for the Federation’s Annual Report on Non-Compliance/Internal Control Weaknesses Issues in Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government of Nigeria for the Year Ended 31st December, 2019.’

The Acting Auditor-General of the Federation, Adolphus Aghughu, presented the report to the Clerk to the National Assembly, Ojo Amos, on September 15, 2021, while the Senate and House Committees on Public Accounts are investigating the queries.

In a query titled ‘Loss of Firearms and Ammunition,’ the Auditor-General said audit observed from the review of Arms Movement Register, Monthly Returns of Arms and Ammunition, and the Ammunition Register at the Armoury Section that “the total number of lost firearms as reported as at December 2018 stood at 178,459.”

The office attributed the “anomalies” to “weaknesses in the internal control system at the Nigeria Police Force Armament.”

The Auditor-General listed the risks to include “mishandling of firearms/firearms getting to the wrong hands; conversion of firearms to illegal use; and loss of government funds.”

In the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons Bill, 2021, a series of laws to regulate possession, manufacturing, sale and transfer of firearms have been proposed.

The bill proposes to establish a Centre for Coordination and Control of the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons, which shall create a National Small Arms Registry, while the register will be transmitted to the ECOWAS secretariat in accordance with the provisions of the ECOWAS Convention.

Section 5 of the bill reads, “A person shall not have in his possession or under his control any firearm, or ammunition for any firearm, or any component part of such ammunition in the following categories except in accordance with the licence granted by the President acting on the advice of the National Centre: (a) lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged; (b) muzzle loading firearm of any category; (c) component of any firearm; (d) weapon from which a shot is discharged; or (e) weapon, rifle or pistol from which a projectile can be fired.”

Section 23 reads, “(1) Any person in possession of firearms or ammunition without a licence shall on conviction be liable to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of not less than N1,000,000 or both where the person has no previous criminal record. (2) Any person with previous criminal records found in possession of firearms without a licence shall on conviction be liable to five years’ imprisonment without a fine.

“(3) Where a person commits an act of violence with a firearm that is not licensed, such person shall on conviction be liable to six years’ imprisonment. (4) A person who commits an offence under this Act for which no penalty is prescribed shall be liable on conviction to not less than one year imprisonment or a fine of not less than N500, 000 or both.”

Also, the National Commission Against the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (Establishment, Etc.) Bill, 2019 seeks to create a commission that promotes and ensures “coordination of concrete measures for effective control of small arms and light weapons in Nigeria.”

 The legislation is titled ‘A Bill for an Act to Provide for the Establishment of the Nigeria National Commission Against the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons to Coordinate and Implement Activities to Combat the Problem of the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons in Nigeria, in Line with the Economic Community of West African States Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, and for Related Matters.’

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Section 19 of the bill reads, “(1) The National Commission shall collect (a) small arms which are surplus to the national needs or have become obsolete; (b) seized light weapons; (c) unmarked light weapons; (d) illicitly held light weapons; (e) small arms collected in the implementation of peace accords or programmes for the voluntary handing in of weapons. (2) A small arm or light weapon collected under Subsection 1 of this Section shall be registered and securely stored or destroyed.”

Similarly, the National Commission on Small Arms and Light Weapons (Prohibition) Bill, 2019, seeks to establish a commission to “adequately address the multiple problems associated with smuggling and proliferation of small arms, ammunition and light weapons; address growing cases of use of small arms, ammunition and light weapons by insurgents, militants, herdsmen, armed robbers and other criminals.”

Sponsors of the bills contacted by our correspondent on the delay in their passage said both the Senate and the House had almost passed them before the Executive bills were transmitted to the parliament.

According to the lawmakers, the bills have to be harmonised since they are similar and seek to address the same issues.

When asked why the House had yet to pass his bill, Monguno said, “The two bills will be consolidated.”

Explaining why the Senate had yet to pass his bill, Adeyemi said it had gone through public hearing and was about to be passed when the executive prepared a similar bill “with a lot of differences between ours and theirs.”

He said, “When the executive came up with a similar agency; something very similar to what we have put through public hearing, that caused a bit of delay and we are looking at the possibility of marrying the two.

“I want a situation where the (executive) bill will come to the floor; it has gone through the first reading. But ours has gone past public hearing, we were just to submit (the report) and pass it into law. We have really gone far in the process.”

