SALW: Small arms, big challenge

Guns fuelling the fire -Paul Collier

One of the greatest challenges of the global community is keeping the world safe. International organizations, nation states, non-state actors are confronted with various challenges such as climate change, poverty, insecurity, crimes and criminality, wars, diseases – some epidemic, others pandemic.

While the world is united against all the ills that have bedeviled humanity, efforts at addressing root causes or factors that fuel some of these challenges have remained a mirage. One of such global challenges is proliferation of small arms and light weapons, (SALW).  Research has indicated that about 690 million SALWs are in circulations globally. Out of this number, 100 million is estimated to be in Africa, 30 million in sub-Saharan Africa and eight million in West Africa.

Small arms include “two main classes of man-portable weapons, while small arms include ‘kinetic projectile firearms’ such as handguns, (revolvers, pistols, derringers and machine pistols) musket/rifled muskets, shotguns, rifles (assaulted rifles, battle rifles, carbines, designated marksman rifles, short-barreled rifles, sniper rifles, etc.), submachine guns/personal defence weapons, squad automatic weapons and light machine guns; light weapons are categorized as ‘infantry-portable weapons that are either crew-served kinetic firearms, incendiary devices, or shoot explosive munitions such as anti-material rifles/anti-tank rifles, general-purpose machine guns/medium machine guns, unmounted heavy machine guns, portable flamethrowers, grenades, rifle grenades/underslung grenades launchers, grenade launchers, automatic grenade launchers, recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled  grenades, man-portable anti-tank missiles, man-portable air defence systems and mortar under 100 millimetres (3.9in) caliber.”

Experts have posited that these weapons are ‘desirable, affordable, accessible and dependable’ weapons of mass destruction that have continued to fuel conflicts on the African continent. From East, West, Central, North to Southern Africa, rebels, kidnappers, bandits, armed robbers, secessionists, insurgents, terrorists, political thugs, religious extremists, armed ethnic militia and cultists have continued to unleash terror on unarmed and defenceless citizens.

Nigeria has had her share of the negative impact of the menace of SALW. It continues to battle various forms of current and emerging security challenges as a result of proliferation of small arms and light weapons which are considered as a major factor fueling conflicts in the nook and crannies of the country.

Former Head of State and chairman, National Peace Committee, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, raised concerns about the danger of proliferation of weapons in Nigeria, which he noted has led to death and displacement millions of people internally, across the country.  General Abubakar said: “The proliferation of all calibre of weapons in Nigeria is worrying. It is estimated that there are over six million of such weapons in circulation in the country.  This certainly, exacerbated the insecurity that led to over 80,000 deaths and close to three million internally displaced persons.

In the same vein, an Africa-focused geo-political research firm, SBM Intelligence, also raised the alarm that proliferation of small arms and ammunition was driving the increasing rate of violence in Nigeria. The firm in its October, 2020 report revealed that: “the number of small arms in circulation in Nigeria, in the hands of civilian non-state actors is estimated at 6, 145,000, while the armed forces and law enforcement collectively account for 586,600 firearms.”

Confirming the negative impact of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in Nigeria, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Lucky Irabor, stated that these weapons are a threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence. Speaking during a courtesy visit to the Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, the Chief of Defence said: “The armed forces and other security agencies are the only institutions that are mandated to carry arms in the course of their duties. So, anyone who is carrying an AK-47 or any other weapon for that matter, is considered a threat to the existence of the state.”

General Irabor then warned: “The mandate of the President (Muhammadu Buhari) of dealing with anyone holding AK-47 illegally is a mandate that must be enforced because we are a state that does not condone illegal bearing of arms.”

No doubt, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons pose an existential danger to Nigeria, as it poses to other African countries. It is also evident that even though these weapons are called small arms, they constitute big security challenges to Nigeria. Research indicates that “more than 1000 lives are lost each day to small arms violence.”

As succinctly captured by former United Nation Secretary General, late Kofi Anan, small arms have become weapons of mass destruction on the continent of Africa. He said: ‘Small arms are the weapons of choice for killers of our times.’ In his book: WARS, GUNS, & VOTES: DEMOCRACY IN DANGEROUS PLACES, Professor Paul Collier, notes: “we are told GUNS don’t kill people, people kill people… cheap and plentiful guns may increase the risk of violence.”

It is important to note that while these arms are produced legally, manufactured in authorized factories in private and public owned companies in known jurisdictions, it is their circulation that has become a major challenge. Experts have observed that the problem associated with small arms and light weapons is the illicit trade and trafficking perpetuated by international arms dealers and conflict entrepreneurs who have made Africa their main market for such deadly trade.

Nigeria, as the most populous nation in Africa has been at the receiving end of the illicit trade in small arms occasioned by porous borders, lack of interagency collaboration and cooperation among security agencies, lack of intelligence-driven efforts, lack of citizens support to security agencies in providing useful and timely information among others.

The recent establishment of the National Centre for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, (NCCSALW) and appointment of Major General Abba Dikko (rtd) as its pioneer coordinator, in the Office of the National Security Adviser, is a bold step by the Buhari administration toward addressing the challenge. This is in addition to presidential directive to shoot-at-sight of anyone caught illegally with an AK-47 rifle. It is heartwarming that the centre which is successor to the defunct Presidential Committee on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PCSALW), has the mandate to among other things, serve as the institutional mechanism for policy guidance, research and monitoring of all aspects of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in Nigeria and form part of the ongoing restructuring of the nation’s security architecture;  address emerging threats and strengthen the regional mechanism for control, prevention and regulation of SALW; serve as the National Focal Point on SALW in Nigeria and lead a multi-stakeholder process involving Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and the civil society in implementing all national, UN and ECOWAS plans of action on the control of SALW; fulfill the requirement of the ECOWAS moratorium on import, export and manufacture of light weapons, as well as the UN Plan of Action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in SALW and maintaining international cooperation and also operate zonal offices in the six geopolitical zones to ensure quick response and effective mobilization of resources.”

While the efforts by the Federal Government is commendable, it is necessary to heed the call of experts who are of the view that ending the global menace requires a common front at global, continental, regional and national levels. Also, in checking the continued spread of conflict in Nigeria and other parts of the continent, there is need for states to rise collectively against conflict entrepreneurs (even in virtual spaces), criminal non-state actors, rebel groups, regimes as well as states that fuel conflicts and support proxy wars in Africa. The United Nations, European Union, African Union, ECOWAS and other multilateral bodies must take necessary steps to combat illicit trafficking and circulation in SALW. Addressing the menace of SALW in Nigeria requires measures which take cognizance of factors that motivate acquiring arms; adopting the concept of  collective human security which addresses core issues of human needs such as food security, health, jobs, education, environmental security and other development challenges.