Also, Deputy Chairman of the House Committee on National Security and Intelligence, Adejoro Adeogun, corroborated Adeyemi on the condition of the bills.

Adeogun said, “The Executive bill has not been referred to the committee; it has only gone through the first reading. It has not gone through the second reading. We have the member bill and ratification of an ECOWAS treaty. We are trying to consolidate all of them; that is what the House is trying to do to avoid conflicts.

“Since we have a private member bill and an Executive bill, once we pass one, we cannot revisit the other one; we can only pass amendments to the passed one. So the House is trying to find a way to consolidate all of them. Work is ongoing on them.”

Chairmen of the Senate and House Committees on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Ajibola Basiru and Benjamin Kalu, respectively, did not answer calls made to their lines on Friday, to explain the delay in the passage of the bills.

Meanwhile, a former Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, has raised the alarm over the looming danger with the proliferation of security outfits and vigilante groups without regulation by the Federal Government.

Ekweremadu, in an interview with our correspondent, stated that while he had always advocated for the establishment of policing systems at the state level, arming people to protect lives and property without government regulation portends danger for the polity.

He said, “Under the Firearms Act, only the President can permit you to carry arms and he also determines what level of arms that you can carry, otherwise carrying arms by anybody is completely forbidden. But now, you see people carry arms and sometimes they abuse the use of these arms; sometimes they go and fire at people who are assembling freely. So, these are some of the fears that people are having, and this can get worse.

“But my answer to this is that you cannot talk about decentralised policing without a regulation; it has to be regulated. Today, we have a state judiciary, and the judiciary has the power of life and death but it has not been abused simply because it is being regulated under the Constitution. So, if we are going to police this country effectively, we must have decentralised police that is regulated. That is the caveat.”

Meanwhile, security experts have frowned on a report by the Auditor-General that 178,459 firearms and ammunition had gone missing from the police armoury in 2019 without explanation.

They described the development as scandalous, stressing that the allegations must be investigated and those culpable sanctioned.

A retired Commissioner of Police, Emmanuel Ojukwu, said the police must be accountable to Nigerians by ensuring a proper return on the alleged missing weapons.

He stated, “My take is that such a report is scandalous, it is embarrassing. It is expected in a democracy that the police should account annually, regularly to the people. What the auditor-general has done is in line with his duty; it is to raise a query, which is a question to the police to account for the guns.

‘’In that report, they said the procedure was not followed, returns were not properly rendered, there were gaps here and there. It does not mean that those weapons are missing; all it means is that the police did not do what they ought to do or they have not done what they ought to do.’’

A security analyst, Ben Okezie, stated that the police authorities should not keep mum on the revelations by the AuGF.

He said, ‘’I don’t think it is good for the police not to address this allegation; they have to confirm or deny the report. The Auditor-General cannot just wake up and pass this kind of judgment on the police. It is an indictment on the police leadership. If the IG (Inspector-General of Police) does not say something before the weekend, it means something is amiss.’’

Okezie recalled that former President Olusegun Obasanjo once raised the alarm about the influx of suspected armed robbers and cultists into the police, noting that the force leadership failed to flush out the miscreants – many of who he said later dominated the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

He said, “The auditor-general report is an indictment but it needs to be re-investigated so we don’t give a dog a bad name in order to hang it. The police need to carry out internal auditing of their men. We have to decentralise the police; state police would address this issue.’’

Describing the firearms as a trust given to the police, the former force spokesman urged the police authorities to clear the doubts on the missing arms as raised by the AuGF.

But the Commissioner representing the media in the Police Service Commission, Austin Braimoh, said it would be wrong to assume that the missing weapons were all stolen, arguing that the report failed to disclose the circumstances behind the reported loss.

He added, ‘’During EndSARS protests, we lost so many police stations where arms and ammunition were burnt down and many stations were looted. I don’t think it would be right to blame the police for that.

‘’We have to be careful; that’s why you cannot treat that report the way it is. The loss should be clarified and the circumstances of the loss before you can say someone should be punished. The police did not lose the firearms carelessly. There are few isolated cases of people responsible for losses and they were duly punished and the records are before us.

‘’Loss of firearms by officers during operations attracts punishment, including dismissal or reduction in rank. But when you talk of these massive losses, most of them are the result of attacks by bandits or during the protests. The audit report may seem to have indicted the police but it is not exactly so. Many arms have been lost but it is not the fault of the police.”   

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